No matter how far Trent Dilfer’s football journey took him, a trip to Hawaii always seemed to be attached to his accomplishments.
Dilfer first came to the islands as a visiting player from Fresno State in 1992 to take on the University of Hawaii. His final college game before becoming the sixth overall pick of the 1994 NFL Draft was in the 1993 Aloha Bowl against Colorado. During a storied 14-year NFL career, he also appeared in the 1998 Pro Bowl, back when the NFL’s All-Star game was held annually in Hawaii.
Dilfer’s next football-related trip to the 50th state will be as the head coach for Team Makai for the 2021 Polynesian Bowl on Jan. 23 at Aloha Stadium.
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“This is big-time. I got chills when I was invited to be one of the head coaches, I think for a lot of reasons. I really respect what the Polynesian Bowl stands for,” Dilfer told KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello. “I just love that yes, it’s an All-Star game, but it’s a holistic opportunity for these student-athletes. I love the activations that go on during the week, I can’t wait for that part of it. It’s one thing to have the respect and admiration for the culture without kind of having a surface level understanding, so I want to go deeper. I want to understand more why this culture is so loving, so loyal. I want to dig deeper into that as well as coach some of the best football players in the country.”
Currently the head coach at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tenn., Dilfer gained prominence as a quarterback mentor at the Elite 11, where he also serves as the head coach. One of his many deep relationships formed with high school quarterbacks who went on to become much more was Saint Louis rising senior Tua Tagovailoa, who was the 2016 Elite 11 MVP. That summer, Tagovailoa rose to national prominence, thanks to the constructive criticism received from Dilfer that ultimately helped him become a five-star prospect. Dilfer also trained Tagovailoa before the 2020 NFL Draft, where he was the fifth overall pick by the Miami Dolphins.
“It’s a super special place. I’m begging my wife when I’m done coaching to live there half the year so that’s where I want to end up,” Dilfer said of Hawaii. “In my football career, I’ve been over there for other football activations, my connection with Tua and his family, some of my greatest experiences have been in Hawaii, playing with Polynesians on my own team, having coaches that are from Hawaii. For whatever reason they’re some of the deeper relationships I’ve had in football and the connective tissue obviously runs pretty deep and I hope it just gets stronger.”
As for Tagovailoa’s NFL career, the southpaw has yet to appear in any games for the 2-3 Dolphins. Although he’s recovered from a hip fracture suffered last November, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores remains protective of his star rookie. Although Tagovailoa’s lack of playing time has appeared to frustrate fans in both Hawaii and Miami, it’s an approach that Dilfer think could benefit Tagovailoa greatly in the long run.
“I’m sure he’s dying to play. But sometimes I think the tortoise approach is the best approach. It’s slow, it’s painful, it’s frustrating, but if you handle it well, it’s very fruitful at the end,” Dilfer said. “You forget he’s coming off of that hip injury. Yes, he’s healthy. Yes, it’s not gonna be a long-term thing.
“However, the more it gets to rest, the more it gets conditioned in practice, the more he can learn to play on schedule in practice, the safer that’s gonna keep him when he starts playing again so I like this approach. Now, I don’t think it’s the whole year. I think Tua’s too talented to stay on the bench the whole year.
“However, if he does, Carson Palmer, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, there’s some examples of guys that stayed on the bench the whole year and ended up having immediate success once they played so I like it. I know he’s probably frustrated. I try not to bug him with it. I don’t think he needs my rah-rah speeches right now. He’s got good people around him. But I do think we’re talking about it and I will say this: Tua is primed to have a 15-plus year Hall of Fame career. I do think he’s not just that player, but that presence. This might be the best way to get that kicked off.”