After starring as a linebacker for the University of Hawaii football team in the early 90’s, Victor Santa Cruz’s football career has come full circle.
As a player at UH, Santa Cruz amassed 140 tackles in 46 games before embarking on an extensive and successful coaching career. The 2020 season will be Santa Cruz’s 25th as a coach but first with the Rainbow Warriors. After spending the last 14 seasons as the head coach at NCAA Division II Azusa Pacific, Santa Cruz will be UH’s associate head coach, defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach heading into new head coach Todd Graham’s debut season.
Santa Cruz was hired by Graham back in January, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has limited his interaction with the team. Spring practice was canceled and workouts were exclusively virtual for months. But NCAA rules have allowed the team to gather in person earlier this month. Small workouts have been held on the UH-Manoa campus and the team begins fall practice on Friday. Although it comes in unforeseen circumstances, Santa Cruz is cherishing the progress towards a small return to normalcy.
“There’s a lot of healing to the soul when it comes to getting back out there,” Santa Cruz told KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello. “My wife and I went for a walk and so we walked by a little league baseball park and seeing little kids play baseball and the parents watching, we went and watched for a while, and I found myself cheering. I didn’t even know the kids. So there’s a joy that comes out, getting players back on the field, there’s a lot of value to that.”
Although the ‘Bows will take the field to practice on Friday, the session will be closed to the public for safety reasons. Every player on the fall camp roster will be tested for coronavirus as well. Santa Cruz says the team will not let its guard down in terms of exercising caution towards the virus.
“I know that every day we go into it, we say ‘How do we get better?’ How do we be very intentional with the players, with the coaches about daily health check-ins and just understanding this issue we’re working with? We’re making every intention to social distance with the masks, with getting testing, going through that protocol rolling out the testing and I’m just excited to go to work and I feel good about where we’re at,” Santa Cruz said.
From a football standpoint, one of Santa Cruz’s biggest duties as he gains more time to work with the team is installing his aggressive “War Dog’ defense. As uncertainty looms over the upcoming 2020 season, time will tell how many games the Rainbow Warriors actually play this fall. But Santa Cruz wants to be with UH for the long haul, hoping to do more for the school than what it did for him.
“Words can’t express it. Words can’t express it. This university did a lot for me and the people did a lot for me and so I have tremendous love and pride in this university and this football team and football program, the state of Hawaii,” said Cruz, holding back tears. “I’m the first to graduate college in my entire bloodline and the University of Hawaii gave me that opportunity. “When we do take the field, just tremendous pride about ‘Hey, we’re going out there’ and in the meantime, just trying to do all I can to help serve the players, help serve the university and keep growing myself because Hawaii taught me one thing: It’s about people, it’s all about people trying to get better, put your best foot forward every day. It’s about when you do get knocked down, you get up right away. And so for me, I’m excited.
“I’m humbled by the opportunity but I’ll tell you what, I am every day trying to get better to make sure I’m giving my absolute very best to this university. Not just do well, not good, I want to give my absolute very best. That means I gotta get better every day.”