NFL Alum, Maui Resident Stark Playing U.S. Senior Am With Heavy Heart

By David Shefter, USGA

| Aug 26, 2023 | Truckee, Calif.

NFL Alum, Maui Resident Stark Playing U.S. Senior Am With Heavy Heart

As Rohn Stark took his seat on the Wednesday morning flight that would eventually transport him to the 68th U.S. Senior Amateur at Martis Camp Club, his mind wandered to a place that had nothing to do with competing in his first USGA championship.

In the previous 14 days, he had witnessed some of the worst devastation in the history of his adopted home state of Hawaii, and specifically Maui. Since retiring from a 16-year career in the NFL, where he was twice named All-Pro as a punter, Stark had made Kapalua his home for the past 25 years. His daughter, Taryn, and husband, Josh Wyant, along with their two children, live 5 miles away in the hills overlooking Lahaina, a town all but destroyed by a wildfire that has claimed more than 115 lives with thousands more missing.

Nobody knows how long it will take this small island paradise time to recover from the human and structural losses that are estimated at $4 to $6 billion. 

His daughter’s home, spared by any damage, was 100 yards from the alleged genesis of the blaze, which fortunately  fanned toward the town and not the hills as winds gusted to as much as 80 mph.

Stark’s real estate office – he operates Platinum Properties Hawaii – was not immune to the flames and burned, along with virtually everything else in the quaint town.

“You can’t really comprehend it,” said the 64-year-old Stark, whose satellite office in nearby Kaanapali was unaffected by the fire. “Everything is gray and black. The trees are burnt to the top of the palm fronds. The only things standing are cement pillars that were partial frames of homes. If [the structure] was wood or steel, it pretty much melted.”

In the days before departing for the U.S. Senior Amateur – where he was one of the last competitors into the 156-player field as the first alternate from the Kealakekua, Hawaii, qualifier – Stark was attending funerals for relatives of fallen friends. Several of his regular golfing buddies lost homes and loved ones.

What once was a paradise for millions of tourists now looked like an atomic bomb site.

“I don’t know if [the devastation] has really set in yet,” said Stark, who has longtime friend and fellow Kapalua resident Craig Larson is serving as his caddie. “Everything is different now. One of the hard things is that people you have been close to for so many years that are not going to recover. I am going to recover. I was away from the fire. [But] my daughter isn’t back in her house yet.

“When I go out and play [this week at Martis Camp], it’s not going to be the most important thing. I will tell you right now, I hope the saying you play your best golf when you don’t expect it, falls true.”

Stark first discovered Kapalua during a 1986 trip to the Pro Bowl, which was annually played in Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. He and his wife, Ann, vacationed there a week before the game, which at that time was contested one week after the Super Bowl, and Stark ventured into the pro shop of the Plantation Course seeking a game. He was told about a competition known as the Da Game that featured a bunch of scratch players. Stark would not only relocate there 12 years later, but he would also take over management of Da Game, a one-day individual and team competition played four times per week at one of the two Kaanapali Golf Courses and Kapalua (usually Bay Course). Besides the 50-60 locals, the event has attracted top players from the mainland, including five-time USGA champion Jay Sigel and professional Walter Hall.

When Stark first moved to Maui, there were few amateur events, but he discovered the Aloha Section of the PGA had a category for competitive golfers called the Approved Tournament Player (ATP), and until regaining his amateur status four months ago, he competed in area professional events.

With the Hawaii State Golf Association adding more competitive tournaments to its annual schedule, Stark eventually gravitated back to amateur golf.

But it should come as no surprise that Stark excels in a game that he didn’t take up until his senior year of college at Florida State. The native of Pine River, Minn., a small town 30 miles north of Brainerd, has found success in almost every athletic endeavor. He was booming punts 50-plus yards as a 12-year-old when he qualified for the state finals of the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick competition. That competition was held during a 1972 playoff game at old Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis between the Vikings and San Francisco 49ers. As a high school senior, he won the state title in the high jump and shot put. He also dabbled in basketball and baseball, while playing both ways in football.

“I was 40 pounds heavier than the high jumpers and 40 pounds lighter than the shot putters,” said Stark of the unusual double disciplines.

