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Chad Hanaoka: Northwestern’s smallest player and biggest difference maker

The junior running back is never without a smile.

@chad.hanaoka on Instagram

The sun hadn’t even risen outside, and all the eyes in the locker room bore into its smallest player — 5-foot-7 “on a good day” even though the media guide lists him at 5-foot-10 — as he walked toward his locker, giving the room a colder feeling than the early January temperatures outside.

What was the video guy doing in the locker room? Even more puzzling: Why did the video guy have a locker?

“That was probably the most nervous I’ve been in my entire life, because everyone knew my face but they didn’t know what I was doing in there,” he recalls. “I felt this burden like I really had to prove that I belonged out there.”

That was the start of Northwestern running back Chad Hanaoka’s first day as a member of the football team, but that wasn’t his indoctrination to football. Not even close.

Chad, (left) with older brother Kyle (middle) and younger brother Troy (right)
@chad.hanaoka on Instagram

The Hanaoka family, all born and raised in Honolulu, held football season tickets to the University of Hawaii, the only college or university in Hawaii with a football program and the alma mater of both of Chad’s parents, Wayne and Terri. Chad was watching the then-Rainbow Warriors in person as early as “three or four,” Terri says, and by the time he reached grade school, he was hooked.

“I really loved to play during recess, so that’s kind of where it all started,” Hanaoka says, a wistful grin coming to his face. “I was with that group of friends that were better than most kids, and so it’d be five of us versus like 20 of our other friends during recess.”

Hanaoka’s love for football grew leaps and bounds, even if he only grew inches. Terri stands at 5-foot, Wayne 5-foot-4, and Chad’s brothers 5-foot-4 and 5-foot-2. At 5-foot-7, Hanaoka doesn’t have the typical height of a star football player. But he has a heart and desire to play that are bigger than just about anyone’s.

Submitted by Chad Hanaoka

Football has deep, deep cultural roots in Hawaii and the Polynesian area. The University of Hawaii has fielded a team since 1909. Samoans and Tongans are 28 times more likely to play in the pros than any other ethnic group, according to the 2015 documentary “In Football We Trust.” The state of Hawaii itself is home to — among several others — 2014 Heisman Trophy winner and current Tennessee Titan Marcus Mariota (Hanaoka’s role model), former Notre Dame standout and current San Diego Charger Manti Te’o and former Pittsburgh Steelers superstar Troy Polamalu.

Still, the state is catching up to “the mainland” in terms of recruiting, even though there’s a plethora of talent in The Aloha State. It’s hard, after all, when you’re 2400 miles from California.

“I think the Division I schools around the nation are beginning to recognize the talent we have here,” Wendell Look, head football coach at ‘Iolani School, where Hanaoka went to school, says. “And they are beginning to come and see really what the kids in Hawaii can do. They’re gonna find that the kids in Hawaii are very hardworking, they’re very loyal, they’re very dedicated, and they’re tough kids. They bring that toughness to a program.”

Hanaoka was one of those kids. In sixth grade, he was finally able to join his first Pop Warner league. The only problem? His age group had already filled up, so he would have to play with older kids. He just barely made the minimum weight limit.

But he exceeded the “love for football” limit.

“I think during that season that was his first experience of tackle football, and he broke his wrist,” Terri says. “But he would be the type, if they wanted someone on the scout team to be the running back to carry the ball, he’d volunteer, even though he knew he was gonna get tackled.”

In seventh grade, Hanaoka was able to play for ‘Iolani at the intermediate level, made up of seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders; there was no junior varsity. In 10th grade, he was yanked up to varsity, and ‘Iolani won the Interscholastic League of Honolulu (ILH) and Division II state championships, but Hanaoka played just sparingly, getting in on just a handful of plays.

After several wide receivers ahead of him graduated, though, Hanaoka was in the spotlight as the starting slot receiver as a junior. He responded in a big way, catching 66 passes for 724 yards and 10 touchdowns. ‘Iolani captured the 2012 ILH and state championships once again, with Hanaoka reeling in three touchdowns in the latter.

“He’s a little undersized, so he had to make up for that in his pure heart and desire and his work ethic,” Look says. “He was an impact player for us in the slot, one of our go-to guys when we needed plays to be made.”

If he wanted to continue to participate in the sport he loved, though, he would have to somehow make a blip on the recruiting radar. And it would have to be self-made; he was never going to have college coaches making the trip to watch him.

