Circuitous Route United Gilman With Irish OhanaBy Denise Skwarcan
Alohi Gilman’s path to Notre Dame was anything but straight.
Growing up on the North Shore of Oahu, the senior safety and Irish captain was surrounded by a half dozen siblings, surfing, football and a tight-knit community. Occasional visits to family in California and Utah were nice, but the mainland wasn’t quite like home.
“You don’t really recognize these things until you leave but obviously for me and for people who were raised there it’s very family-oriented, and I’m big on family,” Gilman noted. “It’s a very close group out there and everything is done out of love. We’re people who just take care of each other regardless of whether I know you or not, and that’s one of the biggest things I really appreciate.”
So, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion Gilman would travel far to continue his academic and football career. Luckily for Gilman – and Notre Dame – the Hawaiian native ended up in northern Indiana.
Here, he found another family — or Ohana — one that supported him and even named him one of seven captains of this year’s squad. But not before he made a detour and then almost let another local football player unknowingly determine the rest of his collegiate journey.
“I don’t know if being named captain validated my decision to come here, but getting the honor of being named captain is pretty huge and something that I’m grateful for,” Gilman said. “I think my validation is just being part of this team in general and being a captain and all that is just extra.”
Through nine games, Gilman is tied for third on the team with 52 total tackles to go with two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. Last season, in his first year of eligibility at Notre Dame, he accounted for 95 tackles, good for second on the squad, with five pass break-ups, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.
His importance to the Irish defensive scheme is clear, but coming out of Kahuku High School in Laie, Gilman didn’t attract much attention. So, he opted for a collegiate football career that had a military commitment attached to it.
“I wasn’t very recruited out of high school,” Gilman explained. “I didn’t have a lot of offers although there were some offers from Div. I-AA schools. But my parents couldn’t pay for college so Navy was the best option for me. It had a great education on top of a career that was very appealing to me, something where I had a future and would be able to provide for my family.”
As a rookie at Annapolis in 2016, Gilman started in 12 of the Midshipmen’s 14 games and finished second on the team in tackles, second in pass breakups and second with two fumble recoveries. For just the fourth time since 1963, Navy won a 28-27 thriller versus Notre Dame that year with Gilman leading the defense with 12 tackles.
All was going well until the following spring when there was a policy reversal for service academy players who wanted to pursue the NFL. Instead of having the five-year active-duty commitment deferred while playing professionally, players such as Gilman would have to serve their country first. Eventually, in June 2017, Gilman decided to transfer.
“I enjoyed my freshman year there although it wasn’t without its own challenges and struggles,” Gilman recalled. “It was definitely an experience and it changed me. It molded me into the man I am today.
“So that was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I had such a huge opportunity there, which was hard to let go. The guys that I left there are honestly some of my best friends, and I still talk to them to this day. You build a lot of relationships and leaving them was a hard choice.”
With family living on the West Coast, it appeared as though Gilman was destined for USC, particularly since Gilman was adamant about the fact that he had no intention of spending any time in South Bend. Still, Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian, who has cultivated a relationship with the high schools in Hawaii, knew about Gilman. While head coach at Nevada, Polian had pursued Gilman a little although he never extended an offer, and he remembered the damage Gilman had done against the Irish in that loss the previous fall. Eventually the two reconnected, and Gilman decided to visit campus.
“I thought that because (former Notre Dame standout) Manti (Te’o) was from my hometown and he’s a good friend, someone who I grew up with … it was just this weird thing,” Gilman started to explain. “I just wanted to create my own legacy, you know? I didn’t want to go to the same place as the Hometown Hero, but rather do my own thing. That’s where my thought process was, but obviously things changed.
“There were a lot of things about (Notre Dame) that were appealing to me. Personalitywise this place was a better fit for me. Obviously, there was school and football was great and overall I just felt really comfortable with the people here and where the program was going and how it related to my overall growth.”
Unfortunately, Gilman’s growth on the football field had to wait another season. His waiver claim for immediate eligibility was rejected by the NCAA one week before the start of the 2017 season and, while he was named Scout Team Player of the Year on Defense that year, it was a tough adjustment for Gilman.
“I felt like I could have contributed so that was something I struggled with that year,” Gilman said. “But it also just kind of humbled me because it makes you appreciate the game a little bit more. So, the next time I was able to go out there and play I was just more appreciative that I was able to go out there and play.”
In January of this year, things were moving along well for Gilman. He’d had a successful season the previous year in which the Irish had an undefeated regular season and advanced to the College Football Playoff semifinals, and he was recovering from an abdominal injury. Then he received a letter signed by “six military veterans and college football fans” who criticized Gilman for transferring from Navy. It read, in part, “We must express utter contempt for you and your educational and career decisions over the past couple of years … and how do you thank our great country for giving you a chance to serve? You spit on the flag and transfer because you believe you can make the NFL quicker.”
“I tried not to put too much thought into it just because people have their own opinions and they’re going to say what they want,” Gilman said. “But I was pretty shocked, honestly, and I think it had a greater effect because it was typed out and mailed to me personally. You also get a lot of cool letters, as well, from fans and young kids who look up to you but to get a letter like that … it was a different experience.”
Regardless, Gilman never doubted his decision for a moment, and it was further reinforced when the team named him a captain.
“It means a lot, mainly because I get to represent my teammates and those guys are the reason that I play each weekend and work so hard day in and day out,” Gilman said. “So, being named a captain by those guys is pretty special.”
Gilman’s heart will always long for family and the beaches of the North Shore and Ted’s Bakery, famous for its cream pies and plate lunches among other things. But Gilman also has adjusted well to life thousands of miles away from home where he has found another family, most of whom have probably never touched a surf board — let alone used one — or even know what a plate lunch is. He hasn’t given any thought to whether or not he’ll return next year to exhaust his final year of eligibility, and instead is concentrating on the season at hand and enjoying any time he has left in his home away from home.
“Next season will take care of itself when it gets here,” Gilman said. “I’m just focusing on my team and what I can do to be the best teammate for them.
“But it’s been great. It’s been a different experience. Experiencing the Midwest is different but I think it’s been really special and something that I’ll carry on with me to my next chapter.”