Wendell Say retiring as Aiea football head coach

Mar. 7—Forty-two years, including 32 as a head coach, hasn't changed the heart of Wendell Say.

Forty-two years, including 32 as a head coach, hasn't changed the heart of Wendell Say.

The longtime Aiea football coach told the Star-Advertiser that he has retired, leaving a legacy that impacted thousands of young men who played for Na Alii. Say will step away from his job as a counselor and coach at the end of this month.

It was more than a job to Say, who graduated from Leilehua, played at Linfield, then spent a decade working as a federal agent. However, he switched paths despite his father's pleas.

"I was already coaching at the time. My parents were retired federal employees. My dad was upset. 'You're leaving a job that pays you well. Now you're going to teach, which pays you half of that salary. I thought I raised you smarter than that, '" Say recalled. "I told him, you raised me to think for myself. I enjoyed coaching the kids. When it came down to it, I couldn't see myself working 20 years in the federal government until I retired."

Say went back to school and earned a master's degree in counseling and a teaching certificate. Aiea became home.

"I was very fortunate. The principals, the AD at the time, they all supported me, " he said. "I was making half of what I used to make, but you compensate like all teachers."

That meant taking on extra jobs.

"I was working at the airlines at night with Les Parilla, Jose Guerava, Nolan Maeda, Mike Pavich, Gary Clark. All these guys. All teachers were working at the airport, it seemed like, and we all coached. That was the trade-off, I guess, " Say said.

Say's first year as Aiea's head coach was 1992. He went 140-152-2 in 32 seasons, including the school's only state Division II football championship in 2003.

After decades in coaching, Say and 'Iolani coach Wendell Look were honored with awards at a banquet one year.

"It was at the Royal Hawaiian (Hotel ). I went up and spoke first, " Look recalled. "Then he came up and he goes, 'Well, all we need now is a Wendell 'Hear' and we'll be complete, ' That's the kind of humor he has."

Aiea was one of the teams that brought the run-and-shoot offense to prep football. Certainly not the first, but definitely implanting the four-wide passing attack as a core part of their identity. Twice, in 2002 and'21, Say guided Aiea to OIA Division I championships. Just a rooted program making the most out of hometown playmakers and trench men.

"A lot of these kids, a lot of them were probably wayward, and he did a great job with them. They leave high school understanding they're becoming adults, " former Radford football coach Kelly Sur said. "He's kind of laid back, not a rah-rah guy, but he trains his coaches. He had a solid staff and that's the No. 1 thing. He's dealing with kids coming from Halawa Housing. The first initiative is the discipline part. He doesn't yell much, but when he does it's for a reason. His teaching style went well with the Aiea kids."

Say embraced the young student-athletes at the school.

"These kids, some of them didn't get the structure they needed. Hopefully, we brought that. The kids love to be together. Too bad we couldn't have them 24 hours a day because sometimes they don't want to go home. They just wanted to hang out at the lockerroom, " Say said. "They work hard doing community service and ask, 'When's the next one ?' They enjoyed doing that kind of stuff, being with their friends, We're growing up in a time where people are takers. We've got to learn to give back. We've got to be the givers and spread it out."

Aiea teams, Sur added, were tough, hard-hitting, skilled and disciplined.

"They weren't the kind of team that did a lot of personal fouls. Teaching fundamentals and teaching the kids the importance of competing, not fighting, but. competing. To me, that was very impressive, " said Sur, now a longtime athletic director at Radford. "He's the godfather of the (OIA ) coaches. He will be missed dearly. Hopefully, it'll be the same in regards to discipline. He has a kind heart, listens and goes about his business. He's not a grumbler, but if something isn't done right, he'll make sure people will know about it. He gained a lot of respect from that."

Say grew up in Wahiawa, played under legendary coach Hugh Yoshida at Leilehua. Linfield coach Ad Rutschman was also a strong influence.

"Coach Ad is a stickler for saying please and thank you, " said Say, who sees Rutschman at Nike coaching clinics.

Nolan Tokuda took a similar route, just flip-flopped from the one Say ventured on. Tokuda graduated from Aiea, coached football at Leilehua, and is the Mules athletic director now. He played under Say during high school.

"I first met him in 1988. He was already coaching defensive backs on the varsity. He has a heart to help kids succeed. Extremely positive on the field. Off the field, when I came back from college, he helped me find a part-time job mentoring elementary school kids, " Tokuda said. "He's so friendly. Kind-hearted. Patient. Always positive and smiling. I'm going to miss him. He's one of the true deans and greats at coaching high school football. He taught character above football."

Longtime coach Darren Johnson has known Say since 1990.

"He has commitment, passion, dedication. His demeanor has always been an influence on his players. His heart, his choice of giving, " the Campbell coach said.

Radford coach Fred Salanoa played in the HUB Goodwill All-Star game in 1995 when Say was on the coaching staff.

"Our jersey color was green because he was the head coach, " Salanoa recalled. "When you think of a coach, you think of a big-statured person, but the thing about him that stood out more than any size could bring is his heart. Nobody saw what he did behind the scenes. That goes for a lot of coaches that have coached for a long time. They obviously don't do it for the fame or any kind of paycheck. They want to help young men and share their knowledge with them. To me that's what makes him so special. To do it for 42 years. I saw that number and I said, 'Holy smokes.' For him to do it that long at a high level, getting kids to rally and show up for practice day in and day out, to put together a product on the field speaks volumes of him. It's his heart that shows that who he is."

The one thing Say won't miss is lining the grass football field alone.

"We had a good laugh about it this afternoon on the phone. That's just one of the many things we do as coaches, " Salanoa said. "People don't know the things coaches do. Aiea is definitely missing out on a great guy. That's as loyal as you're going to get."

The 1992 football season was one of greatness and a little bit of heartbreak for current Leilehua coach Mark Kurisu.

"He coached against me when I was playing. My senior year we had one of the top teams in the state and they upset us. That was my first encounter with coach. We're both Linfield Wildcats, " Kurisu said.

"Consistency and integrity, that's what I always think about when I think of coach. He's always had a class about teaching boys how to become men, and he taught it every day on the football field, " Kurisu said. "He always put the kids first. He didn't demand respect, but he always got it because of the way he treated the kids. He's always there every day, supporting his kids, helping them get ready for college."

Retirement doesn't mean Say will be idle. He'll be quite busy in his new role as an assistant athletic director at Kamehameha.

"For him to think about himself and his family, I'm happy for him, " Kurisu added. "His heart is too big to stay at home (in retirement )."