Three long air horn blasts signal that practice is finally done. The undefeated Cal football team gathers once more at midfield before everyone embarks on their own Tuesday night. As players leave the field, some in pairs laughing, others getting quick tips from coaches, Kanawai Noa walks alone. Long brown hair bounces on his shoulders as he takes off his helmet, falling below his black beaded necklace. He takes a quick shower, and reemerges in sandals.
Yet another gloomy evening in Berkeley has no effect on the proud Hawaiian.
“Paradise,” he calls Hawaii. “It’s my home, and it’s my paradise.”
Adjusting to a totally new school, a totally new culture, and a totally new quarterback every year at Cal has been difficult — especially in the Pac-12 — but the soft-spoken wide receiver has always let his play do the talking. It’s the only way he’s ever known.
Noa grew up on the beach, surfing, fishing and playing games far less aggressive than football near Honolulu, along with his six brothers, two sisters and 52 first cousins.
“That’s just Polynesian culture,” he recalls. “Everybody got big families.”
Always surrounded by a village-sized family, he learned to stand out in his own way. Football was his main avenue of success, but he was always a star academically as well. The decision to leave the state he calls home was a difficult one, but the academic opportunity of Cal, on top of its status as a D1 Pac-12 football team, made the transition too appealing to pass up.
And he brought a little bit of home with him. Actually, a whole lot of home. His teammate in high school and close friend, Semisi Uluave, committed to Cal not long after Noa. At 6’5” and 345 pounds, Uluave seemed more physically prepared for NCAA football than his more diminutive classmate, but both saw playing time as freshmen.
Today, Noa is a starting wide receiver for the Bears, and although you’d never guess it, the road to his current spot has been a rocky one. The transition was always going to be a difficult one for the small fish entering the big pond — a player ranked 1st at his position in the state of Hawaii but 205th in the nation by Scout.com and 148th by ESPN. After a promising start to his freshman campaign, grabbing four catches for 48 yards in the first game of his Cal career, a knee injury all but eliminated his sophomore season.
His incoming promise and on-field production was all but forgotten before the spring game last May, where he had 112 yards, looking totally unguardable against the revamped Justin Wilcox defense. His performance in the slot was particularly impressive — no corner, nickel or otherwise, could keep up with the small receiver who was only months removed from knee injury.
He chalked up that performance, as well as his increasing contributions so far this season, to his innate ability to find just the right hole in the opposing defense. He therefore feels like he can flourish in Cal’s new offensive scheme because of its main difference from the old one: the willingness to allow all receivers to freelance.
“We have a set route, and off of that route we can make adjustments based off of the defensive coverage. I try to find those holes no matter what,” Noa says. “I think that’s what I’m best at.”
This intuition, this knack for finding holes and niches, helped Noa become one of the best high school prospects Hawaii has ever produced. Over 3,600 all-purpose yards over three varsity seasons and 37 touchdowns allowed Noa to evaluate options across the isolating Pacific in the first place. At the very least, it was something to be hugely proud of.
“I was OK,” he smiles.
Although afternoons of surfing have been replaced with stressful nights of post-practice studying, Noa has a little bit of Hawaii to remind him of home.
“I have the Hawaiian flag,” Noa says. “That’s about it. I don’t play the ukulele or anything.”
But he’s also brought along even more that can’t be hung on a wall. It’s hard to describe, he says, but there’s a pride, a sort of internal communal obligation, that carries him through all the two-a-days, through the grueling student-athlete schedule.
“My inspiration is definitely my family, where I come from,” Noa says. “The 808 state, I carry it on my back. I guess that’s added pressure, but I love that pressure.”
“Just being from Hawaii, there’s that drive to want to be great,” he added. “I want to step up and show people back home that we can do it in the big United States.”
He realizes that maybe he’s said too much. Talking about home can do that. He smiles again.
“There’s just something about being from a small island and coming to such a big place, ya know?” Noa says. “You just want to make your mark on it. Just say, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ ”