NORMAN — We all come from somewhere and Dillon Gabriel comes from Mililani, Hawaii.
The city of roughly 28,000 sits in the center of Oahu in Honolulu County. Fred Murphy, the principal at Mililani High School, will tell you it’s a small town within a small town on the island; a place where they care deeply for their own.
“It’s small-town pride when anybody from Hawaii goes across the water, goes across the Pacific Ocean and makes a significant impact somewhere,” he said. “To have a hometown hero? It’s even more special.”
It’s the sort of pride that lasts. The burning kind that compels a Division-I quarterback to donate time and thousands of dollars to the alma mater he left half a decade ago and the kind that prompted a principal and a high school athletic director to travel 8,243 miles round trip to surprise Gabriel in Norman on Saturday before Oklahoma’s Week 2 win over SMU.
“He was speechless,” said Joy Matsukawa, the Mililani athletic director the students affectionately call “Aunty Joy.”
“This is a big deal. We came to let him know the people from home love him. He’s a kid who took a risk to go to school thousands of miles away. We know that sacrifice.”
A few hours before Gabriel went 19-of-27 for 176 yards and accounted for all four of the Sooners’ touchdowns in the 28-11 win at Owen Field, the fifth-year quarterback was stunned on his way into the stadium.
Gabriel strolled down Lindsey Street and onto Jenkins Avenue a little more than two hours before kickoff in a gray suit, blue-and-white Jordans and leis that came from across the Pacific. In the sea of red that greeted the Sooners for the “Walk of Champions,” he saw fans, family members and a pair of familiar faces in an unfamiliar setting.
Murphy and Matsukawa logged some distance to see Gabriel’s jaw drop.
An early-season bye week in Mililani’s football schedule afforded them the opportunity to make the trip. Dori, Gabriel’s mother, took care of the game tickets. The 3,913-mile air trek from Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport to LAX to Denver to Oklahoma City is all it took to get them there.
Three connecting flights waited for Murphy and Matsukawa on their return trip home Sunday.
“Norman, Oklahoma, isn’t a spot you regularly make it to from Hawaii,” Murphy said.
Mililani High School principal Fred Murphy and lead athletic administrator Joy Matsukawa took three flights and traveled more than 2,500 miles to surprise Dillon Gabriel before Saturday’s game. (Eli Lederman/Sellout Crowd)
The journey’s stirring payoff came bottled in the pregame embrace the duo got from Gabriel and the feeling that washed over the Sooners’ quarterback in the home connection on the day he threw his 100th career touchdown.
“It was emotional,” Gabriel told Sellout Crowd following the game. “The sacrifice they made to come watch me play football, something I really love, is a testament to who they are and I’m grateful for them and all they represent of what that school is all about. That kind of surprise and seeing them? It’s been a long time coming and what we’ve built is super special.”
The moment landed so heavily on Gabriel because the love from Mililani to Norman runs both ways.
As much as the city he was raised in, Mililani High remains home. It’s the place where Gabriel sprouted as a promising quarterback prospect and lifted weights with teammates who had holes in their shoes and sometimes couldn’t find socks for football practice. His younger brother is still a student there. His father, Garrett is the boys basketball coach.
They’re the ties that bring Gabriel back to the campus where he slinks into classrooms to visit former coaches and teachers when he’s home, the ties that power the philanthropic drive he channels into the school that shaped him.
Every dollar counts at a school like Mililani High. This summer, Gabriel gave $8,000 dollars to the school and donated uniforms for its boys basketball, girls soccer and volleyball teams through a partnership with Nike, using name, image, likeness to outfit programs that often struggle to raise funds. Gabriel has plans for more in the future.
To hear Gabriel explain the thrust behind his donations is to know that he remains another kid from Mililani High in his eyes five years and two schools removed from graduation. To ask him about it is to understand why the school, its students, and folks like Murphy and Matsukawa still matter to him so deeply.
“That time period is where I kind of found who I was and what I wanted to do,” Gabriel said. “I think it’s a very pivotal time. I (was fortunate to have) a principal like that and an athletic director who is very loving and caring about the kids. It’s something I’ll pride myself on continuing to find ways to give back to that school. I love it so much.”
The island has known college stars. A few years before Gabriel did it, McKenzie Milton starred at Mililani High and went on to play quarterback at UCF. Jocelyn Alo went to school 15 miles away and then became college softball’s career home run leader in Norman.
Their stories and Gabriel’s mean something more at a place like Mililani High. Doubly so when those prominent alums continue to contribute to the community.
“For our kids, it’s about seeing somebody that they can be,” Murphy said. “It’s about knowing that the institution that we lead is giving opportunities like these. It’s really prideful for me to say as the principal that the programs we have led one of our students to this great stage.”
Murphy and Matsukawa have each spent the last 11 years in their respective roles at Mililani High. Aunty Joy’s nickname has been earned through the genuine care she holds for the lives of her students. Gabriel said she represents the very best of what the school is about.
Matsukawa says the same about Gabriel, the former student she traveled 8,000-plus miles to see smile Saturday afternoon.
“He’s inspiring to kids at home,” Matsukawa said. “You can go away to school. You can go across the ocean and make it somewhere. We’re just a little bit of home from thousands of miles away.”