More extensive article on the impact of prayer and faith on the UH football team. The link has pictures showing players huddled in prayer.
Posted on: Monday, December 24, 2007 Hawaii football team attributes wins to God
Video: How the Warriors "BELIEVE"
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
"You can see it before and after every practice and every game," Watson said. "We pray and give glory to the one who makes it all possible for us."
Photos by RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser
Warriors Keala Watson, top, and Shane Austin gather with teammates for a group prayer after practice.
Senior wide receiver C.J. Hawthorne leads team prayers before and after games and practices. "Humility is an amazing thing," he says.
Each week, Solomon Elimimian would look out across the sweep of green-clad fans that slowly but surely packed Aloha Stadium this season, feel their thunderous applause as the pulse in his veins, feel the weight of their hope, their expectations and, yes, their belief.
And as his eyes scanned the great mass of bodies crowding the sticky, garbage-strewn bleachers, he'd see that word over and over again.
It was there on giant poster boards, on T-shirts, on the naked chests of pale, skinny classmates.
And while he appreciated the good will and sincerity of those messages, Elimimian, a gifted linebacker and devoted Christian, kept coming back to the same question.
"Believe what?" Elimimian said. "Believe in who?"
They are True Believers, these 2007 Warriors.
From head coach June Jones to Heisman finalist Colt Brennan to the unrecognized contributors who man the scout team, they are bonded not just by the goals they have set, the hours of toil and preparation they have invested to achieve them, and the perfect season that has been its vindication, but by a shared belief in the power of religious faith.
"We just happen to have a lot of Christian guys on this team, but we also have a lot of guys of all kinds of faiths," Jones said. "The principles of love and sacrifice are what really bond them together."
Many athletes lay claim to being men of God, but few teams have demonstrated such a collective insistence on using their successes on the field to achieve what they believe to be their true calling as athletes.
"You can see it before and after every practice and every game," said junior defensive lineman Keala Watson. "We pray and give glory to the one who makes it all possible for us. This team acts as a beacon of faith. We're an example of what can happen when you put your faith in God."
In the Watson household, religious faith was the breath and bread of everyday life. Growing up in Nanakuli, Watson followed along as his family attended church, observed regular family devotion days, and bowed their heads in daily prayer.
"I was immersed in it as a young child, and it's stayed with me," Watson said. "As an adult, I want to pass that along to my nieces and nephews, and hopefully to my own kids someday."
Watson said his faith saved him during his freshman year when Von Willebrand disorder, a rare condition similar to hemophilia, threatened to end his football career.
Watson redshirted that year, unsure if he would ever return as doctor after doctor delivered negative prognoses. As he confronted the loss of his dream, Watson said he lost sight of what he believed in.
"I thought my career was down the drain," he said. "I felt there was no hope for me and I kind of lost focus on what God had planned for me. It was all about what I wanted. But once I let him take control of my life again, he put everything back together."
With the help of a new doctor, who found a way to treat the condition with daily medication, Watson made his way back to the team and has become a rising force within the defensive unit.
Watson serves as an assistant pastor at Kahikolu Baptist Church in Wai'anae. In the Warrior locker room, it's Watson to whom teammates often turn for religious support and guidance.
It was Watson who last week rallied a dozen teammates to Hawaii Medical Center East to pray for redshirt freshman Vaughn Meatoga's mother, who was stricken with cancer. Lynette Meatoga died two days later.
"Our belief carries on to each of our lives," Watson said. "When (Meatoga's) mother passed, there were a lot of guys around to help lift him up. It was devastating for him, but he's doing better.
"There's a lot of love on this team."
Like Watson, junior defensive back Desmond Thomas grew up in a Christian household.
"That was one of the reasons my mom wanted me to come here," Thomas said. "We have coaches who are Christians and believe in God. She loved that about this school. Love, belief, faith — those words characterize the whole team."
But despite his upbringing, Thomas said his religious faith had yet to blossom when he arrived on the Manoa campus. He was, in his own words, "just out there in the world doing my own thing."
And it wasn't working.
A standout safety and wide receiver at Vallejo High School in California, Thomas redshirted the 2004 season and saw action in just one game the following season. Frustrated at his lack of progress and opportunity, Thomas was considering transferring schools as he sat outside the Stan Sheriff Center one afternoon.
"And God sent somebody to talk to me — a homeless man," Thomas recalled. "He told me that great things are headed in my direction if I turn away from my evil ways and turn to God.
"It broke me," he said. "I was upset because I had always thought of myself as a player, and I wasn't playing. Then God snatched me up and I humbled myself."
Thomas put aside thoughts of transferring and eventually found his opportunity away from the offense. As a sophomore, he played all 14 games in the defensive backfield and on special teams.
This season, Thomas replaced Kaeo Monteilh as starting safety after Monteilh was lost for the season with a fractured left scapula.
Like Thomas, senior defensive back Jacob Patek would not connect the Christian values with which he was raised to a meaningful relationship with the higher power he acknowledged until he arrived in Hawai'i.
Patek grew up in Victoria, Texas, and played for Blinn Community College (Texas) for three seasons before transferring to Hawai'i.
