HAVE A BLAST WITH OUR PAST
Fittingly, Skippa's career began in water
|Learn about Hawai'i sports history and those who figured prominently in it in this feature. We'll ask a question Wednesday and present the answer in an in-depth profile on Thursday
||Q: Before he became an all-star football player and a standout coach for his high school alma mater, this person known for his vise-like handshake was once an age-group swimming champion. Who is he?|
By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer
A: Because he was too big for his age to play Pop Warner football, Skippa Diaz, who would become a standout player and coach at Farrington, turned to the pool and became an outstanding age-group swimmer.
Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser
Retired football coach Skippa Diaz says swimming "gave me that work ethic, the belief that if you want to be good in anything, you gotta put in the time."
Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser
There's the one about Diaz, then an assistant football coach at Mililani High School, lifting a blocking sled completely off the ground during practice and flinging it to the side like a sack of potatoes.
Then there's the story of Diaz, by then in his mid-40s and a head coach at Farrington, showing his players in the weight room how easy it is to do bench press repetitions of 315 pounds.
And, of course, there's the one about Diaz casually breaking open a Master lock with his bare hand.
The stories are true, told by witnesses and Diaz himself. But the one that many people may not have heard, much less believe, is the story of Skippa Diaz that mountain of a man, the "Bull of Kalihi" as a champion ... swimmer?
This one definitely is true.
Diaz made a name for himself in high school and college as a standout football player, then became a successful head coach at his alma mater, Farrington.
But as a youth, Diaz was not allowed to play Pop Warner football because of a weight limitation for his age group. In fact, Diaz was never close to his peers when jumping on the scale.
"Even as a kid, I was one big bumboocha," says Diaz, 58. "If the weight limit was 100 pounds, I was 200."
Since there were no such limits in swimming, Diaz took up the sport at age 8 by joining the team at Palama Settlement. Under the coaching of Harry Mamizuka and Bertha Lee, Diaz quickly became one of Palama's top sprinters.
"When he was 10 years old, he was a butterfly champion, first place in his age group," said Lee, who is now Bertha Naho'opi'i. "He had this pot belly, a beer barrel gut, and a small okole. But he was physically a strong guy, with strong arms and a strong upper body. He was good at it."
Diaz later won age group championships in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, including victories against national competition at the Junior Olympics and Keo Nakama Invitational.
"Swimming was more than a minor sport back then," Diaz said. "Hawai'i had some big-time swimmers, and they really inspired me."
Diaz, who says he was 5 feet 9 and 200 pounds at 12, developed a tough-guy image before his teenage years. But Naho'opi'i said Diaz was not a "bull" with his Palama teammates.
"He was a jokey guy, always smiling but very obedient," Naho'opi'i said. "He was well-liked. We had a nice group, and everyone was close and looked after each other. There was a lot of fellowship."
World champion swimmer Bill Smith later told Diaz he might have been an Olympic prospect had he stuck with swimming.
But when Diaz entered the ninth grade at Central Intermediate, he finally was able to play football on Farrington's junior varsity. He went on to become an Interscholastic League of Honolulu All-Star lineman, then won all-conference honors at Oregon State.
Diaz played several seasons in the Canadian Football League, with the British Columbia Lions, before going into teaching. After 10 years on the Mainland, he returned to Hawai'i in 1972 to teach and coach at Waialua High School. He moved on to Mililani and then, in 1982, landed his dream job as a teacher and head football coach at Farrington.
"He had the desire to come back and coach kids in the Kalihi area," Naho'opi'i said. "That was important to him."
Diaz's teams won 103 games in his 17 seasons as head coach, making the playoffs 12 times, including nine years in a row (1990-98). But his legacy is the pride he instilled in the Governors. He started a tradition of having his players sing the school's alma mater before every practice and game.
"He said he got chicken-skin every time he heard us, and if he didn't, he'd make us sing it again until he did," said Randall Okimoto, who played for Diaz in 1989-90 and is now Farrington's head coach. "He always told us that we're part of the best high school in the world. Coming from this area, with a lot of us from low-income housing, sometimes pride is all we have. That's what he taught us, and hopefully that's what I'm teaching my team right now."
A lifelong activity
Okimoto, like many others, was surprised upon first learning about Diaz's championship career as a swimmer.
"We didn't believe it until we saw it," Okimoto said. "We used to swim in the pool after practice, and he did this one trick I never saw anyone else do. He would jump into the pool feet first, go half the distance of the pool without coming up for air, and then come up in the middle of the pool feet first. He was pretty talented."
Diaz said to this day, swimming is a big part of his exercise routine. He and his wife, Mary, go to Ala Moana Park three times a week and swim from Magic Island to the 1,000-yard marker and back. They also go body boarding at Sherwoods.
Diaz retired from Farrington in 1999 and has since been deputy director of the City and County of Honolulu's Department of Parks and Recreation. He said he has seen first-hand the benefits of swimming.
"It's a lifelong activity, and it relaxes the body and mind," Diaz said.
Diaz also said the training and values he learned as a youth swimmer helped him greatly in football.
"It gives you big-time strength," Diaz said. "It's very demanding, with practices in the morning and afternoon a double-whammy. But it gave me that work ethic, the belief that if you want to be good in anything, you gotta put in the time."
'Skipper' is born
Diaz put in the time for swimming, and he became very good at it. He got his nickname as a toddler, from a fisherman uncle who told him, "I'm the skipper of the sea, and you, boy, are the skipper of the land."
But Diaz proved to be a skipper of both.
"In life, there are floaters and there are sinkers," he said. "I'm lucky I'm a floater."