Time and Place: How the long road put Notre Dame safety @alohigilman on the right path
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Lee Leslie landed the head coaching position at Kahuku High School before the 2014 season, he made Laie Park one of his first immersion points into that small community on the north shore of Oahu. The visit was less about understanding his roster than grasping its culture. Alohi Gilman would prove a big part of both. The park is short on aesthetics but long on soul, the old home base for Notre Dame icon Manti Te’o. It’s where former Irish receiver Robby Toma trained as an overlooked prospect from Punahou. It’s where Toma still works out today as that program’s offensive coordinator. It’s where Gilman learned the game from his father. It’s where Gilman taught his younger brother Alaka’i, now a junior at Punahou with offers from Arizona State and Hawaii. In the origin story of Alohi Gilman, Laie Park is everything, where his football career started and where he began to believe it could take him far away. And it would, across the United States on a journey where the path nearly broke its traveler but wound up making him in the end. “That park is not fancy,” Leslie said. “You’d see it in the inner city of L.A. It’s got grass that doesn’t always grow in everywhere. It’s got basketball courts without nets.” Taking in a new culture where strangers go by uncle and auntie after a single meeting and where the team sings when the bus crosses the tracks back into town on Friday nights, Leslie wanted to know what he’d be in for at Kahuku. So he watched drills at the park and scouted the competition. Games of football and basketball spilled into one another, Laie Park serving as an outdoor community center more than a green space. “It’s amazing what comes out of there, fathers and grandfathers coming home to encourage those kids,” Leslie said.“I’m meeting everybody and one day I saw this lefty throwing the ball. Oh, that’s Tua Tagovailoa.” Growing up around Heisman Trophy finalists and future Heisman Trophy winners can plant seeds that never stop growing. It can remove ceilings from expectations. Because if a linebacker from Laie Park can lead Notre Dame to the brink of the national title or a quarterback from the island can deliver one for Alabama, why can’t an undersized defensive back do something just as grand? Never mind the lack of scholarship offers after Gilman played for three high schools in two states in four years, starting at the Kamehameha School before moving to Utah as a junior and then returning to Hawaii for his senior season. Back then Toma tried to get Notre Dame assistant Brian Polian to recruit Gilman to Nevada, where he was still the head coach. No offer came. There was interest from Utah State and Hawaii, but not enough. The closest thing Gilman got to “yes” was an invitation from Ken Niumatalolo at the Naval Academy, which would mean a year at academy prep school in Newport, Rhode Island, before getting to Annapolis. Gilman took it. Niumatalolo is another product of Laie and didn’t need the park introduction to understand what he was getting, even for what turned out to be just a single season that included 12 tackles in an upset of Notre Dame. On Saturday in San Diego, Gilman will face the program he left without its full blessing, now starting for Notre Dame and infusing another Irish defense with the soul of Laie Park. It was the place where it all began, a community experience that prepared Gilman for everything that would come next. Exactly how Gilman got from there to here is the journey he needed but not always wanted, starting on that sometimes green grass. “We didn’t have TV and all that, video games. We were there at the park,” Gilman said. “I can go right now and go to that park and the little kids will be calling me out to play basketball. ‘What’s up? Let’s get on this line. I’ll race you.’ Challenging me. If you lose in basketball, we’ll play football. If you lose in that, we’ll go flip quarters. Anything we did was a competition. In the community that I was raised, that’s how we were.” To understand Alohi Gilman requires an appreciation of father Asai Gilman, a former college football player at Southern Utah who found a calling in coaching football around Oahu. Asai trained Alohi, his oldest boy in a family of seven, at the youth level, during that single season at Kahuku and during his time at Kamehameha. When the family returned to the islands after that single year in Utah, Asai wanted Alohi back at Kamehameha, even though Kahuku was the neighborhood school. Alohi had to present a proposal for why the school with the top football program fit better than the more prestigious academic experience, where both his parents graduated. Gilman pitched the idea of Mana, which in Hawaiian culture means feeling a source of power and strength, a spiritual calling he sensed at Kahuku. Asai relented. Then he took a job on Kahuku’s staff for that season. The move proved a victory for both in a father-son dynamic that rarely featured two winners. “He pushed me so much as a young kid. He pushed me in a tough way,” Gilman said. “He wasn’t the nicest at times, we’ve had our head butts, but he always believed in me. He knew that through hard work and just pushing and always supporting me, he made me the person I am today, but the player as well.” Father and son played games of 21 at Laie Park, competitions Asai claims he never lost. Then he’d make his sons walk home, sometimes picking up McDonald’s on the way. Alohi protests Asai either cheated or couldn’t keep track of his score. Whatever the reality, that the argument persists is the point. Asai wanted Alohi to win at everything, to go hard at everything. But father wasn’t going to let son pass without feeling both his own loss and his father’s win. So when Gilman talks trash with receivers at Michigan or savagely cuts into Pittsburgh’s kicker after a missed field goal, the verbal spears trace back to Asai. Alohi has grown into many things since leaving the islands, but he’s never grown beyond being his father’s oldest son. “He was raised in a community where competition is a high priority,” Asai said. “We’re gonna win at all costs. Not only am I gonna show you that I’m gonna win, I’m gonna talk about it.” And still, no one around Laie believed in Alohi as much as Alohi believed in himself. College recruiters had made their point by not offering. Even his own high school head coach never saw Gilman’s career path taking him to a starting job at Notre Dame during a potential College Football Playoff run. Count Asai among the skeptics, aware that at some point genetics catch up to us all. “I never thought he had it within himself to play at that high a level (at Notre Dame),” Asai said. “He was a smallish young man, caught punts and returned kicks. He was small. He’s grown to be a man now. But I never envisioned what he is today. “He reminds me of that, actually. ‘My own pops!’ I was just trying to be real with it.” A Laie connection would be what ultimately got Gilman out. During Asai’s work coaching youth football he organized camps that invited college coaches, even if traveling to Oahu rarely made sense. Still, those camps had drawn Niumatalolo, who’d help set in motion Gilman’s path to Notre Dame, one paved by a brutal year in prep school, a sterling freshman season at Navy and a change in bureaucracy at the Department of Defense. It took all that to get Gilman to Notre Dame, and even then, those events only outlined the path. It’s not clear what was the worst part of that year at prep school. Stuck in Newport, Gilman felt farther away from college football than if he’d stayed home in Hawaii. The prep school’s schedule was littered with other military institutions mixed with junior colleges, prep schools and community colleges. There was no glamour, just a lot of yelling. Before bus trips to the airport for away games, Gilman would get dressed down by leadership in front of his teammates and coaches. It was regular. And it was brutal. His skin started to thicken as a matter of self-defense. The easy-going but competitive kid from Laie had to sharpen his edges or watch his dream get shanked in the middle of nowhere. “It was terrible. It was honestly one of the worst things I’ve ever done,” Gilman said. “That was survival. That’s why the guys at Navy, playing with from prep school … those guys there are my best friends because we went through, you could say, hell and back together. It was pretty tough. There was a lot of times when I wanted to go home, wanted to run away, stuff like that.” After a season in athletic exile, Gilman moved on to Annapolis, where under Niumatalolo he put together a freshman season so good it may have hastened his exit. Gilman finished second on the team in tackles and earned honorable mention all-conference honors. But the desire to serve in the military post-graduation had begun to wane at the same time when the regulations enforcing it had been enhanced. In the past, prospects from military academies could apply for a waiver to play in the NFL. That policy changed after Gilman enrolled, with service now mandatory.
