O‘ahu in 1937: Barefoot Football Season Opener Draws 15,000
This uniquely Hawai‘i adaptation of America’s rising pastime was played without pads and substituted slick ballhandling, shifty moves and multitalented stars in rolled-up dungarees. Totally homegrown and loosely organized, its inclusiveness and popularity would be the envy of local sports teams today.
Racing past a ref toward a touchdown.
Football tends to feel inescapable at this time of year. But as the college and professional playoffs march onward, football also becomes a more corporate, gladiatorial and supersized spectacle. The product we see on screens large and small usually takes the form of gigantic, heavily padded, anonymous players in massive on-field pileups, sandwiched between interminable advertisements.
It’s all a little dispiriting. But, excerpts from our October 1937 issue remind us, there was a time when Hawai‘i could boast a unique version of football—a version more free, creative, less militarized and much less brutal.
An excerpt from October 1937
As far as is known, Hawai‘i is the only place in the world where football is played in bare feet, under official American football rules. Several well-organized leagues are in existence on all the larger islands. These barefeeters play during the same season that their brothers with shoes play. Barefoot football apparel consists of denim or khaki trousers, uniform jersey, while an occasional helmet and shoulder pad is worn. The feet are absolutely bare except for a few patches of adhesive plaster.
The football season in Hawai‘i was officially opened on September 18 when McKinley High School defeated last year’s champion—Roosevelt High School—6-0, before about 16,500 spectators. Barefoot football made its official start on September 19 when over 350 shoeless gridders participated before crowds estimated at around 15,000.
The attendance of 15,000 is quite respectable given that this year’s University of Hawai‘i game against Utah State barely drew 21,000 fans to Aloha Stadium.
Barefoot football gets regular mention in Paradise of the Pacific throughout the 1930s. Thanks to weight limits, speed, sleight of hand and shifty footwork carried the day, along with barefoot drop-kick field goals. Adults and teenagers played together on teams sponsored by the Pālama Settlement, local sports distributors and others: a mix of average Joes, many of them cannery, dock and plantation workers, and high schoolers.
On a personal note, I first heard about barefoot football from my father, who spoke of it fondly as a marvel and true example of sporting aloha.
When Dad first came to Hawai‘i in 1946 as a Navy lieutenant, his executive officer put him in charge of sports and recreation for the fleet. He took the existing Navy football teams—each ship fielded at least one, which played tackle in pads—and led them on tours of the Islands, where they’d play a tackle exhibition and then take off their shoes and pads and, he said, inevitably lose to the locals. It made for fine times and a lasting bond of friendship in a period when military and civilian men were often at odds.
I would grow up in California playing barefoot football with my family. And when the time came to transition to pads in high school, I would never again feel quite as fast or as free.