On the path to college football history, Dillon Gabriel encounters his hero

November 10, 2023

NORMAN — You can’t tell the story of the college football zeitgeist in the mid-2000s without Colt Brennan.

At Hawaii from 2005-07, the 6-foot-3, touchdown-slinging quarterback was the engine of an offense that lit scoreboards, torched records and catapulted the Rainbow Warriors, a program with only 15 bowl game appearances since 1952, to the top of the college football landscape.

All told, Brennan won 23 of his final 27 starts at Hawaii. In 2007, he powered the program’s first-ever undefeated regular season and took the Rainbow Warriors to the Sugar Bowl. Brennan finished as a Heisman Trophy finalist twice in his three seasons in Honolulu. His 131 career touchdowns still sit fourth all-time in college football history.

Put simply, Brennan put Hawaii football on the map.

“He was like a phenomenon,” said Bobby Curran, who spent 32 seasons as the voice of Rainbow Warriors football. “Colt was more popular than any player in Hawaii history.”

At the same time Brennan was defining college football for a generation in the nation’s 50th state, there was a kid 20 miles away who wanted to be just like him.

This particular island boy was awed by Brennan’s arm. The quarterback’s dyed hair — blonde everywhere, except for the outline of the Hawaiian islands left dark brown — captivated him, too. Someday, he dreamed of running out of the tunnel at Aloha Stadium with the marching band blaring “Hawaii Five-0”, just like Brennan did.

Nearly two decades later, the memories are still fresh to Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel.

“I remember Colt would have his orange practice jersey on at Hawaii, throwing by the mountains at the UH practices,” Gabriel said this week. “I don’t know. He was just inspiration.”

A place in history

Gabriel steps into his 47th career start this weekend with 13,851 career passing yards. Against West Virginia Saturday at Owen Field (6 p.m., FOX), a prediction Sooners offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby lobbed in August could finally come true.

“This is a guy that if he can stay healthy, I’d like to think he’s going to finish as a top 10 passer in the history of college football,” Lebby said. “That’s something that matters.”

Indeed, Gabriel is on the precipice of history. OU’s fifth-year passer needs 343 passing yards against the Mountaineers to hit 14,194 on his career tally. When he gets there, he’ll pass Brennan’s 14,193 to enter the top 10 of the NCAA’s all-time career passing yards list.

Gabriel has exceeded that single-game mark 11 times, including five in two seasons with the Sooners. If he fails to reach the top 10 on Saturday, Gabriel will almost certainly get there at BYU on Nov. 18. Soon, he’ll be on the heels of Washington State’s Luke Falk (14,481), OU’s Baker Mayfield (14,607), Boise State’s Kellen Moore (14,667) and BYU’s Ty Detmer (15,031).

None of those names resonate with Gabriel quite like the one he’s chasing down Saturday.

Brennan and the high-flying offenses he operated helped color some of the earliest pages of Gabriel’s college football story that began at home in Hawaii. As early as this weekend, the Sooners quarterback will soon eclipse his childhood hero in college football history.

“I knew about it (growing up),” Gabriel said of the Red River Rivalry last month. “But I was too busy sitting at Aloha Stadium watching Colt Brennan sling it.”

‘I always wanted to get there’

To know what Brennan’s career meant to Gabriel is to understand the cultural presence the Hawaii quarterback carved across his three seasons in college football.

“Boy, did he capture the imagination of this sport when he was playing,” Curran said.

When Curran, a native of Long Island, New York, arrived at Hawaii in the early 1990s, he would play pick-up basketball with a quarterback on campus named Garrett Gabriel.

Like Brennan, Dillon Gabriel’s father led a Hawaii offense that took opposing defenses by storm. Like his son, the elder Gabriel didn’t possess standout speed, but had a knack for getting himself out of trouble.

“He had some elite escapability,” Curran said.

Midway through Curran’s second decade broadcasting Hawaii games, Brennan arrived on campus at the perfect time.

By 2005, Rainbow Warriors coach June Jones had sharpened his version of the run-and-shoot offense Tiger Ellison and Mouse Davis pioneered before him. Brennan, who followed current Hawaii Timmy Chang under center, was the ideal fit for Jones’ next evolution.

