Whether it’s from the grass practice field or its soon-to-be expanded home at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex, current University of Hawaii football players are typically able to walk back to the team’s locker room with little to no fanfare. Aside from the occasional media interview or an extra set of reps with a teammate or two, members of the team usually go about the rest of the day peacefully.

Such a scenario was not possible for Colt Brennan in 2007.

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That year, the late former University of Hawaii quarterback was the biggest sports star in the state, regardless of level. In his junior year of 2006, he broke or tied 18 NCAA, 17 WAC and 41 school records, the most notable of which were his 58 touchdown passes, a record that stood until LSU’s Joe Burrow threw for 60 touchdowns in the 2019 season.

With a 2007 NFL Draft evaluation that projected him to be selected as early as the middle of the first round, Brennan submitted the requisite paperwork to the league and had 72 hours to change his mind. Every local television station across the state interrupted its regular programming to air a press conference in which Brennan would officially announce his decision. Through tears, Brennan announced his return to UH for his senior season in 2007. After automatically sealing his fate as one of the state’s most revered figures, Brennan’s local fame and popularity grew exponentially from there.

Fifteen years after No. 15 took the Warriors — and the rest of the state — on an unforgettable ride, a handful of those close to Brennan reflect and look back on how unique that period in time was and how his magnanimous spirit never ceased under any circumstance.

One of the final initiatives Lois Manin took as UH’s director of sports media relations was spearheading a preseason Heisman Trophy campaign for Brennan. In 2006, Brennan had barely missed out on a Heisman ceremony invitation, finishing sixth in voting.

“It was stressful. I just felt that he was so good and deserves so much attention. It was fighting through the naysayers, the people who were saying he was a system quarterback,” Manin recalls about the stigma attached to Brennan as a run and shoot quarterback. “But numbers are numbers. We fought through that a lot.”

In the summer prior to the 2007 season, Hawaii’s athletics department released an eight-part series titled ‘A Colt Following,’ where local print and television outlets were given an opportunity to showcase who Brennan was.

For his part, KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello, who was with KITV at the time, spent a day with Brennan and his top receiver Davone Bess across Oahu. Throughout the day, it became clear that the love between Brennan and the people of Hawaii was genuine.

“He loved hearing people’s stories and learning about who they were and where they were from. I often joked with him that he must have asked me more questions than I ever asked him as a reporter. It’s just who he was, though. That really stood out to me in the summer of 2007,” DeMello said. “We drove around the island and hit up his favorite spots: Sandy’s, Waimea Bay, Waikiki. It took all day long and all day long, he met new people along the way and it was never a, ‘Hey,’ fist bump and move on. It was always a conversation. I was stunned at times on how we got into the conversations with uncles and aunties that we did that day. Everything from the weather, to fruits, to music, to even a breakdown of a recent UFC fight. Funny thing is that the topic of conversation was rarely football. I’ll never forget that day and that’s the Colt I’ll never forget.”

Manin went on to become Aloha Stadium’s deputy director prior to the 2007 season. After returning to UH in 2016 as the football team’s director of operations, she’s currently the school’s associate athletics director and senior woman administrator.

The 2007 season was Derek Inouchi’s first as the football team’s main sports information director, a role he still holds to this day in addition to being UH’s overall director of sports media relations. Because of the frequent requests regarding Brennan, Inouchi became his handler for the year.

“It seems just like yesterday. It was an introduction, I would say, to my SID career, although I was an assistant for about 10 years prior to that but just to cover Colt and that team, it was an experience that I’ll never forget probably in my lifetime working here at UH. I grew up a lot that year,” Inouchi said. “The amount of requests, it was an experience I’ll never forget but also, it was a lot of work and there was really no excuses. It was nonstop. It was a blur, really. Looking back, I kind of reminisce and it all kind of came back last year when Colt unfortunately passed away and just the memories of that whole season.”

Hype surrounding Hawaii’s football team leading up to the 2007 season was ubiquitous. With a No. 23 preseason AP poll ranking and a schedule featuring two FCS schools, many felt the Warriors had the potential to run the table. At the center of it all was Brennan, who appeared on numerous preseason watchlists, All-America teams and NFL mock drafts. He was also given a 97 overall player rating on EA Sports NCAA Football 2008, the highest rating for a Hawaii football player ever.

“There was an anticipation for sure,” recalled Spectrum Sports play-by-play announcer and ESPN Honolulu host Kanoa Leahey, who was the KHON2 sports director at the time. “UH football being the king of sports in Hawaii, that was the year where that was most obvious and prevalent.”

