In the mid-1950s, running back James Dyer set rushing records at the University of Hawaii, including one that endured for nearly 60 years.
But the man nicknamed “Skippy” for his ability to glide past opponents in football and cover ground in baseball and track, turned out to be more elusive than even the Rainbows initially imagined.
For more than a half-century, until his death last week in California at age 88, Dyer was largely considered missing in action by teammates on the storied 1955 UH football team.
School officials, who had hoped to include him in past Circle of Honor ceremonies, were clueless to his whereabouts. Former teammates who once exchanged Christmas cards lost contact. “We have (had) many get-togethers over the years and the question is always, “Where’s Skippy?,’” Charles Araki said in a 2009 interview.
But as Dyer, later to become known as Omar Kali and Omar Dyer, is laid to rest today in Lawndale, Calif., a glimpse of the colorful life of one of UH’s legendary athletes, including a chapter as a trapeze artist, is just emerging.
Born in Jamaica and raised in New Orleans, Dyer first landed in Hawaii in the early 1950s with the Marines after serving in Korea.
In those days, more than a decade before it began undertaking an all-collegiate schedule, UH regularly played military teams, and it was Dyer’s eye-opening performances that prompted the school to offer him a scholarship upon discharge.
“He was an amazing athlete — he had great agility and could back-pedal faster than some guys could run,” recalled Don Botelho, who played both with and against Dyer.
In his first season, 1955, Dyer ran 87 yards for a touchdown against Fresno State. It stood as the longest scoring run in UH history until 2015, when Paul Harris went 95 yards against UC Davis.
But for import, Dyer’s biggest game came in the celebrated 6-0 upset of Nebraska in Lincoln by a 29-member UH travel squad that was a heavy underdog. Dyer rushed nine times for 63 yards, but more crucial was his play at defensive back as a two-way performer.
In attempting to slow down a power-running Cornhuskers team that had pounded UH 50-0 just 10 months earlier at Honolulu Stadium, coach Hank Vasconcellos stacked the defense with eight- and nine-man lines, utilizing just two rover backs, Dyer and Ed Kawawaki, and one safety, Botelho.
Dyer, despite playing with a tender knee, made several huge defensive plays, including a fourth-down stop of Nebraska’s all-conference running back, Willie Greenlaw, at the 7-yard line.
Araki, a tackle on the 1955 team, said, “We dormed with him on campus and he was such a good all-around athlete we’d go watch him play baseball and run track.”
Lyle Nelson, who covered sports for the Star-Bulletin in the 1950s and ’60s, described the 5-foot, 7-inch, 160-pound Dyer as a combination of more modern-day stars Gary Allen and Chad Owens.
Although UH records from the period are spotty, Dyer is listed as leading UH in rushing and scoring in 1955, scoring on offense, defense and special teams, including interception returns of 65 and 88 yards.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of football at UH, a panel placed Dyer No. 25 on the Top 100 list of the all-time Rainbow Warrior football players.
After two seasons at UH, Dyer went to the Milwaukee Braves, becoming just the third UH player up to that time to sign an MLB contract. Dyer batted .280 across two minor league seasons as a second baseman before an injury derailed his career.
Sandwiched between a series of jobs, including teaching and a restaurant, Dyer chose to pursue what he would describe as his childhood ambition, becoming a trapeze artist. He studied with the Dell Graham Circus Troupe and, after converting to the Muslim faith and changing his name to Omar Kali, created “The Flying Souls.”
The traveling troupe for youth was described in a 1973 Ebony Magazine story as, “the first and only black trapeze troupe.”
A 1977 New York Times story about the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, identified him as “a 48-year-old trapeze artist” and Ebony said Dyer and his wife, Omara, re-exchanged wedding vows at 75 feet above the ground on the center bar of a trapeze.
Dyer’s oldest daughter, Camile Dyer, said her father’s work with Los Angeles youth is celebrated on a building-side mural in the Watts section of the city.
“We wanted to get him (inducted) into the UH Circle of Honor, but we could never find him,” Araki said Thursday. “Maybe, now, we can do it posthumously, because Skippy should be remembered.”