In 2006, Joel Sebastianelli was a 12-year-old college football fanatic in the small town of Johnston, Rhode Island.
And he was captivated by a record-breaking gunslinger who resided 5,068 miles away and rarely played a game that ended before midnight on the East Coast.
Sebastianelli and his buddies loved playing NCAA Football 07 for the chance to light up the scoreboard with the sport’s most exciting team.
“Somebody always wanted to be Hawaii,” he said.
But Sebastianelli took it a step further.
During the summer before the 2007 season, Sebastianelli saved his allowance and earned extra money by cutting neighbors’ lawns. He had one purchase in mind as the college football season drew closer: buying a subscription to ESPN GamePlan so he could watch the Rainbow Warriors in action.
“You didn’t have to be an adult, you didn’t have to be someone who had watched college football his entire life,” said Sebastianelli, who attended the University of Florida and now covers Michigan and Ohio State for BCSN in Toledo, Ohio. “There was just something so [great] about watching those Hawaii teams. There was just something different about them.”
The difference, of course, was Colt Brennan, the bleach-blond quarterback with the three-quarters delivery and lightning-quick release, who looked born to play in Hawaii coach June Jones’ version of the run ‘n’ shoot offense.
In three seasons as a starter from 2005 to 2007, Brennan broke or tied 31 NCAA records, including career touchdown passes (131) and single-season touchdown passes (58 in 2006). He still holds the NCAA record for career completion percentage (70.4%).
Brennan’s death Tuesday from an apparent drug overdose at age 37 left Sebastianelli and others reflecting on those long, magical Saturday nights, which typically bled into early Sunday morning as Brennan threw the ball all over the field against overmatched WAC defenses.
“As soon as the 8 o’clock game on ABC was over, it was time for Hawaii football on the East Coast,” Sebastianelli said. “That was some of the most fun I’ve had watching college football.”
What was so remarkable was that many of the people watching the Rainbow Warriors on TV on the U.S. mainland had never even seen them play in person, much less been to Hawaii. The viewers’ only connection to the team was the local production of games being fed to their TVs through ESPN GamePlan.
In an era before the internet and cable TV made it easy to watch nearly every game in the country, Brennan was a, well, Colt hero ahead of his time.
“I still want to be like Colt Brennan,” said Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton. “The way he played the game, that’s everything you want to emulate. He knew how to move people. He knew how to manipulate defenses. He made the guys around him better. You saw the moxie, the confidence, the swag. You’re able to see the leadership. You can see all of those things while he was playing. To me that’s so rare when you have a player like that.”
During Brennan’s senior season in 2007, Milton was a 10-year-old growing up in Kapolei, Hawaii, about an hour and a half drive from the UH campus. Milton’s parents had season tickets on the 25-yard line at Aloha Stadium, and his family attended every home game while Brennan played there.
“It was electric at Aloha Stadium, and anytime they’re on the road, it was the whole state watching the game on TV,” Milton said.
Brennan grew up in California and wasn’t a local, but he arguably did more than anyone else to put Hawaii football on the map. The quarterback he succeeded, Timmy Chang, set NCAA marks in yards passing (17,072), attempts (2,436), completions (1,388) and total offense (16,910), among others. He also set an NCAA record with 80 career interceptions and completed only 57% of his passes.
Brennan wasn’t perfect on the field, but he played with more flair and excitement.
“I’ve never seen or experienced Hawaii being like that, everybody rallying around one group,” Milton said. “I’ve never seen our state so close simply because of a football team that just captured the hearts and minds of everybody, and Colt was the face of that. He wasn’t even a Hawaii boy. He wasn’t even born and raised there, but he essentially became the face of Hawaii.”
A backup to future Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart for three seasons at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, California, Brennan walked on at Colorado and redshirted in 2003.
In January 2004, a female student said he entered her dorm room uninvited, exposed himself and fondled her. He was charged with several crimes, including sexual assault. Colorado quickly dismissed Brennan from the team. Eight months later, a jury found Brennan guilty of second-degree burglary and first-degree trespassing. A more severe charge of unlawful sexual conduct was vacated for lack of evidence. Brennan was sentenced to seven days in jail and four years of probation.
Brennan had passed a court-ordered polygraph test, and used those results to gain admission to Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, California. He spent one season there and played well, but his conviction and jail sentence dissuaded most schools from pursuing him. Jones told Brennan he could play for the Warriors, but only if he initially paid his own way and stayed out of trouble. In return, Brennan would get to run Jones’ famed pass-happy offense.