“I had a great year and I was like, ‘Alright hey, I’ll send out emails to a bunch of schools,’” he says. “I honestly just looked at the list of top academic schools, and I was like, ‘I’ll just email whatever coaches I can, and whoever gets back to me gets back to me.’”

One of those schools was Northwestern University. And even though the player personnel staff got back to him the next day ready to discuss walk-on opportunities, Hanaoka was nowhere near becoming a Northwestern player, or even a Northwestern student, for that matter. Not then, at least.

Submitted by Chad Hanaoka

By the time senior year rolled around, Hanaoka was in talks with various colleges, and he was ready for a big year. He was honored as a team captain before the season, and for good reason.

“He’s very true to his character,” Look says. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about him. He is who he is. A lot of people say they’re gonna do this and they’re gonna do that. Chad not only says it, but he does it.”

But the successful career-culminating season Hanaoka had worked so hard for wasn’t in the cards. ‘Iolani had graduated its quarterback who had won three state championships in three years, and Hanaoka battled injuries throughout the year, still playing as much as he could.

“He went all out all the time,” Look says when asked out his favorite memory of his former slot man. “And a lot of it was his body wasn’t made to take that kind of grind. But his heart and his mind were so strong that he was able to play hurt a lot. That’s what really impressed me, that he was able to overcome the physical pain and let his will take over.”

As a senior, Hanaoka appeared in 10 games, catching 56 passes for 511 yards and six touchdowns. ‘Iolani won the ILH title but failed to win the state title for the first time since 2006. Still, Northwestern stayed in touch, and Hanaoka kept sending recruiting assistants Chris Bowers and Cory Nicol highlights and transcripts in the hope that he would make an impression.

“When I applied to Northwestern, I didn’t receive any help from the football program, so I had to really get in on my own, because I wasn’t a highly-touted recruit or a highly-touted walk-on,” Hanaoka said. “It was really on me to get into Northwestern if I wanted to have this opportunity of playing for the ‘Cats.”

The story has a happy ending, but this wasn’t it.

Over his spring break during his senior year, 2013, Chad and Wayne visited colleges across the country to compare campuses and meet coaches and staffers. Chad had applied to Northwestern without having seen the school or even talked to Pat Fitzgerald. In fact, he had only communicated electronically with the Wildcat recruiting staff, not even the coaches. The father-son duo’s trip included stops at Northwestern, Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard and Princeton. Over that weeklong stretch, though, he received two important messages. One, from Harvard, was a rejection letter; he wouldn’t be headed to Cambridge in the fall. The other, from Northwestern, came to his house back in Honolulu. He instructed his mother not to open it, the same instructions she had received for all Northwestern-related mail.


With the same spirit he had shown from a young kid on the football field, Hanaoka did anything he could to improve his chances of achieving his dream. Hanaoka contacted a teacher at ‘Iolani who was a Northwestern alum asking for a letter of recommendation. He personally sent a lengthy email to the admissions office explaining why he wanted Evanston to be his college destination.

“He’s such a determined kid, and he’s always been like that,” Terri says. “Whenever he does something, he does it with his whole heart, and he puts his whole heart and soul into it. So when he wants something, he’s gonna go get it.

He even started his own hashtag, #WildcatDream.

It was seemingly to no avail. He was still waitlisted on May 1, dubbed “National College Decision Day,” when his parents put the deposit down. It was the end of the line for Hanaoka’s dream to play Division I football. He was safely accepted to Division III Washington University in Saint Louis with a spot on the team awaiting. There are worse second options. Hanaoka would get considerable playing time and enter one of the nation’s top research institutes. It wasn’t his dream, but it wasn’t the end of the world, either.

Chad (far right) with his family in Hawaii
@chad.hanaoka on Instagram

Chad Hanaoka remembers May 3, 2014 as if it were yesterday.

He remembers sitting in economics class.

He remembers his phone ringing and a familiar contact popping up.

He had to take the call, he explained to his teachers and classmates.

He had been accepted into Northwestern University.

“I was literally jumping for joy, almost in tears when I got the news,” Hanaoka says.

Then came the decision, a hard one for several reasons. First, there was the issue of playing time. Wash U had the advantage by a mile. Then there was the issue of money. Wash U had the advantage there, too: a deposit had already been placed and financial aid granted. It had the measurable advantages.