A fumble return for touchdown vs. UConn was one of many freshman highlights for Gilman (1) at Navy. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)
Getting out meant going to Niumatalolo, who’d given Gilman this shot in the first place. Niumatalolo tried to talk Gilman out of it. Gilman persisted and was given his release. But for Gilman to be immediately eligible — his waiver was based on that change in military service requirements — it would take a letter of recommendation from Niumatalolo. The Midshipmen coach wouldn’t write one, according to Asai. “That was kind of bitter, to be really honest,” Asai said. “I understand why he didn’t support it. I didn’t agree with it. But understand why from a coaching perspective. “Alohi was really emotional about it. Because he bled for this guy on the football field. For him to say, ‘No, I’m not supporting you.’ For Alohi, it was, ‘I came to Navy because of you. Now you’re not supporting me.’ All it was would be a letter to the NCAA and he would have played last year. This game is a little extra meaningful for Alohi based on that.” Gilman said the transfer call to Niumatalolo lasted at least a half hour. Other coaches tried to get him to stay, too. If they’d known Gilman would end up at Notre Dame — and back then Gilman said he had no plans to, wanting instead to blaze a different trail from Te’o and Toma — the goodbye may have been harder than it already was. “(Niumatalolo) didn’t think I was making the right decision,” Gilman said. “It was just hard for me to hear, but at the same time, I had to do what was good for me and what I felt was in my heart to do. “Me and coach Ken, we don’t communicate as much, but we’re on pretty good terms.” Less than two weeks later, Gilman committed to Notre Dame. This time, Polian made the pitch after Gilman hit Notre Dame’s staff on why the future would look different from the immediate past. Gilman didn’t want to play on the Notre Dame team that had just collapsed and got upset by Navy. He wanted to play on ones challenging for the College Football Playoff. It’s ironic then, that one of the differences between Notre Dame making at least a New Year’s Six bowl last season was Gilman’s eligibility waiver getting denied. During last season, Kelly said Gilman would have started on that team, even repeating the claim when pressed on how a Navy transfer could start on a team with perhaps a dozen draft picks among the upperclassmen. There was little doubt about Gilman starting ever since, and he almost never comes off the field now. The junior is tied for third on the team in tackles, behind Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill. Gilman has been everything Kelly had hoped he’d be and Niumatalolo knew he was. “I’m happy for him … I just wish that they hadn’t seen him play so well,” Niumatalolo said after practice Wednesday. “He had other goals. It’s nothing personal. I don’t take it personally. He wanted to go the NFL. It’s been a dream of his, and that’s not your goal here. It was nothing against the school. It was nothing against the players or the school, you can’t fault a kid for that.” In the end, Gilman did follow the paths of Te’o and Toma from Laie Park to South Bend, choosing Notre Dame over Michigan and USC. When the Irish finished off the Wolverines to open the season, Gilman locked arms with Te’o, Toma and Polian during “Notre Dame, Our Mother” in front of the student section. The old guard was back, but to honor the new. “That NFL dream of his, unfortunately Navy didn’t work for his dream,” Toma said. “Fortunately for us Irish, it’s all worked out.”
Gilman is third on the Notre Dame team in tackles. (Matt Cashore / USA TODAY Sports)
Gilman has come a long way from the aspiring receiver who once trained with Toma at Laie Park. Alaka’i wanted to be one too, back then, but now starts at safety in the Punahou secondary, playing the position of his brother at the school that started the modern Hawaiian pipeline to Notre Dame. The late Kona Schwenke followed. Sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, whose brother Adam starts at left tackle for Navy, came next. Alaka’i has never been to Notre Dame, but there’s a chance he’ll visit for the Florida State game as a prospect. Asai plans to be there too. The season finale against USC might be a possibility. So could a trip to the College Football Playoff. Everything feels possible for the Gilman family now, so why not think big? That perspective was integral to Alohi getting here in the first place. It will take him toward whatever is next, too. “The path that he was given is not like guys with five-star experiences,” Asai said. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder based on the experiences and challenges that he went through. No problem is hard for him anymore. If there’s adversity or a challenge coming his way, it’s ‘OK, I’m gonna get through this.’ ” It only looks easy for Gilman through the lens of this season, as he’s grown from starter to leader, from bulwark at the back to attitudinal infusion for the entire side. And maybe this is the easy part, relative to what came before. But none of it has been a walk in the park, really. “Because I got through those experiences I was able to become stronger and get to the point where I am,” Gilman said. “That’s the reason why I am the person I am today.” (Top photo by Marcus Snowden / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)