by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

HONOLULU — Are you sitting down? Good. Let me break your heart.

Let me introduce you to your daydream, your fantasy, the thing you should have done when you were 18 years old and you realize only now, as you shovel three feet of snow from around your Plymouth Horizon.

Let me give you Joe Piccola.

Linebacker, University of Hawaii.

“Hi,” he said, “how ya doin’?”

This was Wednesday, the day we arrived in Hawaii to cover the Michigan-Hawaii football game. We took a cab straight from the airport, straight to Hawaii’s football field, where the team was practicing. It was late afternoon, but the temperature was still in the ’70s, and it felt good to be rid of my down jacket, and I am only saying “good” instead of
“fantastic” because I don’t want you to rip up this newspaper in frustration.

Not yet, anyhow.

You see, there we were at the field, with the mountains in the background, and the runners lazily circling the track, dressed in shorts and no socks, and the skies were vast and the air was clean and the women were pretty, even the ones on the track team, and I was suddenly filled with the reaction one would expect.

Why had I never applied to this school?

And then I asked whether anyone on the team was from Michigan, someone clearly smarter than me, and I was told yes, one player, a linebacker from Plymouth named Joe Piccola.

And I waited for him after practice, in the stands, and finally he came out, wearing a tank-top and flip-flops and baggy shorts, and he said, “Hi, how ya doin’?” and then he sat down, hugged his shoulders and made a face.

“It’s kinda cold out here,” he said.

Couldn’t you just slap the guy?

WE ARE TALKING about volleyball and wind surfing and golf and water skiing. That much Joe Piccola admitted to in the first five minutes. Weekends at the University of Hawaii — unlike my college — are not made for Michelob only.

“But hey,” he said, “it’s still going to school. It’s still classes and studying. It’s not all beach and girls, like everybody thinks.”

I looked at his muscular 6-foot-3 frame and his tan arms and legs and figured it may not be all beach and girls, but he probably didn’t have many problems visiting either one.

“What do your friends back home think?” I asked him, after he told me he had been a wrestler at Plymouth Salem High School.

“They think it’s like unreal,” he said, laughing. “Sometimes when I call them in the wintertime and I tell them that we just came out of the pool or something, it’s like ‘Man, we don’t even want to talk to you any more.’ “

I can understand that.

See, Piccola took the route we all should have taken. Coming out of Michigan, he decided to try college in California for a couple of years. Orange County College in Costa Mesa, which is not far from Los Angeles or Disneyland, assuming there is a difference.

Then, after two years in the Golden Land, he chose Hawaii from the list of interested recruiters.

Go west, young man. Isn’t that the expression?

“Give me an example of something you guys do when you’re not studying,” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, thinking it over, “OK, like we might fly over to Maui for the day. It’s only $35 to fly from here. Did you know that?”

No, I said, I didn’t. It doesn’t come up often on Lafayette Boulevard.

PICCOLA WAS SCHEDULED to play against Michigan Saturday, although not as a starter. “That would have been my dream,” he said.

“I grew up watching Michigan. Every Saturday I hung around Ann Arbor at that stadium. I never thought about going there, because I wasn’t a football player then.”

He surveyed the mountains, disappearing with the sunset, and shrugged. “At least here you don’t have to worry about coming out of class and getting hit in the face with slush,” he said.

No, I said, I guess not.

“Anyhow, I’m really hoping next year is my year,” he said. “I hope to start then.”

Next year?

Oh yeah. I forgot to tell you.

He’s only a junior.

I thanked him for his time, and he went on his way, in his flip-flops and baggy shorts, and now, as I write this, I am thinking about him, and I never wish anybody harm, but I am looking at my plane ticket and the return date is very close and the weather back in Michigan, from what I am told, is terrible, which is normal, and I don’t think I can control myself, I really don’t, and so I feel compelled to print this next remark:

I hope Joe Piccola does so well in his classes, they make him graduate early.

There. I said it and I’m glad.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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