Tommy Kaulukukui, sports legend, 94
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By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Wes Nakama
Thomas Kaulukukui, a legendary multisport athlete who was the first University of Hawai'i football player to earn All-America honors, died yesterday morning at his daughter's Kailua home.
He turned 94 in January.
"He passed peacefully, surrounded by the love of his family," said his son, Thomas Ka-ulukukui Jr. "You could not ask for anything more."
After a standout career at Hilo High, Kaulukukui attended UH and was selected to the All-American Board of Football team in 1935. His 103-yard kickoff return against UCLA at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that year is still a school record.
But he was more than a football player, earning 17 letters in five sports.
"He was a physically gifted athlete," Kaulukukui Jr. said.
Kaulukukui also served as a coach and athletic director at UH, coached at 'Iolani, was a founder of Pop Warner football in Hawai'i and served in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
"He was a devoted family man," Kaulukukui Jr. said. "His life was committed to teaching and the service to others."
Thomas Kaulukukui was born in Kalihi and raised in Hilo as the third of 10 boys. He graduated from Hilo High in 1932.
"He was the greatest athlete to come out of the island of Hawai'i," said Ah Chew Goo, a legendary basketball player who graduated from Hilo four years after Kaulukukui. "He was outstanding in football, basketball, baseball. ... He was a real nice guy, and in Hilo, everybody looked up to him."
According to Kaulukukui's younger brother Sol, he suffered an injury during high school that resulted in a limp in his step.
"One leg was short, so he had a funny gait and made funny cuts," Goo said. "He was small, but he was so coordinated and so athletic. He was a great football player, a great shortstop in baseball."
Kaulukukui later attended UH and not only was a multisport standout there — showing skills in football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis — but also became the first Rainbow athlete to gain national media attention.
At the Coliseum in November 1935, the 5-foot-4, 145-pound Kaulukukui received a UCLA kickoff three yards deep in his end zone and took it all the way for a touchdown. The Rainbows lost, 19-6, but Kaulukukui's performance impressed legendary sports writer Grantland Rice, who gave him the nickname "Grass Shack."
Rice's praise of Kaulukukui is believed to have led to his being named to the All-American Board of Football team.
Kaulukukui played for and later was an assistant to head coach Otto "Proc" Klum, considered to be the "father of UH football."
Kaulukukui became UH's co-head coach with Eugene "Luke" Gill in 1941 and helped the Rainbows post an 8-1 record. He became the lone head coach the following year and the team went 8-2, and then the program was shut down for four years because of World War II.
When play resumed in 1946, Kaulukukui guided Hawai'i to five more winning seasons through the 1950 campaign. He also was UH's athletic director.
In six seasons as head coach, Kaulukukui amassed a 34-19-3 record and also upgraded the schedule by setting up a pair of games with Michigan State — one in Honolulu and one at East Lansing, Mich.
"He was a great man, as a person and as a coach," said Jimmy Asato, a former Hawai'i running back who played for three years under Kaulukukui and later became UH's head coach. "I enjoyed playing for him. I respected him a lot. He was a player's coach. We all called him 'Tommy.' "
Later, Kaulukukui was 'Iolani's head coach from 1956 through 1959, immediately preceding Eddie Hamada. He also founded Hawai'i's first Pop Warner youth football league.
"We get approached by a lot of people who tell us, 'I owe my life to Tommy; I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for him,' " Sol Kaulukukui said. "He (impacted) students for a lifetime. He was the role model of our family."
Kaulukukui was selected as a charter member of the National Football Hall of Fame Association and was a charter member of UH's Circle of Honor in 1982.
He is survived by Felice, his wife of 67 years; brother Sol; three children, Thomas Jr., Carol and Donald; four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending, Thomas Kaulukukui Jr. said.
Reach Wes Nakama at email@example.com.