The First Native Football Player

John Henry Wise. Photo courtesy Hutchins family

John Henry Wise. Photo courtesy Hutchins family

When former Pearl City football player Les Hutchins first saw the list of the inaugural class of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, he was impressed. Hutchins is part-Hawaiian himself, and he admired the names of Gouveia, Mawae, Seau, Wedemeyer, Kreutz, Thompson and Niumatalolo.

Hutchins hopes another name is listed in a future Hall of Fame class: his great-grandfather’s. Hutchins knew for years all about his great-grandfather’s achievements in the church and politics, and in the Native Hawaiian language community. But what he didn’t know was that John Henry Wise, former territorial senator, pastor and creator of the Hawaiian Home Lands Commission legislation, also was the first-ever Native Hawaiian to play college football.

“I had no idea until three years ago,” says Hutchins, who played lineman at Pearl City High School back in the ’70s and now lives with his family in Mililani.

His great-grandfather, half-German and half-Native Hawaiian, was born and raised on Hawaii Island in the late 1800s and became part of the first-ever class at Kamehameha Boys School. In 1891, Wise was on the first Kamehameha baseball team. “They called it the ‘Championship Nine,'” Hutchins says. The great-grandson proudly carries a copy of the photo of that team in his phone.

A theology student, Wise went to the Mainland, where legend has it he survived a lightning strike. As he worked out in his attempts to fully recuperate, he was recruited onto the Oberlin College football team that was coached by John Heisman. Yes, the very same Heisman after whom the trophy later was named.

Oberlin was a juggernaut in those early days of college football, and Wise became one of its biggest names. Game accounts report he “was able to run with three men on his back without noticing the extra weight.” Oberlin beat Ohio State twice that season by scores of 40-0 and 50-0. Michigan was the powerhouse measuring stick then, and Oberlin beat them, too, 24-22, in a game that is disputed to this day. Michigan’s archives say the final score was 26-24 in its favor. Accounts of the game say that Oberlin left the field at a designated time to catch a train, as agreed upon, but after they left, a local official put more time on the clock and Michigan scored an uncontested touchdown. Wise was considered one of the stars of that game, regardless of how it was finally recorded.

Back home in the Islands, Wise sided with Hawaiian Royalists during the period of the overthrow and was imprisoned. When he got out, he helped found Ka Makua Mau Loa Church, which always has done all its teachings in the Hawaiian language. By 1920, Wise was a territorial senator and is credited, along with Prince Kuhio, for pushing the Hawaiian Home Lands Act through Congress. A few years later, he became a teacher at Kamehameha and then a professor at University of Hawaii.

“When he passed away in 1937, they named Hawaii’s football field after him,” Hutchins says. John Henry Wise Field, which is long gone, stood near where the amphitheatre is today.

Wise’s legacy in local athletics lived on for years. His son Bill was a football all-star for Otto “Proc” Klum at UH, and Bill later coached his own athletic sons to many victories at Kamehameha. And more descendents, including Hutchins, became excellent athletes in their own right.

“I’m so proud of him; we all are,” Hutchins says. “I hope he gets a chance to make the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.”

With a life story like the one belonging to Hawaii’s John Henry Wise, it seems he deserves consideration for many Halls of Fame.