By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
March 16, 2005. The main headline of the Honolulu Advertiser’s sports section that morning read, “Players believe records ‘juiced’” – a reference to a USA Today survey about steroid use in Major League Baseball. Below that story, a secondary headline reported, “Winthrop tops Rainbows, 4-3.” And on the left side of the page, a smaller headline stated, “Baseball proves best for Kometani,” a lead-in to a profile on former Punahou pitcher Kea Kometani.
And on the far right side of the sports page? There it was.
“Junior college QB to walk on at Hawaii.”
Stephen Tsai’s lead paragraph read, “Colt Brennan, a highly regarded quarterback with a controversial background, will accept an invitation to join the University of Hawaii football team as a non-scholarship player for the coming season.”
With that, Hawaii football fans were introduced to arguably the greatest player to ever wear a Rainbow Warrior uniform. Of course, no one could have predicted what was to come. No one imagined Brennan shattering NCAA records, leading UH to the Sugar Bowl, and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy Race. Indeed, as sportswriter Mike Lucas observed, Brennan was a mere afterthought heading into the 2005 season – “one of a handful of ‘no-names’ in the hunt to replace the legendary Timmy Chang, the NCAA’s all-time leading passer.”
Brennan’s path to Hawaii, and to college football stardom, was strewn with bumps and obstacles. The 6’3, 210-lb. Newport Beach, California native played football and basketball at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. As a junior, he served as the backup to Matt Leinart, who would go on to win the 2004 Heisman Trophy and lead the USC Trojans to the BCS national championship. In the 2001, with Leinart off to USC, Brennan got his opportunity to shine. He led the Monarchs to an 8-5 record and a spot in the CIF Southern Section playoffs. Brennan finished his high school career with 2,079 passing yards (65.6% completion percentage) and 13 touchdowns. He also earned an invitation to play in the Orange County Football All-Star Game.
He reportedly received a scholarship offer from Utah State, but decided to attend Worcester Academy in Massachusetts for a postgraduate year. Brennan started seven games for the Hilltoppers, passing for 1,707 yards and 15 TDs.
In the spring of 2003, Brennan enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he had ties to Buffaloes offensive coordinator Shaun Watson. The expectation was that Brennan would redshirt in the fall, then compete for the starting QB position in 2004.
Then came the events of Jan. 28, 2004.
Shortly after midnight, an intoxicated Brennan entered a woman’s dorm room and allegedly fondled her until she was able to escape. Authorities arrested him and, just a few days later, Buffaloes head coach Gary Barnett dismissed him from the team.
The incident occurred during a time when the school’s football program was under scrutiny for alleged recruiting violations. Player hosts were accused of supplying prospective recruits with alcohol, drugs and sexual favors.
For his part, Brennan denied touching the woman, but admitted, “I was drunk, and I was wrong. I probably wasn’t being a gentleman, and I made a mistake.”
In 2005, he would tell the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s Dave Reardon: “I don’t think I touched the girl. The only thing I know is that night I acted inappropriately and didn’t leave when I should have.”
On Sept. 16 of that year, a Colorado jury found Brennan guilty of unlawful sexual contact. The jury acquitted him of indecent exposure and criminal attempt to commit sexual assault. Brennan reportedly collapsed into his attorney’s arms as the verdicts were read.
Brennan faced up to 12 years in prison. However, the conviction was later vacated because of shaky evidence. Brennan wound up serving seven days in jail and was placed on four years’ probation.
Looking to return to football, Brennan returned to California and enrolled at Saddleback Community College (the same junior college that produced future Hawaii basketball great Anthony Carter). The freshman put up big numbers for the Gauchos, passing for 3,395 yards and 30 TDs in 12 regular-season games.
Ready to put his legal difficulties behind him, Brennan was ready for a fresh start. But there were few offers. The Syracuse coaching staff liked him and prepared to offer him a scholarship on National Signing Day in 2005, but the school’s administration nixed that idea after learning of his troubles at Colorado.
Finally, there was the University of Hawaii.
Entering his seventh season as Hawaii’s head coach, June Jones was a big believer in second chances. In 1999, he offered a scholarship to San Diego prep standout Pisa Tinoisamoa, who had been sentenced to 270 days in jail after being convicted of felony assault. At Hawaii, the talented linebacker blossomed into an All-WAC performer and later played eight seasons in the NFL.
“That was a big point when they were recruiting me,” Brennan would later tell Reardon. “They told me about Pisa and how this could be the right place for a second chance.”
Five weeks after announcing his intention to join the Hawaii program, there was some speculation that Brennan might renege on his commitment. Brennan took an official recruiting trip to San Jose State, where his cousin, Brent Brennan, was an assistant coach. (Note: Brennan is now the program’s head coach.)
The Spartans’ head football coach at the time was former UH coach Dick Tomey.
“We were very interested in Colt,” Tomey later recalled. “June and his staff did a great job of recruiting him.”
Brennan turned down the scholarship offer from SJSU and reaffirmed his allegiance to the Rainbow Warriors.
“Without a doubt, I’ll be a Warrior,” he said.
When Brennan arrived in Manoa, there was no guarantee he would be named the starting QB. Redshirt freshman Tyler Graunke had spent the previous season learning the offense under Timmy Chang, and the UH coaches declared him the No. 1 QB heading into fall camp. Undeterred, however, Brennan began to climb the team’s depth chart. Jones told reporters that both Graunke and Brennan would see action in Hawaii’s season opener.
The 2005 season’s first opponent? The No. 1-ranked USC Trojans and Brennan’s high school teammate, Matt Leinart.
“We used to be best friends in high school, but we went to different schools and started our own separate paths,” Leinart told Stephen Tsai the week of the game. “But I’ve followed his career and kept him in mind through the ups and downs, and to see him playing again is great. I’m very proud of him. Who would have thought I’d get a chance to play against him in Hawaii?”
Brennan told a Los Angeles Times reporter that Leinart had always been very supportive of him, even after the Colorado incident.
“Matt was the second or third person to call me,” he recalled. “He was like, ‘What’s the deal?’”
Not unexpectedly, the game was a complete mismatch. The defending national champs walloped the home team, 63-17. Graunke started the game, but Brennan saw plenty of action, completing 21 of 32 pass attempts for 250 yards and a TD. Brennan’s first score as a Rainbow Warrior was a third-quarter 27-yard strike to running back Bryan Maneafaiga.
The game was over, but the greatest era in Warrior football was just getting started. More importantly, after a long and arduous journey, Colt Brennan had finally found a home.
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