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If You Go

What: 24th Press Democrat All-Empire sports awards ceremony

When: Wednesday, May, 9, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Friedman Event Center, 4676 Mayette Ave., Santa Rosa

Format: High schools in the Redwood Empire were invited to nominate their top male and female athletes, their top male and female scholar-athletes. All the athletes will be introduced. From that group, overall winners were selected by judges from The Press Democrat sports department. Those announcements will conclude the ceremony.

LOWER LAKE - This is a love story that must begin with the razor blades.

It’s spring, 2017. Hokulani Wickard doesn’t remember the exact date. Hardly matters now. Alone, he drove his Jeep from his home in Lower Lake to Austin Park, a city park in Clearlake. He parked, saw the razor blades and knew why he came.

At the Lower Lake Coffee and Cream Cafe last Thursday Wickard without a word showed what he was intending to do with them.

With tears in his eyes Hokulani made a repeated slashing motion on his left wrist. Didn’t say a word. Wasn’t necessary. He just stared at his left wrist, was it friend or foe? But why Hokulani? Why?

“I felt neglected,” he said finally. Neglected? Hokulani Wickard? This is a joke. Right? This is Hokulani Wickard, the pride of Lake County, not just of Lower Lake High School. He will represent his school Wednesday at The Press Democrat’s All-Empire sports award ceremony. He is Lower Lake top male athlete and top male scholar-athlete.

Hokulani is the All-American kid, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, MVP of his football team, All-County in two sports. A junior then in 2017 at Lower Lake, Hokulani eventually would be offered nine college scholarships. And that’s not even the half of it. Now a senior Hokulani has a 4.22 grade point average. He’ll only have four “B’s” by the time he leaves high school. He’s been on the school’s Honor Roll all four years. Blond, muscular with a little light stubble, his appearance is as welcoming as a warm cup of coffee, his personality as sweet as a Danish.

“Yeah, that’s what people see,” said Hokulani, moving his arms up and down his body, as if he’s showing off some kind of museum figurine. A bit self-conscious, he was, in doing it.

Sitting quietly that day in his Jeep, now close to his end, his cellphone rang.

“Hey, honey, come on over, let’s do something,” asked Claire Alderson, his girlfriend.

Hokulani startled awake. In that moment he cared more about her than himself. He told Claire where he was, what he was about to do. She hung up immediately and hit the gas like a NASCAR driver to reach him.

He stopped retelling the story. He just stared into space. The question had to be asked.

“Did Claire save your life?”

Looking down, Hokulani nodded. Didn’t say a word. Stayed silent, as if invisible might be the best option. Without him probably realizing it, that quiet moment represented how Hokulani came to such a dark place, why he felt neglected.

Hokulani and his dad, Damien, have had too many quiet moments, too many days, too many hours, too many years, in which nothing was said. Emotions have remained hidden. Questions were never asked so questions were ever answered. Opinions rarely shared. Two human beings stood at arm’s length, either by design or circumstance, related but not relating, close yet apart.

This is how far apart they’ve been.

“I didn’t know that,” said Damien about that day when his son came to Austin Park to kill himself. “I knew he was having issues. I knew he was struggling. … this does give me a little shock.”

Such emotional distance was years in the making. As so often happens in these kinds of things, it began with a tragedy. On April 11, 2003, Rebecca Wickard died after battling cancer. It leveled Damien to his knees. Rebecca and Damien were childhood sweethearts, one of those storybook romances when people live happily ever-after. They make movies of this kind of love. Married for seven years, together for 12, they had big plans. He was 30. She was 29. Hokulani was 3 when she died.

“Hok didn’t know her and I often wondered if it would have been better for him to have been older so he could have known her,” Damien said. “But then, maybe, it would have hurt more. I don’t know. But I kept him away from that. I didn’t want to burden him with that. I didn’t want him to feel the pain.”

Pictures of Rebecca were on the walls on their house, in many rooms. Unidentified. As Hokulani grew so did his curiosity. “There were pictures all over the house of Rebecca,” Hokulani said, “but I kept wondering: ‘Who is this person?’ My dad never said. I had to find out for myself.”

Aunt Christy and cousin Elijah told him one day, almost by accident, certainly as an afterthought. Now more questions needed to be asked. The silence continued. Day-to-day stuff was dealt with. But family history, what’s inside that can’t been seen, all of it stayed in the ether of silence. And it built upon itself, layered thick over the years with Hokulni feeling isolated.

“Obviously hindsight is always 20-20,” Damien said.

Guessing he was around 11, Hokulani remembered becoming self-supportive, making meals for himself. He said Damien stayed out late. On the average, Hokulani said, he would be feeding himself four days a week. Sometimes, he said, he would go to a neighbor and ask for food.

“I don’t quite remember it like that,” said Damien, director of Human Resources at the Konocti Vista Casino. “We always had food in the house. I don’t recall it being that way. He was never left alone. But then again that might be revisionist history. I love my son. If he was feeling that way I wish he would have told me. If you’re not feeling something say something. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken.”

