Aloha Sports Hawaii Fans! Periodically we will catch up with a Warrior athlete of the past. If you have a favorite athlete you would like us to catch up with, send your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For three seasons, from 1989 to 1991, Hawaii fans were electrified by all-purpose back, Jeff the “Silk” Sydner. Sydner brought excitement to Aloha Stadium from his roles on offense (used as a receiver and a running back) and special teams. There has never been a more versatile and exciting player in Warrior history.
Over the last decade, many records for Hawai’i have been broken in large part because of Hawai’i spread offense. It is a testament to Sydner’s talent and importance to Hawai’i’s offense at that time, that Sydner’s 1,958 total all-purpose yards remains at #1 in Hawaii’s record book. Considering that Hawai’i’s offense during that time was primarily run first, Sydner’s record becomes even more impressive. In 1990 alone, Sydner rushed for 390 yards (7.0 ypc), received for 820 yards (17.4 ypc), returned kicks and punts for 748 yards, and had a team leading 12 touchdowns.
Sydner’s impact during his playing time here remains entrenched in Hawaii’s record book with two of Hawaii’s Top Ten seasons for all-purpose yards.
Never before, and perhaps not until Chad Owens arrived at Hawaii, would Hawaii fans be so captivated with a simple punt or kick return. Aloha Stadium would erupt in gasps and “Oohs” when Sydner received the opening kick and made his first move to daylight.
As a Junior in 1990, Sydner was nominated for the Heisman trophy. As luck would have it, BYU’s Ty Detmer would win the Heisman Trophy the day they played Hawaii at Aloha Stadium. Throughout Hawaii’s thrashing of BYU 59-28, 45,000 plus Hawaii fans roared, “Sydner should have got it! Sydner should have got it!”
Four years ago, Hawaii fans across the state breathed a sigh of relief, and perhaps let out a cheer, as Hawaii’s Heisman Candidate Colt Brennan announced he would stay for his Senior year. Most Hawaii fans also remember that scenario had played itself out 16 years earlier with a much different result.
Sydner was again on the Heisman watch list as a returning Senior. Unlike Brennan however, Sydner chose to leave early for the NFL. It was crushing for many Hawaii fans when Sydner left Hawaii after just three years.
Jeff Sydner is still many of Hawaii fans all-time favorite Warrior. During his time here, Sydner and his fellow Warriors laid the foundation for Hawaii to become a competitive, nationally recognized program. Never before, and not for another decade, would Hawaii have a true game changer like Sydner.
Fans have always wondered, what would have happened if he stayed for his Senior year? Hawaii finished the year after he left 11-2 and ranked #20 in the Nation. Would they have gone undefeated? What would his numbers be like in Hawaii’s current offense? Six hundred yards rushing, 1,100 yards receiving, and 700 yards in returns in a single season seems possible…
Sports Hawaii was able to catch up with Jeff in New Orleans, where he is currently a manager at Lowe’s.
Sports Hawaii: Aloha Jeff! Thanks so much for doing this for Sports Hawaii. We are sure that there a lot of readers out there wondering what you have been up to. Do you have a family?
Thanks Sports Hawaii, I am humbled to be remembered by so many back there in the Islands. I have my beautiful wife, Natevia, my oldest son, Jeff (18), my middle son, Christian (14), my youngest son, Quincy (18 months), and my beautiful daughter, Sydney (13). They are the greatest gifts I could have ever received.
Sports Hawaii: We have heard your eldest son, Jeffrey, is quite the football player like his dad. His highlight video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6BwCMepMNc . He appears to have size and speed. Has he shown any interest in playing for Hawai’i?
My son is going to be something very special, he has grown into his own the last two years. Jeffrey is a Senior corner for Seven Lakes H.S. In Katy, Texas. He will be quite the find for the college team that picks him up. I spoke with Rich Miano about him earlier this year. We have also been in contact with Colorado, Georgia and Penn State. He has great cover skills as a corner, good size, and a knack for hitting. As far as going to Hawai’i, I would love to have a reason to relocate to the Islands! Jeffrey will get a shot at the next level, and thus this is a very exciting time for him. I am so proud of him. He is a fine young man; very respectful, and a solid student.
Sports Hawaii: Speaking for the fans in Hawaii, we hope he gets an offer to play for UH. Coach Mac, are you reading this? How often have you been back to Hawaii since leaving? You mentioned to us you were going to visit early next year, when was that?
I have returned to Hawai’i twice since leaving, however I will always have family there. I am to this day, very close with John Veneri and his family: his dad (Pops), his mom, and his younger brother Mark, who I still call “Little Mark”. The Veneri’s are my anchor to what I still consider my second home. I will be returning to Hawai’i around April of next year with my wife and my youngest son. I really want them to experience first hand the magic of Hawaii and meet the second family which made it possible for me to survive so far from home.
Sports Hawaii: What is your fondest memory of Hawaii, not related to football. Any particular place to go or eat?
