Montana coach Mick Dennehy likes to point out that he needed two years to find out whether quarterback Brian Ah Yat could play. It took that long for the Hawaiian to take his hands out of his pockets. "He was a young, skinny kid with his shirt sleeves over his hands, shivering to death," Dennehy says.
It's a long way from Honoulu to Missoula, about 3,000 miles as the Hawaiian goose would fly, if the state bird were ever so horribly lost. The majority of the state's citizens haven't been inclined to make the journey, either. North American Van Lines tracks the moves it makes, and in 1995 the company performed exactly two relocations from Hawaii to Montana. You don't need a Rand McNally to figure out why. The mean temperature in Honolulu during football season doesn't dip below 74°. The temperature in Missoula over the same period is just plain mean. "I didn't have a clue about Montana," says Ah Yat. "I just thought there was a lot of country and a lot of cowboys. That's about it. Basically, it was my only offer to play football."
Ah Yat may be the best player to come through a pipeline that, on and off for four decades, has sent football players from the islands to Big Sky country. The 6'2", 190-pound junior wasn't named the starter until 10 days before last season began, but he had an eight-game streak of at least four touchdown passes per game and threw for more than 500 yards in two of those games in a row. He finished Montana's 11-0 regular season with 3,615 passing yards and 42 TD tosses, then threw for 1,397 more yards and 11 ¦more touchdowns in four Division I-AA playoff games, including the national final, which the Grizzlies lost 49-29 to Marshall. He also rushed for 129 yards and three touchdowns last season and finished second in the balloting for the Walter Payton Trophy, Division I-AA's Heisman.
This fall Ah Yat and his favorite target from Honolulu's Iolani High, junior wide receiver Raul Pacheco—two of six Hawaiians on the roster—will be relied on heavily as Montana attempts to reach the championship game for the third consecutive season.
The latest flow of recruits from Hawaii to Montana began with the efforts of Tommy Lee, a Grizzlies assistant from 1985 to '90 and a native Hawaiian whose brother Cal is coach at St. Louis High in Honolulu. "You sign one or two, they enjoy it, and by word of mouth, more kids get interested," says Tommy, now the quarterbacks coach at Utah, which by no coincidence has 12 Hawaiian players. On a visit home in 1993, while coaching in the CFL, Tommy saw Ah Yat play in a passing offense at Iolani High and immediately called Montana's coach at the time, Don Read. The call couldn't have been more timely. The Grizzlies had a junior quarterback, Dave Dickenson, who went on to set 23 school records and lead Montana to the 1995 I-AA national title. But the team didn't have another promising quarterback waiting in the wings. "Other kids we looked at were scared away by Dave," says Dennehy, then the Grizzlies' offensive coordinator. "I don't know that Brian knew what he was getting himself into. I'm not even sure he knew where Montana was."
Though the football marriage between Ah Yat and Montana seems ideal, the partnership off the field at first seemed to have all the staying power of Hollywood matrimony. Ah Yat couldn't tell what went numb faster—his feet or his heart. "I had a bad attitude," he says. "I knew I wasn't going to play. I had doubts about myself. It was a long winter. I didn't like going to practice, didn't show any emotion, went through the motions instead of trying to learn. I would always be thinking about home."
Ah Yat spent his freshman year never letting Pacheco and another Honolulu recruit, wide receiver Eleu Kane, out of his sight. He tried to fit practice and class in between phone calls home. "He just wanted to hear our voices," says his father, Tony, who played defensive end at Linfield College in Oregon from 1961 to '65. "You have to understand Hawaiians. We're really family oriented. When you separate yourself from the family, you can really miss the people back home—and the food."
Oh, the food. "Lau lau," Brian says. "Pork wrapped in tea leaves." Or beef teriyaki or kal bi ribs and rice, lots of rice. Ah Yat survived his freshman year in part because of the people he met in the weight room. Strength and conditioning coach Bruce Wallwork came from Honolulu to play for the Grizzlies in 1960 and never moved back. Wallwork and his wife, Susan, think of themselves as the unofficial Hawaiian ambassadors to Montana. They have a catering business through which they stage luaus. On summer Wednesdays, when vendors gather on the banks of the Clark Fork River in a Missoula park, the Wallworks' cart is a gathering spot for the 30 or so expatriate Hawaiians in Missoula County. "The players come down between two-a-days and get themselves tanked up on teriyaki beef and chicken," Susan says.
In Bruce's office, adjacent to the Grizzlies' locker room, the walls are covered with photographs of the islands. The players go there for a touch of aloha. "Once they hear me talking," Bruce says, "they feel very comfortable. We don't all speak Hawaiian fluently, but we can say one or two words."
Montana quarterbacks coach Brent Pease says Ah Yat is ideal for the Grizzlies' offense because he has a strong arm and he can "survive with his feet." Wallwork discovered how quick Ah Yat is without the benefit of a traditional conditioning test. Bruce once made a potful of pork and cabbage and a pot of rice to take to his office and share with the Hawaiian players. "Brian walked in, picked up the food and said to Bruce, "Tell them it's at my house,' and left," Susan says. "The other kids didn't even have a chance to smell it."