As the season 2007 progressed, so did Brennan’s popularity. Hundreds of fans regularly attended UH practices, where Brennan was routinely the last player to leave the field due to frequent autograph and picture requests from fans. At times, Brennan would have to be whisked away in a golf cart or van.

“Sometimes we had to plan great escapes for him just so that he could have some time to decompress. It if was after a game at the stadium, if there was a big crowd, we would kind of help him in that sense,” Manin said. “Practice, sometimes here on campus, there were so many people and he had to get to class. There were so many people sometimes waiting for him after practice to sign a jersey or sign a picture or something that we would get the golf cart and say he gotta go. Most of the time, he had to go to class or he had to go get treatment or he had a doctor appointment or something like that. It was kind of crazy but I mean, it was fun. He made it fun.”

Off the field, Brennan’s generosity knew no bounds. The same person who appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine was also using a chunk of his free time to speak to kids at local juvenile detention centers.  

“The daily frenzy was amazing. We got to spend some time with Colt off the field. You’d go to McDonald’s, or you’d be at Kahala Mall, it was like being with a rock star,” said Spectrum Sports color commentator Rich Miano, who was UH’s defensive backs coach in 2007. “They’re waiting outside with autographed helmets, they’re waiting outside the bus, they’re waiting outside of practice. Having a rock star that was nationally famous, more so in Hawaii, I’m not sure if anyone didn’t know who he was. He was so recognizable. He signed every autograph. It was amazing just being with that guy.”

Miano, who convinced Brennan to join the program as a walk-on in 2005, believes Brennan’s unconditional love for the islands came from Hawaii giving him an opportunity when many other schools were apprehensive. Brennan, who was kicked off the team at University of Colorado, was discovered by UH as a bounceback at Saddleback Community College.  

“I think what happened is it was a love affair with Hawaii. From Hilo to Hanalei, keiki to kupuna, they loved Colt and Colt loved them. His teammates loved him and Colt loved his teammates. Colt felt that he owed the state of Hawaii something because he had some things in his past,” Miano said. “There wasn’t a person that he didn’t endear himself to, and it was mutual. I never saw that kind of respect from a guy who came to the islands so quickly.”

Perhaps the most remarkable part of Brennan’s stardom in 2007 was how he never let fame alter who he was.

Said current Hawaii director of player development Jeff Reinebold, who was the team’s defensive line coach in 2007: “It was so incredible to me to watch the grace that he carried himself with when he was continuously under the microscope and continuously pulled in all different directions. I never once saw him handle any interaction — whether it was with a fan, with a teammate, with an opponent — with anything other than grace. I think that’s a credit to the kind of human being he was. … Again, there are guys that do that kind of stuff because it promotes their brand or makes them look good or they get paid to do it, all the other extraneous reasons. Colt did it because he loved Hawaii and he loved the fans. I think that’s the measure of a man.”

Inouchi: “He handled it like a professional. He didn’t turn down one interview. He didn’t turn down one autograph. He was there until the end. He made himself available and he shook every hand and signed every autograph, that’s one thing I admire and remember about him. … That’s the kind of guy he was. He accepted the responsibility of being the quarterback and with it came all the praise and all the criticism, and he took it. He accepted all the blame, and he also praised his teammates. He wasn’t a guy that was all about himself. It was about his O-line, it was about his receivers. Very humble. People in Hawaii, that’s what they’re known for and I think he fit in just fine.”

Leahey: “He would talk in Samoan with some of his lineman because he was taking Samoan class with them. He’d be doing interviews and the way some of these monsters of men would talk to him, there was such affection. … It was just a really interesting climate, and that was what Colt did: He brought this sense of joy everywhere he went. He just lit up a room. He was that charismatic, he was that self-assured, that comfortable in his skin. For a guy that was elevated to the levels to celebrity I had never seen before, he was very comfortable with it. That was something I recall: The way he operated and conducted himself in such a way that it was just normal.

“He absolutely plugged himself into this place and was just one of the ‘braddahs.’ He was so unassuming in that way. He was so down to earth. Again, I think all of that contributes to why people were so drawn to him. He was so accessible in that way. He was so normal and within reach, both figuratively and literally. That’s the crazy part about Colt Brennan: His way of life, his way of relating to people, his personality never really changed. The only time it changed was later on when he had the car accident and he started getting into some of the difficulties life would present him, that’s when things changed for the worse. But during that time, during the sweet spot of Colt Brennan both as a person and in his career, he was unflappable in terms of his persona and his desire to just be among the people.

