BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - Michael Hoomanawanui always knew he was destined to be a Warrior. Hawaiian in heritage but a native of Bloomington, he decided in eighth grade that he wanted to spend college working on his tan, body boarding with his cousins, and playing football at the University of Hawaii.
But two weeks after signing a letter of intent that will keep him off the beach and in the cornfields, Hoomanawanui says he is positive he made the right choice.
"As I got into the recruiting process, I started weighing the options and figured Hawaii wasn't for me," he says. "I could stay here and be around my family and friends, so in the end it was Illinois."
Hoomanawanui - who goes by Mike or "Uh-oh" since most people struggle to say Ho-oh-man-aw-an-oo-ee - is a tight end and defensive end for Central Catholic High School in Bloomington. He's one of the biggest names in Illinois' 2006 recruiting class, having played on the Saints' varsity squad for four seasons. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Hoomanawanui is a kid with big hands, a big smile and big hopes of making an impact at Illinois.
"I don't want to be just a player who fills the tight end position," Hoomanawanui says. "I want to be someone they look to to make plays."
Isy Hoomanawanui, Michael's father, grew up on the island of Oahu and first moved to the mainland to play football at Eastern Arizona Junior College. After two seasons he was recruited by Illinois State. He moved to Bloomington, met Michael's mother, Anne, and never moved back to Hawaii.
"After playing two years here I got to know a lot of people," Isy Hoomanawanui says. "Then we started our family right after college, and this is a good place to raise a family."
For Michael Hoomanawanui, growing up with half your relatives 4,000 miles away has its advantages. He says he was less than a year old when he first traveled to Hawaii. The family visits Oahu on a biannual basis, where they have luaus, hit the beach and take drives beneath the Pacific night sky - "things," he says, "you can't do around here."
"We have extended family across the island, so it's pretty neat to go back and meet new people every time," Hoomanawanui says. "We walk down the street and meet people I didn't know we were related to."
Hoomanawanui's mother is from Oswego, Ill., so it's easier to see his Irish family members than his Hawaiian relatives. But Isy Hoomanawanui says his son frequently calls the family in Hawaii and is as close to them as to his mother's side.
"The phone is always there," Isy Hoomanawanui says. "It is tough, especially on the holidays when we know that the whole family is in Hawaii together."
Isy Hoomanawanui says he never pushed Michael into football, and figured his son would lean towards baseball or basketball.
But when Hoomanawanui started playing football in fifth grade, he immediately took to the sport.
"His first week of football, we were at the dinner table, and Michael was kind of crying," Isy Hoomanawanui says. "We asked him what was wrong; we thought maybe he didn't like football. He said, 'I'm just tired, and I'm hungry.' That was pretty funny. It was good to know that he did like it after all."
Hoomanawanui played for the Twin City Tigers in junior high and was a water boy for Central Catholic, where his dad coaches. Best friend Brian Bradtke says Hoomanawanui has been constantly in the weight room since junior high.
Bradtke says Hoomanawanui's dedication to his game is a reflection of the decisions he makes on a daily basis. He said Hoomanawanui sets an example for his teammates in his actions on and off the field.
"He makes smart decisions," Bradtke says. "He's a leader on the field as well, after the games he doesn't yell at the other team, he keeps a low demeanor."
By his freshman year at Central Catholic, Hoomanawanui was already ready for the varsity. He played four years on the varsity football team, starting during his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, and spent three years on the basketball team.
"The league we play in, I think, is one of the best conferences in the state. We play schools with 800 kids, 1000 kids or even more," Hoomanawanui says.
"I'm not worried about going up against bigger guys, although I know I will. I guess that's the beauty of the game; to be the best you've got to beat the best. I'm looking forward to the challenge."
But even as a junior, Hoomanawanui still planned to play at Hawaii, and was also being scouted by Purdue, Michigan State, Northern Illinois and Oregon State.
Hoomanawanui made 50 receptions for 843 yards and 12 touchdowns during his senior season. On defense, he led with 139 tackles and eight sacks.
The numbers drew plenty of media attention. Hoomanawanui made the Chicago Sun-Times, Champaign News-Gazette and Bloomington Pantagraph All-State teams in 2005, and was a first team all-Cornbelt Conference player. Rivals.com named him the No. 40 tight end in the country.
"He's an athletic guy. He's a big, strong, explosive person, a guy that fits his position perfectly," Zook says. "Sometimes it's hard to find a guy that's athletic enough at the tight end spot to mismatch with linebackers and is able to block and do the things you need to do in run games. He really affords us the opportunity to do both."
While he won't be playing for Hawaii in college, Hoomanawanui keeps his heritage close when he steps on the field. Before games he paints his face with triangles - symbolic of the sharks teeth Hawaiian tradition equates with strength. He wants to grow his hair out, as several football players with Pacific roots have done, and hopes to get a tattoo to represent his family.
"Growing up, as you learn more about your heritage, you definitely get a sense of pride," Hoomanawanui says. "Half my clothes are Hawaiian pride type things. It's all about pride, respect. We go back to Hawaii and it's all about love."