Editor’s note: This story was modified to reflect Kaeo Drummondo graduated from Kamehameha-Kapalama.
When the possibility first occurred back in 2015, Kaeo Drummondo responded sensibly.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Drummondo had been the defensive coordinator at Hilo High School for head coach Dave Baldwin since 2011 and, combined with his full time job as police officer, his days and nights were stuffed full.
When Baldwin was suspended early in the 2015 season, about 10 days before a preseason game against Punahou, somebody had to be the head coach. A number of decision-makers at the school began casting glances at Drummondo.
“My first thought?” he said the other day reflecting on that time. “My first thought was, ‘No way.’ I had a job and I spent a lot of time coaching after work, I couldn’t see how it could happen.”
Decisions needed to be made. The first few hours grew into a day and another day. Drummondo figured, okay, he could fill in for the season and get through the year, somehow.
“I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “I never thought I had the time to fit everything in, there were things I knew I didn’t even know about that I’d have to do, but at the time, we just couldn’t find another route to go, the school was in a tight spot.”
Drummondo took over and now, just two calendar years and three football seasons later, you can hardly imagine a better fit.
This year, the Hilo High School Vikings broke the proverbial glass ceiling for state of Hawaii prep football, advancing to the HHSAA Division I state championship game Saturday against Damien.
Bookmark this one, it’s a rare level of achievement. The Vikings ran off a 19-0 second half against Maui for a 26-7 victory in the semifinal game, breaking a streak of 19 attempts by BIIF teams to advance at states, six of the fruitless encounters involving Hilo.
That first season, the Vikings managed a 7-4 record and reached the first round. A year ago, they were 8-2 with another quarterfinal loss and this season it has been 9-1, a three-year record of 24-7, improvement each year.
Drummondo was asked what it all means, not for him, but for the bigger picture of high school football on the Big Island. His head dropped down a moment, then it popped back up. He had a solemn look on his face.
“People are excited. It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “You know, it’s all been a learning process, a new approach for all these kids. I still have a lot to learn.
“I never knew I would love doing this as much as I do, especially here,” said the Hawaii native. “I love football, it’s been a part of my life since I was seven years old. This is an opportunity for me to try to present this game and what it can mean to all these players.”
A Kamehameha-Kapalama graduate and a two-year, undersized linebacker at Santa Rosa Junior College, Drummond returned to the Big Island, finished up his degree at Hawaii Hilo and was able to get a Masters in criminal justice in online courses.
“In a way, I guess I hope they can be like me,” he said of his players. “For me, football kept me out of trouble, it kept me wanting to play the game. Football kept me wanting to keep my grades up, to do a little more than the minimum just to not lose the chance to play football.
“I’m like a lot of these kids,” he said. “I grew up in a low-income household, it wasn’t always easy, you had to figure some things out for yourself. If we can make this game, this experience, as good as it was for (Drummondo and his coaches), well, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
It’s a watershed moment for a guy who couldn’t picture himself being a head coach three years ago and who can’t picture not being a head coach today.
He chatted in a dark room with a small desk off to the side of the practice field at the school. Outside, as his team was stretching and loosening up for practice, soft reggae music filled the air.
“Give it a few minutes,” he said, “once they get a hold of it, we’ll be hearing rap.”
And it did take just a couple minutes before it started.
“What did I tell you?” Drummondo said with a knowing grin.
He knows this team, and they know him. Even as he struggled with the concept of taking over three years ago, Drummondo and the rest of the coaching staff were looking ahead to this year.
“When we first came here in ’11, we started looking forward,” he said, “and it wasn’t long before we saw the core of this senior class and really thought it was going to be a special group. We weren’t making predictions or anything but we thought this team would have a chance — if everything went right as far as not losing people with injuries or whatever — to be a really good team.”
This is not your typical football coach, unless you know of others who work a full community policing shift from the morning until the afternoon, and then becomes a full time head coach of a high school football team.
“It’s very hard to balance,” he said when asked about the time crunch on police work and football. “I thought when I started if I could get through the first year I’d figure out ways to manage the time better, that it would get easier. If anything, I keep finding more football related), things to do, both jobs are so time consuming, it’s a challenge.”
Practices require preparation time — what drills, when, for how long? There are administrative duties as the head football coach, the school and others send emails and texts. Oh, and then there’s a full time job that pays the bills.
Most of all though, there’s those kids, their goals and a dream of a local cop to, in some way, show them all how to love the football experience.