But Northwestern was the dream, and you can’t measure a dream. He could go from the tiny kid who broke his wrist in his first tackle football league to a Division I athlete. Eventually, Northwestern ended up offering comparable financial aid, too.

“We kind of left it up to him because financially we could handle it, so if he wanted to go for it, we didn’t want him to have any regrets,” Terri says.

“After a long talk with my parents and a lot of prayer as well, I decided Northwestern was where I wanted to be,” Chad says.

His #WildcatDream had come true.

Chad in front of the Technological Institute on the first day of classes, 2015
@chad.hanaoka on Instagram

Hard work is a trait that comes at varying levels. Everyone can work hard when the time calls for it — a big game, the night before a test, a particularly inspired workout. But not everyone is a hard worker — self-motivated to give full effort every day. Often one becomes a hard worker early in life, taking after their parents’ example. Chad Hanaoka is one of those people.

Wayne and Terri Hanaoka were both born and raised in Hawaii. Wayne dabbled in wrestling and surfed — as most Hawaiians do — and Terri was a cheerleader. They are both mechanical engineers who, through incredible diligence, were able to put all three of their children through 13 years of schooling at ‘Iolani, a private school with a yearly tuition upward of $20,000. Their now-Northwestern junior credits them for his incredible work ethic.

“From the beginning, it’s been about working hard,” he says. “If it’s something you want to do, if it’s a goal of yours that you wanted to achieve, they’ve just always taught me to just go for it. Work your butt off and have fun with it, but at the same time, with success comes the importance of being humble through it all.”

Perhaps the most humbling of moments came when Hanaoka was informed he wouldn’t be able to join the football team as a true freshman. Because all walk-ons must be accepted to the school before they can be formally accepted to the team, Hanaoka being waitlisted left him on the outside looking in. Per NCAA rules, teams can only have 105 players on the roster before the first game or the first day of class, whichever comes first. Ever the optimist, Hanaoka found a way to contribute.

“When I got here, they told me, ‘We don’t have room on the roster, so we’re gonna have you on the video staff. So you’re gonna be videoing practices, videoing games and then once the season’s over, we can talk about joining the team.’”

He gladly accepted the role and even asked for, and received, a weight-lifting regimen from the strength and conditioning staff. From there, his dedication would be put to the ultimate test. Unsurprisingly, he would pass with flying colors.

“Practice would start at like eight, and I’d get here with some of the players — I’d catch a ride — and I’d get here at six and get a workout in,” he said. “And so I worked off of that program and I’d work out, I’d video practices and go to class. I was just a normal video person who liked to work out a lot, and some people saw me as that. They didn’t realize I was gonna walk on.”

Chad singing with Ian Park (far left) and Garaham Bullmore (obscured) on drums
@NUFBFamily on Twitter

Evanston is 6840 miles, five time zones, and an average 30 degrees Fahrenheit from Honolulu. At first, for Hanaoka, it may as well have been a different planet.

“Back home there were things I could say to people that were acceptable and then I came up here and realized quickly — my friends would tell me ‘dude you can’t be saying that,’” Hanaoka says. “Back at home, everyone’s ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie,’ everyone’s hugging each other, holding the doors open, just these small little things as opposed to here, people always have something to do, somewhere to be, people to see.”

But being so far away had its benefits, too. In middle school, Hanaoka had grown close with his Christian identity. Despite joining the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school, he admits his commitment to his faith wavered at times. It was a diffident relationship at best. But that’s not who Hanaoka is. He’s all in or nothing. In college, he decided to be all in on his faith. So he joined Athletes in Action, an interdenominational Christian student group that features Bible studies and includes several of his teammates.

“They’ve helped me through some really tough times in my personal life and my spiritual life,” Hanaoka says. “I’ve been truly blessed.”

Through an entire freshman year of “freezing [his] butt off’ while filming practices and games, getting up two hours before practice to work out in hopes of getting a walk-on spot for the 2015 season, all while nearly 7,000 miles away from home, he kept the faith.

“I think being on video made me realize how much I love this game, because watching it and having just to video it, video practices and video games, it made me really miss it, miss the game,” Hanaoka says. “I think for me, it validated my initial intentions of wanting to play here. I wouldn’t trade my experience on video for anything. As much as I missed football that year, I think it was all in God’s plan for me.”