"When I got here, I was a Christian but I was doing my own thing," Patek said. "It was tough being so far away from home and trying to battle through things."
Though embraced by his teammates and respected by his coaches for the defensive skills he possessed and the ferocity with which he applied them, Patek felt unmoored. For all of the power and determination he exhibited on the field, the displaced Texan found himself lonely and homesick in his private moments.
In retrospect, Patek said, it was the first step in kindling the religious faith that had laid dry within him.
"The Lord brought me out to this island, took me away from everything I had back at home, and broke me," Patek said. "There were times I'd break down crying and allow the Lord to work on me."
Patek said the reaffirmation of his faith allowed him to "grow into maturity," and to rein in the anger that so often festered and flared inside him.
And like so many of his teammates, Patek now interprets the good in his life as fruits of his belief. He credits prayer for curing the mysterious sores that lingered on his arm for weeks. He attributes his quick recovery from a high ankle sprain (suffered initially in a game against Boise State and re-aggravated a week later versus Washington) to "his divine power."
"No matter what happens, whether we win or lose, we give God his glory because he's blessed us with the opportunity to play the game of football, where other people might not have that opportunity."
A HIGHER POWER
Humility is a powerful and at times liberating concept for athletes, but not one that is always easily grasped.
Senior wide receiver C.J. Hawthorne may not have had a clear vision of how his collegiate career would unfold when he left the comfort and security of Mississippi for exotic Hawai'i, but he was confident that it wouldn't involve riding the pine.
At St. Martin High School in Owen Springs, he was a standout in basketball and track, and earned all-state honors in football. After a stint at Southwest Gulf Coast Community College, Hawthorn transferred to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and helped lead the team to a league championship in 2005.
But in Hawai'i, with talented veterans ahead of him on the offense, Hawthorne would have to make the switch to cornerback. After five so-so starts, Hawthorne was relegated to the bench.
"Back home, I was the star," Hawthorne said. "I was the man. Then I came here and for the first time in my life I had to take the bench. It was real hard. The biggest test was learning not to get jealous or bitter about things."
His adjustment off the field came no easier.
"In Mississippi, I was so comfortable and I was in the same rut of doing whatever, seeing the same guys and wanting to go out," he said. "It took getting out here and getting along by myself to realize I'm better than that. I was playing Division I football and I was poor, lonely, depressed in my room. I knew there had to be something bigger than this."
And so, like so many of his teammates, Hawthorne reached back to his Bible Belt roots in search of an answer.
Hawthorne, who now leads prayers before and after games and practices, said that with the deepening of his religious faith came a sense of humility and proportion.
"Humility is an amazing thing," he said. "Look at almost every championship team. Even if they fail to acknowledge God, you definitely see a humility and an ability to do something for one another, even when it's something you don't want to do.
"As a team, our faith has allowed us to humble ourselves and become even closer as a unit," he said.
TEAM OF DESTINY?
That word again.
Wherever Elimimian goes these days, it's there. Painted onto driveways. Shaved on heads. Spelled out in Christmas lights.
"I look around and I see 'Believe, believe,' " Elimimian said. "But what do they mean? If they believe in us, that's a start, but that's not what it's really about. When we win, it's not about us, it's about getting people saved. Our going 12-0 isn't about us, it's about the glory of God and getting people to acknowledge that God is our savior."
Salvation. Glory. Savior. Words that might chill a more secular room flow freely from Elimimian's lips because in this athletic facility, in the penultimate moment of this most stirring of seasons, it is safe to speak the language of faith.
To be sure, not every Warrior is as deeply religious as Elimimian or Hawthorne or Thomas. Yet, whatever their faith or belief or opinion, there is permeating the team a feeling that what they've achieved this season resonates beyond the obvious.
Elimimian, a measured and deliberate thinker, believes the perfect record, the Western Athletic Conference championship and the Sugar Bowl berth are means, not ends, to his God's true intention.
How else, Elimimian asks, can one account for the myriad ways in which this particular group of coaches and players found themselves together right here, right now?
"You look at all the guys that people in Hawai'i look up to — Colt, Davone (Bess), C.J., Adam Leonard — and each one has a story about how they got here," Elimimian said. "Colt had a long path from high school just to get here. Davone, too. My brother (all-WAC cornerback Abraham Elimimian) could have gone somewhere else but all the big schools dropped him when he hurt his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). He was an instrument for me being here because if he hadn't come, I probably would not have either.
"You look at our Polynesian guys — guys like Timo Paepule, Michael Lafaele, Hercules Satele, Karl Noa, who give hope to kids in Hawai'i because they're so strong in their faith — they all have their stories, too. We all had long paths to get here. God put everything together, all these different pieces from different walks of life.
"God put us in the Sugar Bowl as the only 12-0 team to touch the nation and let people know the plan and the mercy that God has for us."
"A lot of people think you can only preach from the pulpit, but there are a lot of platforms," he said. "We are each here for God to show that it's possible to love one another. It's not about being all religious, it's about loving each other." http://www.honoluluadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071224/NEWS01/712240346