Off the field, I had a lot of great memories! One experience that really opened my eyes up to Hawai’i and the people there, was going to the Big Island and spending the day with John Veneri’s Grandparents (my Grandparents as well). It was one of the most special life experiences I have ever had. John and I shot a video of that trip, which I still frequently watch to this day for memory’s sake. The Veneri’s are some of the most caring and special people I have ever had the pleasure of Loving. Only they will know this quote, this is for Pops, “He’s Hurt!”. Pops, call me when you see this. LOL!
As far as food, L&L’s was by far my favorite place to eat. Lemon chicken, mac salad, and rice. I really was close with the owners of the one in Puck’s Alley; they kept my picture up on the wall even after I returned several years later. What a great feeling! John Veneri told me that they have since closed down. That broke my heart.
Sports Hawaii: All of us at SH remember that L&L and your picture on the wall very well… We are sure that beating Heisman Winner Ty Detmer and #4 Ranked BYU in 1990 was a memorable game for you, but is there another game that stands out for you?
The week before we played BYU, we played Colorado State and one of my favorite coaches, Earl Bruce. In the first half, I was tackled on a punt return and broke my ribs. I was sitting on the training table at halftime, and the athletic trainers were telling me that I shouldn’t go back in the game. I told the trainers to wrap me up, quitting was not an option. When I came out through the tunnel, I was stunned by the roar of the crowd and applause I was getting! Just….WOW! At that moment, I felt the fans appreciation. The Hawaii’i fans were all that I needed to keep me playing the rest of the game. My pain was a small price to pay for the respect I earned from my team and fans that day.
Sports Hawaii: Many of us were at that game, and we are happy to hear that our applause and appreciation for you helped you during that time. Do you ever regret leaving early for the NFL? A lot of Hawai’i fans were saddened by your early departure. How was your NFL experience for you?
I have no regrets leaving early. But, I am sure my response would be different if I had not made it! At that point in my life, I truly believed it was my time to move on. The success I had and life lessons I had learned while in Hawaii proved to be the key for me to make it in the NFL. Every year I had to weather a storm in the NFL, it was never a given I would make the team. My whole NFL experience was very stressful, but the most rewarding experience of my life. It’s a cliche, but the game of football prepared me for Life. The experience of playing and surviving at the highest level of football, indirectly made me a stronger leader. Being a store manager with Lowe’s, I realize now that my NFL experience prepared me to lead and develop others. I feel privileged that my experiences and life lessons can impact people daily in a positive way; teaching and managing my team is a very rewarding experience.
Sports Hawaii: Do you still keep up with Hawai’i Warrior Football?
Because of the time difference, I am usually sleeping when Hawai’i plays. Occasionally, when I have a bout with insomnia, I will watch one or two games. Surprisingly though, my staff at Lowe’s keeps me posted on Warrior Football! When Hawai’i came to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl I was able to catch up with a bunch of old team mates.
Sports Hawaii: When you played for Hawai’i you put up monster numbers in a run first offense. We can only imagine what your numbers would be like today in Hawai’i’s spread attack. Ever look at Hawai’i’s offense now and wonder what kind of numbers you would have put up?
No, not really…. My teammates and I took full advantage of whatever offense was given to us back then. I do know this, we put the ball in the end zone a lot.
Sports Hawaii: You played four seasons in the NFL, does that mean you are tenured and get a pension? Did you follow the latest NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement? Did it matter to you?
Yes, I can receive my pension as early as age 45, which is only 3 years away, can you believe that? I still feel like I am 20! I did not follow the collective bargaining too much, but I was pleased to see my retirement allowance was boosted as a result!
Sports Hawaii: Tell us your funniest story while at UH playing football.
LOL! I clearly remember one day at practice, Akili Calhoun was told to do some crab crawl drills. Akili was pissed about something and was throwing a fit. Akili took off his helmet, and threw his helmet half way to the moon! Akili then yelled at the assistant coach who told him to crab crawl, “NO, YOU CRAB CRAWL!” The assistant coach looked at Coach Ellerson (current Army Head Coach) for assistance and Coach Ellerson shrugged his shoulders and said, “ I suggest you get started”. No one could believe it, but the assistant coach started crab crawling.
Sports Hawaii: Akili Calhoun was one heck of a big and intimidating Warrior….. Did you know back then, or even now, how special you were/are to the Hawai’i football program?
It felt special back then, but at the time I never lost sight of my responsibility as a student athlete. I never saw myself as an individual and did very little without John Veneri, Darrick Branch, and Brian Gordon (who was my high school quarterback). My success was my teams’ success. We kept each other grounded.
Every now and then, it registers with me how blessed I was to have that kind of success while at UH. One day, my son called me to his room and said, “Dad I am so proud of you!” I said, “What’s up?” He pulled out his NCAA 2012 Play Station 3 game and said “You were so good you are on Hawai’i’s All-Time Team!” My heart swelled to see my son be able to attach himself to me in that way. It was cool knowing that I had served not only as a day to day father for him, but I had also given him something to be proud of. That moment brought tears to my eyes. I sure felt special then.