Rohn Stark was a two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler during his 16 NFL seasons, 13 of which were with the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts. (Indianapolis Colts)

Rohn Stark was a two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler during his 16 NFL seasons, 13 of which were with the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts. (Indianapolis Colts)

Stark’s father, Bud, was a pilot for TWA (Trans World Airlines) and Rohn dreamed of flying fighter jets, so after graduating high school, he enrolled at the Air Force Academy’s prep school in Colorado Springs, Colo. But six months later, two important things occurred: doctors discovered a small curvature in his back making him ineligible to fly jets, and he proposed to his high school sweetheart – Ann and Rohn first met in the fourth grade – and the Air Force Academy didn’t permit its cadets to be married.

That didn’t turn out to be a bad omen. John Crowe, the prep school’s football coach and trigonometry teacher, was a former All-American defensive back at Florida State, and he sent film to Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden of the left-footed Stark booming two punts 80-plus yards.

“I had to look to see where [Florida State] was,” he recalled. “I committed the Cardinal sin – is it in Tallahassee or Gainesville?” Bowden flew him to campus in February of 1978 and offered him a scholarship without ever seeing him punt.

Stark would become the rarest of commodities – a two-sport All-American as he twice earned the honor as a punter (1980 and 1981 seasons) and as a decathlete (1981). He still owns  FSU records for highest season average (46.0) and highest career average (42.7). He also played in two national title games in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma (both defeats; 24-7 on Jan. 1, 1980) and 18-17 on Jan. 1, 1981). An eighth-place finish in the decathlon at the 1981 NCAA Track & Field Championship earned him All-America honors.

A year earlier, he qualified for the 1980 USA Olympic Trials in the decathlon, only to have his dreams dashed by an American boycott of the Moscow Games.

How good of a decathlete was Stark?

He could high jump nearly 7 feet, pole vault in the 17-foot range and run the 100 meters in 10.6 seconds. He also was proficient in the shot put and discus as well as the long jump. His weak event was the 1,500-meter run.

“[NFL] teams wanted to know if I was going to try for the 1984 Olympics,” said Stark, one of three kickers/punters to be invited to the 1982 NFL Combine (Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson). “Based on my chances of getting drafted, I said I would not.”

In the 1982 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Colts took him in the second round (34th overall), the second-highest pick for a punter behind Hall of Famer Ray Guy, who was a first-round selection by the Raiders in 1973. Stark thought he might go No. 25 to Dallas, which had expressed interest.

The Colts’ decision proved to be prescient. Stark was named to the 1982 All-Rookie Team by the Pro Football Writers Association of America. A year later, he was first-team All-Pro. Following 13 seasons with the Colts, the Steelers signed him for the 1995 season, a year in which they reached the Super Bowl but suffered a 27-17 loss to the Cowboys. All but retired in 1997, Stark, who punted for the Carolina Panthers in 1996, got a call from Seattle when its punter got hurt, and he played in four games before hanging up the cleats. He finished his career with 43.4-yard average and four Pro Bowl appearances.

Before enrolling at FSU, Stark never envisioned himself in the NFL, but Bowden could see he had a generational talent at the position, and all but predicted Stark would succeed on Sundays for many years.

In the offseason, golf fueled his competitive appetite. Some of the NFL’s best golfers have been kickers/punters, a list that includes Al Del Greco, Josh Scobee and Ryan Longwell. Stark, in fact, is just the latest NFL alum to qualify for a USGA championship, joining Kyle Williams (2019 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball), Tony Romo (2023 Four-Ball), Danny Woodhead (2021 Four-Ball) and Stan Humphries (2022 U.S. Senior Amateur).

While long since retired from the NFL, Stark has the physique of a pro athlete. He looks closer to 44 instead of 64, a product of staying in shape through exercise and a good diet. Outside of a right hip replacement 16 years ago, he also has remained injury free. Then again, punters don’t endure the same contact as running backs or linebackers.

These days, his only contact consists of a club compressing a golf ball. But he still gets that same satisfaction from a well-struck shot that he did from booming a 60-yard punt.

The last player taken in the NFL Draft is affectionately called Mr. Irrelevant. As the last player to gain entrance into the 2023 U.S. Senior Amateur, Stark hopes he’ll be more than relevant.

For his friends and family back in Maui, a successful week would be some welcome good news.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.