Chad crowd surfing at Northwestern Dance Marathon, 2016
@chad.hanaoka on Instagram

After the 2014 season had concluded, Hanaoka went up to talk with Bowers once again. Would it happen? Would Chad Hanaoka, all 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds dripping-wet of him, finally officially join the football team?

The answer was yes.

Just days later, he walked into the locker room and was subject of the stares. Yes, that was the video guy. But now he was the ex-video guy. As soon as Hanaoka got to the field and began stretching with the team, he realized he had no clue what he was doing. He was finally doing the exact stretches and warm-up drills he had filmed for months, and he was clueless. Luckily, superback Dan Vitale came to the rescue, the veteran star helping the walk-on on his first day.

Not much later, Hanaoka was part of a push-up contest in the weight room. He was working out in the same room he had spent countless before-dawn hours in, except this time he was among his teammates, the same teammates who had stared questioningly at him just that morning.

“I was doing my pushups and I did, I want to say 60 or 70-something pushups, but towards that last 20 reps I was struggling,” he recalls. “I was trying to push through it and then all these players that came rushing in saw me struggling through it, and they all rallied around me and were cheering me on. I’ll never forget that day. It was an incredible moment for me, because it was my first day working out with the team and a lot of them knew me as the video guy, didn’t know me personally, but they all rallied around me and were cheering me on.”

A year and a half after he had intended to participate in his first practice, Chad Hanaoka was on the football team.

In a loaded backfield, Hanaoka embraced his role as the scout team running back last season, working his way back from a training camp MCL tear to rejoin the team after a Week 4 win over Ball State.

“When I came back, I had a blast on scout team,” Hanaoka says. “Scout team was a lot of fun and I learned a ton about myself as a running back and about footwork and reading blocks and reacting to blocks.”

“He’s a guy that has filled a million roles behind the scene,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald says. “It’s not Chad the ballcarrier, it’s Justin Jackson the ballcarrier. But at practices, it’s Chad the ballcarrier, because he’s in there taking scout team reps. He’s doing his thing. Unbelievable guy. Unbelievable.”

Chad and Terri post-game in Evanston
@chad.hanaoka on Instagram

To say most people had turned off the Outback Bowl by the time Chad Hanaoka hit the field would be a major understatement. The score, after all, was 45-6, and there were eight seconds left. The backups (and the backups’ backups) had come in for both teams. But after Tennessee kicked off, the Wildcats had to come onto the field and run one more offensive play to officially end the game.

“It was surreal,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I did everything right and I secured the ball, got positive yards — got two yards, which was great. It was an experience that it kind of flew by really quick. I wasn’t so much nervous, I was like, ‘Man, this is what I’ve dreamed about, getting in the game like that.’”

But perhaps the most impressive thing about Hanaoka is that he has been able to manage his football responsibilities while majoring in biology on the pre-med track and being involved in a plethora of off-field responsibilities related to his academic course load.

Outside of class, football and Athletes in Action, Hanaoka is a member of the team development committee for Northwestern’s Relay for Life, which is part of the American Cancer Society. He’s the Vice President for External Affairs and Communications for Northwestern’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes. He’s also active in serving youth in the community.

On top of that, he’s working on a new initiative: Wishmakers on Campus. It helps “to raise funds for Make-a-Wish to allow them to continue to grant wishes for children with rare medical conditions or life-threatening medical conditions.”

Combining his love for children and medicine, Hanaoka’s post-graduate plans are to go to medical school and eventually become a pediatrician.

“A lot people don’t like going to the doctor, but I love my doctor so much, because he would just share all of his wisdom with me and his guidance and encourage me to continue doing well in school and in sports,” Hanaoka says. “That’s the kind of doctor I want to be for kids. Someone that they look forward to going to, who really cares about them. I think that for me, there’d be nothing more rewarding than see a little baby boy grow to be kind of where I am in my 20s. To see that transition and that growth and to help nurture it along the way would be everything I’d hope for.”

On paper, Chad Hanaoka may never account for more than two yards as a Northwestern Wildcat. But the impact he’s made on his teammates, his coaches and his community, as well as the impact he’ll one day make on hundreds if not thousands of young lives, is immeasurable.

Chad embracing quarterback Clayton Thorson after Northwestern defeated Stanford to open the 2015 season
@chad.hanaoka on Instagram