Manin: “What I remember about Colt is, I miss that guy, he was so giving with his time and paid special attention to the kids. He embraced the attention and he used the platform to connect with the community. He embraced the culture, he embraced the people. He signed every autograph and took every picture. He would do the little things, too. If there was a little kid that was just so, like, ‘Oh my God,’ he would come from around the table and kneel down and interact with the kid. Just the little things like that made it very special, and that was what was so special and good about Colt.

“The more popular he got, the more normal he got. Some people don’t want to go out, some people don’t want to deal with all the crowds, but he just went about his life the same way no matter how popular he got. Yes, there were times when we had to kind of shield him from things. But not because that’s what he wanted, it’s because we needed to get him where he needed to be at a certain time and that’s the only way we could do it. He never did change. He always stayed Colt.”

One of Brennan’s favorite practice rituals in 2007 was running his own offense where he’d line up at center with cornerback Gerard Lewis playing quarterback, fellow corner Myron Newberry playing receiver and Bess lining up at running back.

“Colt was the one who came up with idea,” Newberry recalled recently. “Just shows what kind of person he is. He was always finding ways to connect with every player on the team.”

Courtesy Myron Newberry

Despite his kindness off the field, Brennan maintained his competitive streak on it, playing through the entire year with a multitude of injuries, including a gruesome concussion suffered against Fresno State in the team’s ninth game of the year. After prevailing over rival Boise State to win the school’s first-ever outright WAC title, all that stood between Hawaii and a coveted BCS bowl bid was a home game against Washington.

Although College Gameday mainstay Lee Corso had predicted a five-touchdown margin of victory, UH stumbled early and fell behind 21-0 against the Huskies, who entered the contest 4-8.

“I remember that game specifically because everyone thought our schedule was not that strong but here we go playing a Pac-10 team. It was 21-0 in the first quarter and I’m the defensive backs coach thinking people are gonna say we didn’t have a legitimate season,” Miano recalled. “It was dark times because we couldn’t stop them and we couldn’t move the ball. Colt Brennan came up to me and I remember him going, ‘Miano, we got this.’ You just got the sense that he wasn’t nervous about his ability to score points, we just had to make a stop.”

Brennan willed the Warriors to victory, leading UH to a 35-28 comeback win in which he completed 42 of his 50 passes for 442 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. There was even a stretch in the game where he threw 20 consecutive completions.

“I’m still in awe about what that team was able to accomplish. They were down 21-0 to Washington in the last game of the season. I’m walking around the stadium going, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna be disastrous,’ but that team just came back and they did it one play at a time and they overcame and they earned every single thing that they got,” Manin said. “Every single accomplishment they got, they earned from their work on the field. … It was really special to be part of that.”

The next day, Hawaii officially earned its invitation to the Sugar Bowl against Georgia.

“Fans were invited to the Stan Sheriff Center for the official Sugar Bowl invite which was televised on FOX. That entire event was everything I still remember about Colt Brennan,” DeMello recalled. “The way he interacted with fans, the way he celebrated his teammates despite the spotlight shining incredibly bright for him, the way that his teammates reacted to his every word and gesture, Colt was in his element that day and used every minute of it to represent Hawaii in one of its proudest moments.”

Despite statistical decreases nearly across the board, Brennan was invited to the 2007 Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, where he finished third in voting behind Darren McFadden and winner Tim Tebow. Brennan was the first player with Hawaii ties ever to be invited.

“I was fortunate to accompany him in New York for the Heisman show. That one trip and experience is what I’ll remember about him that year, only because he was himself and it was just him and me,” Inouchi said. “We caught the plane together out of Honolulu and pretty much we were with each other 24/7 the whole trip. His parents did come up as well as some friends, but other than that, it was just he and I and coming back home. I think I really got a sense of who he was as a person on that trip. There were no cameras, we did have some media obligations but aside from that, it was a couple of free nights that he could just be himself and not have to deal with any autograph seekers. There were some at the hotel but walking along the streets of New York, nobody knew who he was. That trip, I’ll always remember that and the friendship. Our friendship grew because of that.

“The pressure just fell off his shoulders and I think he just got to enjoy himself. There was a lot of pressure those last few weeks of the season. I think once we won all those games and he finally got an invitation to the Heisman, which was expected but yet a surprise…I think it was just a sense of relief for him. We got the (BCS) bowl bid, he’s got the Heisman invitation and the pressure was off.”

One of Brennan’s finite personal invitations was extended to Manin, whom Brennan promised he’d invite before she left UH.

For Hawaii as a program, going 0-12 in 1998 to 12-0 in less than a decade was improbable enough in itself. The 2007 team in particular had a flair for the dramatic, winning five of its regular season games by one possession, including two in overtime. Despite their multiple near misses, the Warriors lived up to their preseason BCS hopes and briefly elevated the team to a level no team before or after it has.

A few days before the team left, the school held one final autograph session for Brennan. The scene was one that still lives in local football lore.

Miano: “The line literally snaked around lower campus and it had at least 2,000 people in it. I remember thinking, like, ‘What if you’re No. 250 (in line)? This is a one hour autograph session.’ But people didn’t care. They stood in line, he signed every autograph and it was just amazing.”

Reinebold: “That had to be 2,000 people long and it was like he was a rock star. He stayed and signed every single (autograph).”

Leahey: “They had a tent set up and he was signing autographs, and the line from the practice field went all the way down to the road that leads to the parking structure and went all the way up to the road where you actually enter the University of Hawaii from Dole Street. The line was that long. It was insane, and that to me was the indication of his true popularity. People were waiting in line like that just to get to Colt.”

The stage was set on New Year’s Day in 2008, with Hawaii taking on SEC power Georgia in the Louisiana Superdome. Nearly 20,000 fans made the trek from the islands to New Orleans, with some supporters stretching themselves financially in order to witness the historic occasion. Among the local media there covering the game was Leahey.

“You have this sliver of fans all dressed in white representing Hawaii in the stands. You can identify them because they’re wearing white in this sea of red. Georgia fans far outnumbered Hawaii fans,” Leahey recalled. “Yes, general football fans were there but Georgia fans, this is old hat for them. RVs came in within 12 to 24 hours to kickoff and they just have this attendance thing down to a science, whereas Hawaii, this was a huge thing for us. It was a huge thing for these people to use whatever miles, whatever resources they had, whatever savings they had to go on this trip to follow the UH football team, this unprecedented achievement and moment and opportunity. I just remember being in the press box and absorbing all this and it kind of hit me. I looked up at the jumbotron and they were playing season highlights of both teams. … UH football season highlights, just that, combined with the UH band down on the field, combined with the fans that were in the thousands that traveled to New Orleans that came to watch this game, it hit me right there. I thought to myself, ‘This is it. This is the apex, this is the height of University of Hawaii football. This moment right here represents the greatest accomplishment in the history of the program.’ I actually started to get a little emotional because I was thankful I could be a part of it. I was thankful to be present for it. That’s when it really hit me, it was just the culmination of all of that: Three years of Colt Brennan, this program taking us on this incredible ride, it was all pointed towards this moment.

“And then kickoff happened. That feel-goodness went away pretty quickly when Knowshon Moreno was running for touchdowns. But I do remember that standing out to me as just the moment where it all came together. It really dawned on me like, wow, this is it. This is big time. Hawaii achieved big time status, and I thought that was pretty cool.”

Indeed, the Warriors were walloped 41-10 as Brennan turned in his worst game in a Hawaii uniform, completing 22 of his 38 passes for 169 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Despite the blemish it put on the team’s previously unbeaten record, the journey Brennan took the team on to get to the game is what’s remembered most fondly by those around him in retrospect.

After three years in the NFL in which he didn’t appear in a regular season game, Brennan was hospitalized for over a week after being a passenger in a car crash on the Big Island on Nov. 19, 2010. Brennan suffered a traumatic brain injury, among other serious injuries. Many believe the path he took towards the end of his life was a result of the hits he took to the head as a football player, particularly his concussion against Fresno State, combined with the accident.

In the years following the accident, Brennan was arrested a handful of times in Hawaii under the influence of drugs and alcohol. He passed away on May 11, 2021 after ingesting fentanyl, which followed an unsuccessful attempt to enter a detox center due to a lack of beds.

“To get the news early that morning (of Brennan’s death) broke my heart,” said Inouchi, who celebrated the UH men’s volleyball team’s national title just three days before. “This is life. It was tough. It was a tough day, yet what came out of it was an appreciation for who he was, the man he was. Later in his life, he was a victim of a lot of bad luck. Things didn’t go his way. It’s unfortunate his life had to end the way it did. … But it got people to remember the man he was and what he did for the University of Hawaii and the state of Hawaii.

“I just hope his legacy is not tarnished because of the things that he did later in life. What that man did for this school, for this state, I mean, we owe him. We’re indebted to him. He did so much. I don’t know if people appreciate that because some of the things that happened later in his life. So, I hope people look back and really appreciate him. His legacy will really live on and when people look back, they look back at stats, I hope they don’t look back and say, ‘Look at what he did off the field.’ People make mistakes and we didn’t live his life and there were just some things that maybe we wouldn’t have done but it was uncontrollable for him. I hope people look back and see all the good that he did.”

