Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh made headlines when he offered Hawaii quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava a scholarship in 2016.
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KAHUKU, Hawaii — From Honolulu, it’s an hour drive to this outpost on the northern tip of the island of Oahu.
On the winding 36-mile journey, you drive through a major metropolitan area, lush green mountains, and for the final 21 miles, your car glides along the Kamehameha Highway, with the clear blue water of the Pacific Ocean outside the passenger window.
It’s a literal paradise, waves crashing against the sandy shoreline, blue skies and white puffy clouds overhead, and volcanic mountains framing the landscape. Hawaii, long known for its Elysian culture, suddenly has become a haven for quarterbacks.
Marcus Mariota. Tua Tagovailoa. McKenzie Milton. All three were born in a 20-mile radius of Honolulu, located on Oahu’s south shore.
“It’s great for Hawaii,” said islander Brian Ah-Yat, who won a Division I-AA national championship as Montana’s quarterback in 1995. “These guys are great representatives, and they’ve put quarterbacks from Hawaii on the map. Coaches are definitely looking harder at quarterbacks here. It’s at an all-time high.”
Mariota won the Heisman Trophy at Oregon and is one of the best young quarterbacks in NFL, Tagovailoa led Alabama to a dramatic overtime victory in the national championship game last season after entering the game in the third quarter, and Milton, the quarterback at Central Florida, also guided his undefeated team to the national championship in 2017, depending where your allegiances lie.
Next in line is 6-foot-1, 185-pound Sol-Jay Maiava, who has all the attributes of a modern-day quarterback: a big arm, quick legs, and an equally impressive attitude.
WATCH: Sol-Jay Maiava highlights
“It’s a trip right now with quarterbacks coming out of Hawaii,” Maiava said. “Everyone is telling me I have to carry the torch, but I’m enjoying it. There’s a lot of hype. At the end of the day, I have to keep working hard to achieve what they’ve done.”
Interest in the class of 2020 prospect took off, when Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh offered Maiava a scholarship in summer 2016 when he was in eighth grade. The Michigan coach conducted a satellite camp in Honolulu, and after Maiava, then just 15 years old, won a camp competition, Harbaugh extended the scholarship offer, setting off a storm of media attention.
All of a sudden, Maiava became a national curiosity. Anonymity disappeared. Who is this eighth grader Michigan offered a scholarship, many wondered.
“It was a very big deal, especially coming from Michigan,” Maiava said. “It was my first offer. I thought my first offer would be a West Coast school. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. It was one of the big steps, as far as getting exposure and colleges getting to know me.”
In reality, it ended up being a chance meeting. Maiava, naive to the process, almost skipped the camp because he wanted to attend a team practice. But his coaches explained the opportunity that existed and coaxed him into participating.
“When I first met [Harbaugh], I was kind of nervous. He was this big-time mastermind,” Maiava said. “Then in the afternoon, he started giving me hot dogs and sandwiches, and I thought, this guy is cool. He’s just one of the guys. And then we just started talking.”
During his freshman season, Maiava led tiny Kahuku High School to an 11-2 record and state runner-up finish to Tagovailoa’s Saint Louis School, a powerhouse that’s produced numerous star athletes, including Mariota. Last year, Maiava completed 119 of 238 pass attempts for 1,557 yards, 15 touchdowns, and five interceptions. He also ran 73 times for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
“The thing that makes him special is his demeanor and his composure,” said Ah-Yat, who coaches quarterbacks at Kahuku. “Obviously he’s a great athlete, but he doesn't get fazed by anything. He keeps a level head and he’s an ultimate competitor. The way he carried himself as a sophomore, a lot of seniors in high school don’t have that ability. He’s a lot more mature than his age. It’s the intangibles that set him apart from a lot of other kids.”
So far, Maiava has received scholarship offers from Michigan, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, Hawaii, and Fresno State. He’s attended camps throughout the country — Maiava said he’ll attend UM’s this month — where he’s had some standout performances. Maiava’s stock is expected to rise more the next two seasons when he attends St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., which counts Kasim Hill (Maryland) and Kevin Doyle (Arizona) as its most recent quarterbacks.
Kahuku is a small school that plays against subpar competition, and the football program’s cycled through five coaches in six seasons. Maiava thinks the step up — St. John’s plays a national schedule — will better prepare him for college.
“Physically, I want to be ready, and I think they can do that for me with their strength and conditioning coaches and their nutritionist,” Maiava said. “Plus, they have the No. 1 schedule in the nation next year. I just want to compete.”
The departure to the mainland caused a tinge of sadness in Kahuku, a tight-knit community of only a couple thousand people.
“We’re all up here on the North Shore. The closest town to us is at least a half-hour away,” Kahuku coach Sterling Carvalho said. “Whenever anyone leaves the community, it’s like a son or daughter is leaving. We’ve all seen them grow up before our faces.”
An intense, insatiable work ethic is where Maiava’s legend began to form. He trains six days per week, waking before 6 a.m. to run on the beach, lift, and study film of opponents. Only after those tasks are completed does he join teammates for practice. His attention to detail doesn’t stop with football, either. Maiava also is a stickler when it comes to diet and household chores.
“That started when I was 9 years old,” he said. “I was playing Pop Warner and the coach told me, ‘Son, you’re not a quarterback. You’re too fat and slow.’ From that day on, every day after practice I was working with my dad. As I got older, it was hard to work after school, so I got up early and to run and train before the school bus came. Now I’m just used to it.”
So are his coaches, who not only appreciate his prodigious talents but are equally awed by his maturity and want-to.
“That kid works,” Carvalho said. “Not just in practice, it’s early in the morning, late at the night, on the weekends. He’s always working on his mechanics and footwork. He’s constantly improving. Yes, he’s a gifted athlete, but you have to put some work into it.”
Before last season, Maiava never had worked with a quarterbacks coach. That changed when he was introduced to Ah-Yat. In one year, he’s firmed up Maiava’s fundamentals and mechanics, providing a mentorship that previously was lacking.
“He’s going to progress even more as a passer,” Ah-Yat said. “Just in the last year alone, I thought he got a lot better passing the ball and understanding the passing game. He’s a great leader, and that’s obviously what you need at the quarterback position. He picks and chooses the right time to talk to his teammates. At the toughest times in the games, he shows his composure, he’s not rattled, and he shines in those moments.”
Maiava’s new home might be the nation’s capital, but he is Hawaiian to the core, a state that’s become the nation’s quarterback capital.
“I’m just going with the flow,” Maiava said. “I enjoy it. I’m just embracing every part that I can.”
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