Bianco keeps his eyes on the prize through turmoil
Billy Hull, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Wed, Aug 23, 2023·4 min read
Even in their ultimate time of need, Momoko and Alex Bianco put their son's football career first.
The parents of former Saint Louis School and current Nevada quarterback A.J. Bianco were two of the thousands of people affected by the deadly wildfire in Lahaina that has killed 115 people with hundreds still unaccounted for.
The family home where A.J. was born and raised until middle school burned to the ground. His parents got out safe and are staying with friends on the other side of the island, but it was a difficult situation for Bianco, who had to wait nervously in the middle of the night before finally getting ahold of his parents over the phone.
"I got woken up at about 2 a.m. and stayed up pretty much the whole night before having practice the next morning," Bianco said in a phone interview Tuesday. "Once I was able to get them on a phone, it was a huge sigh of relief for me."
Bianco, in his second fall camp with the Wolf Pack after redshirting last season, is in the midst of a quarterback battle for the starting job.
Last year's starter, Nate Cox, was a fifth-year senior. Junior Shane Illingworth, who played in six games a year ago, is in a competition that includes Colorado transfer Brendan Lewis.
But in the immediate aftermath of the horrific destruction on Maui, Bianco's concern was with his family. He considered leaving in the middle of the most important series of practices in his career. Coaches were ready and willing to help him get back home if he needed it, but his parents told him to stay put.
"They definitely wanted me to stay up here," Bianco said. "I owe them everything. They made the decision to move to Oahu for my eighth-grade year and that meant the world to me because they've always put me first. I could never pay them back for all they have done. They have always put me first to allow me to have the most success I can and always put me in the best position to do so."
Bianco said his family history in Lahaina goes back more than 20 years when his father first moved there. In the days right after the fire, Bianco was on his phone looking at the destruction in photos and videos that were a shock to the system.
With the knowledge that his parents were healthy and had a place to stay, Bianco has since shifted his focus back to football.
After barely getting any reps his first season, Bianco has worked in camp with the starters and backups.
At Saint Louis, he sat behind Jayden de Laura and survived a pandemic season that was canceled before starting and leading the Crusaders to an ILH championship as a senior.
After another year of waiting at Nevada, it's go time for the 6-foot-4 dual threat who also shined on the basketball court in high school.
"This spring was my first time really getting reps with the one's and two's, so coming into fall camp I've felt real confident and I feel like I've had a really good camp so far," Bianco said. "Last year I was running scout team and between that and playing and waiting at Saint Louis, I've learned to be patient. But the competition at this level is a whole nother level and there were a lot of things I didn't know I needed to work on that I have now that's been big for me."
The outpouring of support for Bianco has been overwhelming at times. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help his family, which has less than $1,500 remaining to reach the goal of $30,000.
He's one of five players who graduated from high school in Hawaii on the Nevada roster and among 87 total playing FBS football on the mainland. Add in 51 players at the University of Hawaii, and the number of players jumps to 138 in FBS and 160 total in Division I, including FCS schools.
No matter the level or where they are, the bond between players from Hawaii is a special one. Rival schools in high school or rival schools in college, it doesn't matter once the final whistle blows.
"It just means the world to me coming from Hawaii and representing the state in everything I do," Bianco said. "It just shows what makes Hawaii special is the competitiveness and edge that we carry. We might be undersized, we might not be the fastest or even strongest, but we always come ready to play, we always compete, and that's what I hope I bring to this team."
To donate to the Bianco GoFundMe page, visit rb.gy/ourib.