“Colt was a playmaker,” Curran said. “He never gave up on a play. Sometimes he’d run around for eight, nine seconds before he threw the football. It was crazy stuff.”

Crazy … and wildly successful.

Brennan’s 4,301 passing yards and 35 touchdowns led the nation in his debut season at Hawaii in 2005.

The next fall, he paced the country again with 5,549 yards and 58 touchdowns that stood as an NCAA single-season record until Joe Burrow tossed 60 at LSU in 2019. Brennan’s 2006 season was good enough to earn him a sixth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy vote and set the stage for a much-anticipated 2007 campaign.

Brennan’s numbers dipped in his final college season, but the Rainbow Warriors soared.

While Hawaii’s quarterback landed fourth nationally in yards and touchdowns, and finished behind only Florida’s Tim Tebow and Arkansas’ Darren McFadden for the Heisman, the program rolled to 12-0 and a date with Georgia at the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, 2008.

Never before and not once since has Hawaii football ever been bigger.

“It was a blast,” Curran said. “2007 was probably the most fun I had in college football.”

Gabriel absorbed it all.

“It was just an inspiration, motivation,” he told reporters this week. “In Hawaii, that was our pro team.”

Still in elementary school, Gabriel’s football dreams were already alive by the time Brennan arrived on the scene. And in the Hawaii teams the gunslinging quarterback led, Gabriel had a surging college football program to satiate his passion for the sport just miles down the road.

As the son of a former Rainbow Warriors quarterback, Gabriel often found himself on the sideline at games and practices. His earliest tastes of major college football were of Jones dicing opposing defenses, wide receiver Davone Bess tearing up visiting secondaries and Brennan’s passes sailing through the night represented his first tastes of major college football.

They still linger with him today.

“I remember going into the locker room and being able to see them,” Gabriel said. “… I always wanted to get there. I always wanted to play a high level of football. I always wanted to be playing college football.”

Hero to contemporary

No matter where the Sooners finish in 2023, Gabriel will close his fifth season — expected as his last in college football — among the most accomplished passers in the history of the sport.

In front of him still on the all-time passing list are the likes of Marshall’s Rakeem Cato, Brennan, Falk, Mayfield and Moore; all of their career yardage totals are in range for Gabriel.

Accounting for three remaining regular season contests and a bowl game, Gabriel would need to average 295 yards per game to eclipse Detmer and finish sixth all-time in the category.

But first, on this Saturday or some Saturday after it, Gabriel will officially pass Brennan in the NCAA’s record books. It’s not a feat the Sooners’ quarterback has ever expressly chased. Still, there are layers to what the accomplishment will mean to him once he’s reached it.

After his brief run in the NFL, Brennan suffered from illness and addiction in retirement through to his death from an overdose in the spring of 2021. Fentanyl, methamphetamine, amphetamine and ethanol were all found in his system at the time of death.

Gabriel carries gratitude for having been lucky enough to catch Brennan’s run vaulting Hawaii to the top firsthand.

“I think it would be surreal (to pass his record) just because I once saw him,” Gabriel said. “I saw him in the flesh. And then him passing away obviously is just tough. But you know, I got to see it all.”

Those childhood memories remain central to what tethered Gabriel’s love for college football and influence the way he carries himself today as OU’s quarterback.

If you’ve ever spotted Gabriel hand a piece of equipment to a young fan after a game, it’s because Gabriel was once that kid, too, chasing down whatever prized possession he could come up with around Hawaii’s facilities.

“I was a little sucker for wristbands or a towel,” he said.

One particular wristband — an “Under Armour tribal” wristband, Gabriel explained — still hangs in his mind.

“I’d have it in my room forever — right on my nightstand,” Gabriel said. “I remember I put it on and I’m like on the street playing I’m like, frick I’m a college quarterback.”

“I don’t forget things like that,” he continued. “And although I’m a competitor and get after it, I try to just hold myself to a high standard because I know people are either looking up to me or watching because I once did it.”

Once an admirer of Brennan’s career, Gabriel is now a historical contemporary.

If he passes his childhood hero Saturday, it’ll be the latest touchstone in a dream Gabriel could have only imagined as a kid, back when he was busy sitting at Aloha Stadium watching Brennan sling it.

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