When Jim Tulette, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound offensive lineman from North Torrance High, arrived home from his fourth trip to a college campus, he knew where he wanted to continue his football career.
He had narrowed his choices to Arizona, Cal, Brigham Young, Hawaii and USC, the universities he visited.
And when his stepfather picked him up at the airport two weeks ago, Tulette said simply, "Aloha."
Why would the Ocean League lineman of the year, an all-area and all-CIF selection three times and a recipient of the National Football Foundation's scholar athlete award this season, choose a school separated from the mainstream of college football by miles of ocean and prestige?
Tulette said he knew next to nothing about the island until his 48-hour stay. In fact, he said he thought it was just going to be "a bunch of huts and palm trees."
But what he found mesmerized him.
'Part of a Family'
He said the atmosphere at Hawaii was like no other school he had considered. Unlike some campuses, he said Hawaii gave him the feeling of being at home.
"They made me feel like I was part of a family. I met some of the players and they were really serious about being friends.
"It wasn't just an act to make me want to go there."
And family is important to Tulette.
He shares his Torrance home with his stepfather, mother and sister and his aunt and her two children. Another aunt and a grandmother live around the block.
Sure, playing time was a concern. Before he narrowed the field of choices, he researched the schools that sent him literature.
He has a briefcase full of letters and a three-foot stack of media guides--his "keepsakes"--stored in the garage, which doubles as his weight room.
Tulette, who has a 3.2 grade-point average, studied those letters and books, paying strict attention to the teams' depth charts, trying to figure out where he might fit in next season.
"There's no guarantees wherever you go," he said of possible playing time as a freshman. "If a coach tells you that, well that's something you should watch out for. But if you go to a big school, you might not get a chance to play."
That was one thing that tipped the scale toward Hawaii.
Shortness Deterred Some
Tulette, nicknamed Magilla Gorilla by his high school teammates, said he thought his height, or lack thereof in comparison to many of today's standout lineman who are 6-5 or taller, scared off several colleges.
But he said most of Hawaii's lineman are his size or, according to him, "shrimps." And he said the depth chart showed only one other player at center, the position he will be playing.
"They told me how much I could help the program. That's important to me. I'm not someone who can just sit and cheer them on."
Of course, he said Hawaii's climate was enticing, tipping the scale even further in Hawaii's favor.
But he repeatedly returned to the feeling of family as the deciding factor.
"The people were what I wanted to see," he said. "When you're going to be someplace for four or five years, you have to ask yourself if you can live there and be happy.
"Even though it's far from home, it will be like being home because of the family atmosphere."
His stepfather, John Cain, said he offered no advice to Tulette except that he should pick a school he liked.
'Knew He'd Go There'
"I might like a school for one reason, but it might not be right for him," Cain said. "He's got to live with it for five years. And he's 18, so I think he's old enough to make his own decisions.
"But when I heard him say how the people at Hawaii treated him like a brother, I knew he'd go there. He's been raised in a family tradition, so that would be close to what he's used to."
And attending Hawaii offers Tulette an opportunity to rekindle the memories of perhaps the most influential member of his family, his grandfather Arthur Woods.
Woods, who spent 23 years in the Navy and died about three years ago, was aboard the battleship West Virginia during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The bond between Tulette and his grandfather was intense.
Woods was the first athlete of the family, said his daughter Candie, Tulette's aunt. She said her father was a quarterback in the Navy, enjoyed crew racing and was a heavyweight boxing champion in the service.
"Jim just worshiped my father," she said.
Toward the end of Tulette's freshman year, Woods was dying from a congenital heart problem.
"He was 75 and he was going to die," Tulette said, seemingly fighting back a flood of emotion. "But I said, 'Make it to 76.' "
The next year Tulette requested the number 76 instead of 55, which he had worn as a freshman.
"I wore 76 the next year and he made it to 76. It's been my number ever since. I can't have it at Hawaii, but I'll get it as soon as possible."
Once Tulette was sold on Hawaii, he then had to sell himself to the school.
He said the night he got back, the recruiter called and asked him if he was sincere about wanting to attend Hawaii. That's when he said the pressures of recruiting were most intense.
In fact, the day before he signed his national letter of intent, the recruiter called him and asked him if was certain he would be happy at Hawaii.
Despite the family atmosphere of Hawaii, Tulette said he will miss the real thing. But he said he will visit as often as he can, even though flying is not one of his favorite pastimes.
"It's real hard for me to leave, but you have to leave home sometime.
"And you may think it's (football program) nothing compared to a BYU or a USC, but if you go there and meet the people, you'd know why it had to be Hawaii."