Damien remarried. It lasted six years. Both father and son thought it was best for her name not be used. The communication distance remained. Father and son are quite similar in keeping conversations friendly, animated and engaging. All the while Damien would continue to hear how the community adored his son, nearly reaching a worship level.

“Hok has spoiled me as a coach,” said Justin Gaddy, Lower Lake’s head football coach. “He does all the right things on and off the field. He’s like a coach on the field. He’s so humble it’s amazing to me, considering what’s he’s accomplished. We had a national letter of intent day. We have 15 kids from Lower Lake going on to play college sports. That’s unheard of here. Hok didn’t attend. He said, ‘It’s their day. Let them have their day. My day will come. I don’t want to take anything away from them’. He’s so mature for his age.”

Which begged the obvious question: “Hokulani, how old are you?”

“I’m 25,” said the 18-year old. “I had to learn and figure out a lot of things myself.”

On Jan. 26, 2017, Damien and his significant other, Rosy, had a baby, a girl named Lelani. Hokulani doted over his half-sister. Still, a question went unanswered.

“My dad had a kid with someone I don’t know,” Hokulani said.

The questions didn’t come. Instead Hokulani closed eyes and took himself to places where life was sweet. He dreamt of playing for the Los Angeles Chargers. He admired the Chargers quarterback, Philip Rivers, and wore Rivers’ No. 17. In the dreams he had of Rivers and the Chargers, he wasn’t throwing touchdown passes.

“I dreamt of buying a new house for me and my dad,” Hokulani said.

Son loves his dad, no matter if at times he felt dad was a shadow figure in his life. Asked how to explain his affection despite feeling so alone at times, Hokulani said, that “sometimes I wondered if he wanted me around.” The teenager just shook his head. He didn’t have a ready answer.

“But I do know I wouldn’t be the person today if it wasn’t for my dad,” Hokulani said. “He taught me to have goals, to strive, to work for everything. Nothing is ever handed to you. You earn it. You go out and get it.”

The people who know Hokulani might be tempted to say the kid overreacted. He’s played three sports all four years in high school, badminton MAYBE the only sport he hasn’t played. He’s a member of Upward Bound, Drama Club and Future Farmers of America. He has volunteered so much of his time coaching little kids in the area Lower Lake needs to erect a statute of him. And of course he’s got that monster grade point average.

“There’s greatness in this young man,” Gaddy said.

Hokulani had never thought about being great.

“I just wanted to make my dad proud of me,” he said.

Mission accomplished, dad said.

“I am so proud of him and what he’s become,” Damien said. “I adore him. I always have wanted the best for him. Always.”

Hokulani didn’t come by sports by accident. It was very much a conscious effort.

“I was drawn to sports because teams feel like family,” Hokulani said. “Players were hugging each other. Calling each other ‘brother.’”

They hugged all right and they also cried and got angry and blew their tops. Athletes, by and large, are easy to read because they make themselves so readable. Hokulani relaxed in their presence, bathed in the comfort they provided. A Lower Laker team was the home Hokulani wanted and needed.

“If it wasn’t for sports,” he said, “I don’t know where I’d be.”

Damien was there. The past three years he was Lower Lake’s offensive coordinator. He also spent two years as a defensive coordinator and six years as an offensive line coach.

Also to be fair, Damien is not running away from the new information he received about his son.

“When you become a parent,” Damien said, “it doesn’t come with a guidebook. As his father I have to be his dad first, his friend second. Maybe I was waiting for him to ask questions. I’ve always encouraged him to talk. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken. If you feel something, tell me.”

Why now, Hokulani was asked, has he decided to go public with something so private?

“I’m going away to college,” he said. “I want this time (before he leaves) to help us grow closer.”

Even in that, the son has decided not to go too far away. He has scholarship offers from six NAIA schools in Kansas: William Jewell University, Tabor College, McPherson College, Friends University, Sterling College and Benedictine College. He also has offers from NAIA schools in Kentucky, Connecticut and North Dakota. So where will Hokulani go? To a junior college in Redding.

Deciding to go to Shasta College, Hokulani’s reason is transparent. He wants to get closer to his dad, the physical distance hopefully making it easier to close the emotional one. A child’s bond with a parent is hard to shred, much less separate.

“Sure, I would have preferred to deal with this internally,” Damien said. “I’m somewhat of a private person. It’s hard to listen to these things. I thought we had a good a relationship but obviously it needs to be better. And if someone reads this and can benefit from it, too, that will make a difference. I know some people will look at this and see me as the bad guy. I don’t care. I just care what Hok thinks.”

With this article Hokulani is reaching out to his dad. That’s what he’s thinking. Join me, dad, he’s saying. Let’s sit and talk and talk and talk until we grow hoarse. Then we’ll wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. And again. Damien and Hokulani have a lot of catching up to do.

They can start with the tattoo. Look, dad, at my Hawaiian tattoo I just got on my right shoulder. It’s to honor your Hawaiian heritage, OUR Hawaiian heritage. Symbols of strength, community and knowledge are there. How about we add two more Hawaiian tattoos, one for courage, another for communication?

They could start here: “Hok has Rebecca’s eyes and smile.” Yes, Hokulani would like that. He would like that just fine.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at bobpadecky@gmail.com.

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