'It's been a long haul': UH welcomes back football fans after nearly 2 years
Hundreds of excited and elated fans came to the lower campus of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Saturday night. It was the first time since 2019 that fans got to watch their Rainbow Warrior football team play in person at the new Clarence T.C. Ching Athletic Complex.
The Rainbow Warriors played their old Western Athletic Conference rivals New Mexico State for the second time this season.
For longtime UH fans, it was a sign of normalcy, but also a new experience.
"I'm really happy that we're back here at the Ching complex," said UH football season ticket holder Rick. "It's really a nice facility. I hope they never move it. This is the best location for UH football — right here on campus."
For Tanner Artiburcio, he says he believes having fans in attendance would give the team a much needed boost.
"First game back is pretty exciting. I think for the guys it's like a restart button, set the tone for the rest of the season," he said. "So if there's more fans coming, that will be great."
Season ticket holders and students weren't the only ones happy to attend the game. Families were glad to finally see their son or sibling play at home.
"We've been traveling a lot for his last campaign," said Dean Kapoi, father of senior defensive end Alema Kapoi.
He says the last 18 months have been pretty tough for him and his wife.
"We went to UCLA, Oregon State, went out to Reno. So it's good to be able to see him play at home with his brothers and sisters."
Like many Hawaiʻi fans, Kapoi has seen and noticed packed stadiums across the continental US. But he says he understands the delay and the safeguards that were put in place.
"I think our culture protects our people first. So I totally get that," he said. "But when you see everybody out in NFL games, and stuff like that, it's pretty crazy. Nobody's wearing masks. So I'm glad that we still have vaccinations, and I'm glad that we're still masking up [and] social distancing."
Security was tight at the game.
Only 1,000 fans were allowed at the 9,000-seat stadium. Attendees must be fully vaccinated, and use the university's health app in order to enter the game. People around the complex couldn't loiter or gather, and only water was available for purchase and consumption.
For Kapoi, he says he was okay with the requirements and rules.
"Whatever we got to do to watch him play on the field at home," he said. "I don't mind the checks, we do it at work. So I'm fine with that."
For head coach Todd Graham, it was the first time he called a game in front of Hawaiʻi fans. Despite having coached in big stadiums in previous jobs at Arizona State and Pitt, he said it was a special night.
"It's been a long haul," he said. "Probably one of the strangest things where last year, being in an empty stadium — especially Aloha Stadium — was really strange. I think it's a completely different game.
"I was very grateful that we had our family and friends here tonight. And it was great to see. I mean, just to see people smile and excited and cheering — because that's what it's all about."
For some UH players, having fans in attendance made a difference.
"Having fans in the stands is amazing," said running back Dedrick Parson, who scored three touchdowns against the Aggies. "I did have some family in the stands that were cheering me on, that I did see and take pictures after the game. Something that I missed during the COVID years is being able to see my family."
For senior defensive back Khoury Bethley, having fans at the game is significant for new players who haven't played in front of loyal UH spectators.
"It's nice for them to be able to see that, and just see the energy that the fans can bring out there," Bethley said. "Definitely looking forward to having more fans, but we're blessed to have people in the stands today, and . . . they had our back today, and we're just looking forward to the future."
UH President David Lassner told HPR the university is in contact with state and county leaders, and hopes to have more fans in attendance at future games.
The Rainbow Warriors beat the Aggies 48-34 Saturday night, with the help of a loyal fanbase.
The team's next home games are against San Diego State on Nov. 6 and Colorado State on Nov. 20.