Story by Ronald Williams, Jr.
Photo courtesy Oberlin College Archives
The flames race upward into the night sky, the intense heat wrestling with the Ohio autumn chill. The university band competes with the noise of a roaring crowd. Amid the cacophony, one young man stands quietly, thoughts drifting to a rocky beach, a schoolhouse and a tiny church more than four thousand miles away in Kohala, Hawai‘i. John Wise had left his beloved Islands two years before, traveling by steamship to San Francisco and then by train to the campus of the Oberlin Theological Seminary near Lake Erie. But on November 19, 1892, there was no place he’d rather have been: The crowd was chanting, “Wise, Wise, Wise,” in honor of his performance in an unlikely football victory over the University of Michigan Wolverines. It was the end of a dramatic Cinderella season, and John Henry Wise was at the center of it.
Newspapers noted Wise’s immense strength, reporting that he was “able to run with three men on his back without noticing the extra weight,” and referred to Wise and his fellow lineman “Jumbo” Teeters as “two of the biggest men ever seen on a football field.” Football was quickly becoming a dominant pastime on college campuses across the country, and this young Hawaiian was one of its rising stars. It was a stardom that he would carry throughout an illustrious career as a rebel, statesman and scholar.