Inside the meandering journey that has Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman ascending

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The most beguiling facet of Alohi Gilman’s twisted reunion with his former Navy teammates, Saturday night in San Diego (8 EDT; CBS-TV), isn’t the actual fights in spring practice he used to have with Mids star and still close friend Malcolm Perry.

Or the emotions Gilman has fed instead of bridling as No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) tries to clear the haunting hurdle that is Navy (2-5) and its vexing triple-option offense before the first set of College Football Playoff rankings of the season are floated out on Tuesday night for public consumption.

Rather, it’s how close this epic transfer, and the transformation that has ensued since, seemingly could have derailed at so many junctures for the Notre Dame junior safety.

Seemingly being the operative word here, because of how a multitude of those stark moments of truth now connect in the rear-view mirror and have the look of destiny.

Where it all leads from here is less discernable, but at the moment Gilman has ascended into the Tom Zbikowski of this generation of Notre Dame football — certainly not yet statistically or maybe ever potentially of the last Irish safety to pull in All-America honors (2005 and 2006).

But from a toughness standpoint they’re twin souls. From elevating his teammates’ confidence. From exacting standards he keeps raising for himself.

From a vision Notre Dame’s third-leading tackler wouldn’t let go of, even when branded a two-star high school prospect and his best post-Kahuku (Hawaii) High offers appeared to be South Dakota, Weber State, home-state University of Hawaii and the Naval Academy Preparatory School.

“He wants to go to the NFL,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said earlier this week when asked about the player who was the Mids’ second leading tackler in 2016, as a freshman.

“It’s been a dream of his.”

And it may have been a dream that Gilman continued to pursue in a Navy uniform if not for an about-face by the U.S. Department of Defense in May of 2017.

The previous spring, the Department of Defense opened the door for graduates of the military academies to apply to defer their active service and be able to play professional sports upon graduation — a policy of which former Navy QB Keenan Reynolds took advantage.

Roughly a year later, the department reversed field and closed the loophole. and Gilman opened his mind to a different path.

Once Gilman decided to explore a transfer, the 30-minutes-plus phone conversation with Niumatalolo was excruciating for him. The Navy coach grew up in the same Hawaii hometown (Laie), knew Gilman’s mom, Keawe, since childhood, and vehemently believed Alohi was making a mistake.

So did Gilman’s father, Asai, initially.

That made the call home an even more difficult one.

“I ran football camps for years when Alohi was young,” Asai said. “And from my experiences, and the coaches and players I had gotten to know, the NFL to me stood for ‘Not For Long.’

“But Alohi gave me the analogy that he wasn’t going to be happy in his life if he was sitting at a desk or even leading 200 to 300 people, and one night he flipped on Monday Night Football and knew deep in his heart he could have been playing in that game.

“My wife and I always instilled in our kids from the get-go that you’re destined to do great things, because you’re special. So how could I argue when he said, ‘I want to test my skills to the highest, and given the chance, I want to step out.’

“Even when I came to see it through his eyes, transitioning out of Navy was a rough idea, because we didn’t even know if there would be a market for him.”

As it turns out, Gilman’s freshman season had created an impressive market, with USC and Michigan being the most persistent suitors.

Notre Dame got involved, because the Irish coaches had seen Gilman make a game-high 12 tackles against the Irish in a 28-27 Navy victory in 2016, because then-new defensive coordinator Mike Elko thought Gilman was better than any returning or recruited safety on the ND roster, and because of special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s longtime recruiting roots in Hawaii.

On paper, it seemed like a great fit, especially when it came to the football tradition and the matching 4-for-40 recruiting mantras ND head coach Brian Kelly and Niumatalolo use as calling cards.

In reality, Gilman had to warm up to the idea of ND, especially in light of a losing record by the Irish in 2016, and Kelly’s staff and philosophical overhauls that followed.

It was on his official recruiting visit that Gilman faced one of those pivotal moments of truth.

“I wasn’t a high school recruit, so they couldn’t get me with the stadium and the gear and all that,” he said. “Obviously, it was all great, but I hit them with some real questions.

“How is this program looking?

“What are you guys doing to be better than 4-8?

“Those are the kind of type of questions and the conversations I had with the coaches here. and so it was definitely an upfront conversation. I definitely felt comfortable here. and I felt like the program was going in the right direction.

“So did some of the people I talked to.”

Old Laie neighbors and former Notre Dame players Manti Te’o and Robby Toma were among the voices that aligned with Gilman’s gut feelings about Kelly and his reboot. So were Asai and Kwawe, who accompanied Alohi on the visit.

“Like Alohi does, as parents we feel first when making a decision,” Asai said. “Although it’s important to think through and analyze, we needed to feel the integrity of Brian Kelly and what he was preaching.

“The college football business is rough. Just having the care and the love that you feel the coach has for your son is important.

“We wanted to know beyond football, are you a true human being? Do you care about and love the people you coach? That’s important to us, and I think that was important to Alohi, at the end of the day.”

A year and a half before the decision to come to Notre Dame, Alohi stood at a different crossroads. A much darker one, or so it seemed at the time.

Because of a pretty logical set of circumstances — and not an instance of a young man perpetually looking for the emergency exit — Notre Dame became the sixth institution Gilman attended in a six-year stretch.

No. 4 in that run was the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., between Kahuku High and his freshman year at Navy.

Roughly 75 percent of the players on the Navy roster make particular this rite of passage that acts as a built-in redshirt year for those who advance, and weed-out process for those who don’t.

The Naval Prep School plays mostly a junior college schedule, with no communication or direction from the actual Navy football program during that time.

“It’s sort of a bare bones experience and quite challenging,” Asai said. “I didn’t realize it until we actually came out for a game. We didn’t get a chance to take him there when he enrolled. I mean, he just hopped on a plane and left.

“The induction part, getting dogged and some of those experiences, never ends. There were times he called home and said, ‘This isn’t for me.’ and when he finally came home after graduating from there, it was very emotional, because it was as if he’d been to hell and back.

“But I’m glad he stayed, because it was life-changing. He was like, ‘Ain’t nobody going to punk me through this experience.’ The chip on his shoulder grew, and he channeled into getting better. and it heightened his game and put him on the path that you see now.”

So did having to sit out a year, in 2017, when Elko bolted for Texas A&M seven months after Gilman arrived. and sitting out the entire 2017 season when Navy objected and the NCAA agreed that immediate eligibility shouldn’t be an option.

So did growing up in a household with six siblings, ranging in age from 25 to 6; growing up in a neighborhood steeped in Pacific Island traditions and culture — and ultimately success; riding the massive Oahu North Shore waves fearlessly as an aspiring surfer before football took over Giman’s long-term vision.

So did a boy whose faith accompanied him — sometimes even carrying him — through waves of a different kind — uncertainty.

“I still have a lot to learn,” Gilman said. “I have a lot of visions and goals that I want to accomplish. But all of those movements and changes and obstacles I have in my life is the reason I’m here … the reason I am the person I am today.”

Alohi Gilman celebrates a big stop in a win over Pitt.

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET, SDCCU Stadium, San Diego

TV: CBS

Radio: WNSN (101.5 FM), WSBT (96.1 FM, 960 AM)

“I still have a lot to learn. I have a lot of visions and goals that I want to accomplish. But all of those movements and changes and obstacles I have in my life is the reason I’m here … the reason I am the person I am today.”

Notre Dame safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman