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The story of John Henry Wise, the first Native Hawaiian college football player in 1892

john henry wise football.jpg
Oberlin College Archives/Hawaiʻi State Archives
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John Henry Wise at Oberlin College around 1892.

Here's a story about John Henry Wise, a kid from Kohala who is believed to be the first Native Hawaiian to play college football. Around 1892, Wise was being coached at Oberlin College by none other than the legendary John Heisman. Wise went on to live an incredible life as a Hawaiian politician and an educator.

Historian Ron Williams came across his story while researching Christian churches in the islands. Williams shared why he believes Wise deserves a place in the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.

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On Wise's education at Kamehameha, and eventually at Oberlin College

RON WILLIAMS: He was taken as a 19-year-old. This young kid from Kohala went to Hilo Boarding School, and that's where he was educated. His final principal at the boarding school was Rev. William Brewster Oleson. Oleson became the founding principal at Kamehameha School for Boys. And so when he took that position of founding Kamehameha Schools, he took his brightest students with him. So John Wise came into that first class of students at Kamehameha. Around that time period, the leaders of the church, especially the white leaders of the church — when you talk about that institution, the Hawaiian Evangelical Association, most people think of it as a haole institution. It was an American church, and it was these white guys, and so forth. But it was actually tens of thousands of native Christians throughout the islands, kind of running their own churches, but there was a white board in Honolulu that was the administration. That administration started to get involved in politics. Several of them were actually involved in writing the 1887 Bayonet Constitution, which took power from King Kalākaua. And so the church had started to fight back, and the members did a number of things, including start to leave the churches of the American Protestant mission for other churches: Catholic churches, the Anglican churches, and so forth, Mormon churches. And they started to fight within their own churches against their white board. So these sons and grandsons of the first missionaries were looking for someone to lead Hawaiians back into the church. They knew they couldn't do it so they were looking for a Hawaiian.

They saw this young, articulate, boy John Wise and said, "He's the guy for us." And so they raised funds among themselves. They sent him to Oberlin College, a missionary college in Oberlin, Ohio, near the Great Lakes. He went at 19 years old, across the ocean to a different country, to San Francisco, California, and then took a train across the United States to Oberlin. We have a whole slew of letters that he wrote home from Oberlin that are just heartwarming, and also pretty funny. He writes one letter where he says, "Please send more money, I need more long underwear. It's freezing in the Great Lakes." But he does his training, he is faithful. He writes home about how he can't wait to come home and serve the Lord in a proper way.

wise oberlin.jpg
Oberlin College Archives
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1892 Oberlin football team with John Heisman seated farthest left in the second row, and John Henry Wise seated in the second row, second from right.

On the 1893 Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom being a turning point for Wise

WILLIAMS: He's there into 1893 and he gets news of the overthrow from the men who sent him, from Castle and Cooke, and these guys. And so he's concerned and he writes a beautiful letter home where he says, "I so love America, and I love Oberlin for giving me this education, but my heart belongs in Hawaiʻi." And he comes home to Hawaiʻi. And these administrators are setting up to send him around the country and, to be honest, tamper down discontent over the overthrow in the churches.

And he said, "Okay, I'll go on your mission. But first, I gotta go see my mom." So he goes back to Kohala and goes to church, the only church in Kohala. And he sees the consternation of the church, and he sees how the pastor is preaching pro-annexation, anti-monarchical rhetoric in the pulpits — and the people aren't having it, they're rising up to kick out the pastor. And he goes to another church, and he sees the same thing. And very quickly, he comes to an understanding of what's going on, and he starts to side with the loyalists. The gentlemen who sent him and spent the money on his education are furious — "We just trained you to come back and serve us." So he gets cut off from the mission and becomes quite a royalist: gets arrested in 1895 supporting Queen Liliʻuokalani and goes to prison and just starts this — first half of his life was that involvement in politics, that education, so forth. And that just springboards him into this really incredible life as a politician, as an athlete, as all of these different things.

On his success as a football player

He's one of the guys that starts the football team there at Oberlin, and they're pretty horrible. They win two games and lose five, and they're just kind of goofing around. And his second year at Oberlin, 1892, there's a gentleman that shows up and says he used to be a student at the University of Pennsylvania. And he says, "I played football at Penn and I'm out of academics now and I want to coach." They say, "Well we can't afford to pay you." He says, "I'll coach for free." He starts to coach the football team. He's a brilliant football mind, introduces all these new things. The team becomes one of the best teams in the U.S. I found articles in Berkeley newspapers and so forth talking about the great Oberlin football team with John Wise at its head. So this kid from Kohala, Hawaiʻi, becomes a football star in the U.S. Their last games, they play two of their final games in Michigan, and they defeat Michigan and they defeat Ohio State. And they had this huge bonfire back at the school for John Henry Wise. Again, it's just a celebration of this kid from a different nation, far out in the middle of the Pacific as a football hero. Now back to his coach. His coach became quite legendary. His name was Johann Wilhelm Heisman — John Heisman. So that Heisman Trophy that's given away every year since 1935 to the best college football player in the nation — John Henry Wise played for him in his first coaching position at Oberlin.

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John Henry Wise celebrating Kamehameha Day

Click the listen button for more. This interview aired on The Conversation on Feb. 28, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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