And Brennan embraced the culture and vibe of the place that gave him a second chance when no one else would.
“It just slowed everything down for me,” Brennan told ESPN in 2006. “They focus on just enjoying things and being happy.”
Brennan started 10 of 12 games for the Rainbow Warriors in 2005 and led the country in total offense and touchdown passes. Hawaii finished 5-7.
The next season, Hawaii went 11-3 and Brennan finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. He broke the NCAA’s single-season record for touchdown passes with 58, throwing the final five in the second half of a 41-24 victory over Arizona State in the Hawaii Bowl. He threw for 559 yards on 33-for-42 passing in that game.
That season, he led the NCAA in total offense (422.5), passing efficiency (185.96), points responsible for (27.7), completion percentage (72.6%), passing yards (5,549) and passing yards per game (396.4). He broke or tied 20 NCAA records, 17 WAC records and 41 school records that year.
He wasn’t done. After surprising many people by returning to Hawaii for the 2007 season, he led the Rainbow Warriors to a 12-0 regular season, before losing to Georgia 41-10 in the Sugar Bowl. Brennan finished third in the Heisman voting and was a finalist for the Davey O’Brien Award.
“Towns [were] shutting down Friday, Saturday, whenever they were playing, [and] eyes were glued to the TVs just to watch that show,” Milton said. “And it was the greatest show on turf. It was unbelievable.”
He shaved an image of the islands into the side of his head. Shortly after arriving at Hawaii, he enrolled in Samoan classes, so he could speak the language of many locals, including some of his offensive linemen.
Former Rainbow Warriors guard Hercules Satele remembered Brennan barking out audibles in Samoan to confuse defenses. When Brennan shouted, “aua le pisa,” Satele and his linemates knew to “be quiet” and watch Brennan’s foot for the snap.
“He was just a people person,” Satele told ESPN. “You could tell that as soon as he joined the team. We all embraced him. The whole state of Hawaii saw what we saw and embraced him, too. He changed our culture and the entire atmosphere around our team.”
More than that, Chang and Brennan inspired a future generation of Hawaii quarterbacks to follow in their footsteps. Over the next dozen years, quarterbacks such as Jeremiah Masoli (Oregon and Ole Miss), Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), Milton (Central Florida and Florida State) and Dillon Gabriel (UCF) would make their mark in the FBS.
“If he didn’t do what he did, I don’t know if there’s the pipeline of quarterbacks coming out of Hawaii, I truly feel that way,” Milton said.
Vinny Passas, a renowned quarterbacks coach in Hawaii who worked with Chang, Mariota, Tagovailoa and others, agreed.
“I thought it was amazing what he did to inspire the young quarterbacks in Hawaii,” Passas said. “They all wanted to be like him, just like when Timmy was the guy and the hometown hero. He had so much charisma. He was just a folk hero.”
As much as Brennan meant to football fans in Hawaii, the islands were just as important to him. After injuries and a car accident derailed his pro football career, he returned to live in his adopted home.
A November 2010 car wreck in Hawaii reportedly left him with busted ribs and a broken collarbone, as well as serious head injuries. Terry Brennan said his son was never the same after the accident.
Brennan had a series of legal troubles in recent years, including arrests for misdemeanor disorderly conduct, DUI and trespassing at a hotel when he was intoxicated and refused the manager’s request to leave.
“It seemed to have an effect on him to where he just found himself going from one bad spot to another bad spot,” Terry Brennan told ESPN. “I don’t know how else to say it. You make decisions and sometimes they’re the right decisions, and sometimes they’re the wrong decisions.”
In his final hours in a hospital room on Tuesday, Brennan’s sisters placed a lei around his neck and played Bob Marley songs. Terry Brennan noted that his son died on May 11, the same day the Jamaican reggae star, and his hero, had died in 1981.
Terry Brennan said his son would be cremated and some of his ashes will return to Hawaii.
“Hawaii meant a lot to him,” he said. “It’s a place where he was able to get a second chance. He was able to chase his dream, which was to play football in a competitive arena. He made a lot of friends and developed trusted and lasting relationships with the people of Hawaii. He loved it all. He cared very much about it.”
ESPN’s Andrea Adelson contributed to this report.