Leahey: “Colt’s life took some difficult turns and many of those were based on choices he made. Many of those, I think, were a byproduct of damage that was done both aesthetically as well as mentally from the accident. He lived with a lot of demons for the rest of his life, but what happens when we lose people, what happens when people pass, is it gives us the opportunity to sift through some of that and start to choose (memories). These are some of the things we want to utilize to put together the image of this person. He happens to be a person that had an incredible impact.”

Manin: “He fought like he could. He just couldn’t overcome it and when I heard about the passing, it’s just so sad because he had so much to offer to so many people but he did a lot. He did a lot for the program and he did a lot for the people and he did a lot for the youth and he put us on the map.”

Miano: “This guy who was a hero to my son and everybody else is no longer with us. … He had everything, but he just couldn’t overcome the drugs and it’s a message to all the young people out there, and I’m sure Colt would want to share that: Don’t ever start, because the addiction’s real.”

Certain elements of Brennan’s game during his UH days lead one to wonder if he was ahead of his time in certain aspects. Brennan was armed with a sidearm release and gaudy passing numbers at a time when neither had yet to become widely accepted in professional football to the extent that it is today. Another modern arena of college athletics in which he likely would have excelled? Profiting off his name, image and likeness.

Inouchi: “He would’ve been (an NIL) superstar. He had the looks, he had the personality. He would’ve been a perfect endorser for different brands and whatnot but playing a star position like quarterback, that guy would’ve knocked it out of the park.”

Miano: “In Hawaii, I think there would’ve been a battle in terms of the banks, the insurance companies, the financial companies, the people that had the wherewithal to support this young man and this program. He would have been, I would imagine, a seven-figure a year type of player and in those days, that would be unheard of. In this island state, that would be unheard of but I can’t imagine someone who would be more sought after today to endorse their product.”

Manin: “He would’ve done really well, obviously. … But Colt being Colt might have donated a lot of that back. He wasn’t all about money, because if he was, he might have left after his junior year. He wanted to be with those guys and he wanted to succeed and he wanted to do more and you gotta respect that about him. He didn’t have to stay. He didn’t have to stay.”

As the current state of college athletics becomes more of a battle between the haves and have-nots, Brennan’s impact on the state of Hawaii, particularly in 2007, appears harder to replicate with each passing day.

DeMello: “It sounds so cliché but I truly don’t think there are any words that could properly express how special of a time that was to be able to cover Hawaii football. The interest was incredible. Hundreds of fans at practices, thousands showing up for autograph sessions, obviously 50,000 fans at Aloha Stadium and of course Colt was the once-in-a-lifetime star that checked every box. The stars really aligned for Colt to be Hawaii’s superstar quarterback. The talent, the charisma, and the genuine love for the islands that was reciprocated. Whether you were a sports fan, not a sports fan, Colt and the Warriors went beyond sports in 2007.”

Miano: “I’ve been associated with Hawaii football since I’ve played in the 1980s, so there’s 40-plus years of history. I can’t ever imagine, going forward, anyone larger than life than Colt Brennan. The mystique, coming back for his senior season, on the field and what he did off of the field, what he did to the media, what he did to the community and nationwide, he was larger than life and just fun to be around. It would be hard to imagine somebody standing for the Heisman, somebody setting national passing records, somebody that endeared themselves that wasn’t from Hawaii, wasn’t Polynesian, I can’t imagine anyone in that short timeframe as we go into this new era of social media and all these other things that are here, anybody being more popular to the state of Hawaii, to the football program, than Colt Brennan. We’ll never see anybody bigger, at least in my lifetime. It was just a special time, a special time, and it was almost destiny because you had players that came back, you had Colt coming back for his senior year and I’m not sure that happens again. The selflessness of Colt Brennan I think even endeared himself more to fans besides that 12-0 run, people recognize that he turned down literally millions of dollars to play for the University of Hawaii with no soap in the shower.”

Leahey: “What Colt was able to accomplish with that football team in those years, the way he carried himself over the course of them, he gave us the thrill of our lives. He took us for a journey and a ride that many of us had never experienced before and many of us won’t experience again. He did it in a way where he made us feel like we were part of this inclusive crew, this group. I’m not just talking about us in the media, I’m talking about fans, I’m talking about anybody that had a vested interest in University of Hawaii football. Colt was there with open arms saying, ‘Hey, let’s all do this together.’ It was an amazing experience I think for anybody that was there, and I think that’s the memory that will live on. I think we have the opportunity to remember Colt for the incredibly positive impact he had on not just University of Hawaii sports, but this place as a whole.”