Walter Achiu: Hawai’i’s first NFL player in 1927

Walter “Sneeze” Achiu, pictured in the mid-1920’s as a running back/defensive back at University of Dayton. Achiu later played for the NFL’s Dayton Triangles in 1927 and 1928, believed to be the first time someone from Hawai’i and someone of Asian American and Polynesian descent reached the NFL.

As the 87th NFL Draft wrapped up last weekend, the names of many past pro football legends came up, including those who broke new ground.

But as in past years, one name that probably wasn’t mentioned is Walter “Sneeze” Achiu.

Achiu, who was born in Honolulu in 1902, attended Kamehameha and graduated from Saint Louis, has remained surprisingly anonymous in the past 100 years or so despite being a ground-breaker in many ways.

For one, after graduating from Saint Louis, Achiu went on to a standout career (football, track and baseball) at the University of Dayton. Reportedly half Chinese and half Hawaiian, he was one of the first Asian Americans and Polynesian Americans to make a name for himself at the top level of college football.

Here is a picture and short write-up about him from one of the local newspapers during his time at Dayton:

A picture and write-up from the Nov. 22, 1923 sports section of the Dayton Herald. (from

Achiu’s career at Dayton was so great, he was inducted into the school’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1974.

In Fall 1927 — almost 20 years before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier — Achiu apparently became the first Asian American and first with Polynesian ancestry to play NFL football, as a member of the Dayton Triangles. He reportedly played in 11 games as a running back/defensive back over two seasons, starting five.

He later became a well-known professional wrestler, and died in 1989 at the age of 86.

Little else is known to the general public about Achiu, and even his 1989 Honolulu Advertiser obituary was a modest eight-paragraph story with no pictures or quotes and was buried at the very end of the sports section, topping off the regular obituaries.

But obviously, in 20/20 hindsight, Achiu was anything but regular.

Almost a century before Tua Tagovailoa, Marcus Mariota, Manti Te’o and many others became multi-millionaire NFL players, there was a great football player and athlete named Walter “Sneeze” Achiu who blazed the first path for those from Hawai’i and those from Asian American, Polynesian and other minority descent.

So to the man named “Sneeze,” we should all say, “God Bless You.” And mahalo!

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