Colt Brennan’s family, friends and coaches talk about what was lost

Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan speaks on stage during the Heisman Trophy Award presentation in New York on Dec. 8, 2007.
Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan speaks on stage during the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York on Dec. 8, 2007. Brennan, a finalist for the Heisman that year, died May 11 at age 37.
(Chris Trotman / Getty Images)

We used 2,500 words Sunday to detail the life and death of Colt Brennan, who grew up in Orange County and became a star quarterback at the University of Hawaii.

He died May 11 after authorities say he overdosed on something laced with fentanyl.

Those closest to Brennan shared more insight into his battle with addiction and his generosity. Read additional highlights from those powerful conversations:


Trying to help their son

Brennan’s parents both said they believe they did everything possible to help their son, whose struggle with substance abuse lasted longer than a decade.

“We’re pretty comfortable with that,” his father, Terry, said. “This was one of those insistences where Colt just pushed it, like other kids do. They keep pushing it, and once you hit that spot, these are the consequences.”

Also from Terry: “We knew he was struggling, and his activities showed that he was struggling. Everything we tried just kind of blew up on us.”

Colt Brennan was a star football player at Hawaii who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting before years of substance abuse problems cost him his life.

June 20, 2021

An ongoing battle

Brennan’s behavior — fueled by his substance abuse — often alienated others, especially those closest to him.

“He’d burn bridges, with friends and coaches,” Terry said. “They would become the enemy, kind of, in his mind.”


The attacks frequently came on social media and in text messages. Brennan repeatedly and profusely apologized for his actions.

Former Hawaii QB Colt Brennan ingested something laced with fentanyl before dying. The drug has been linked to a high number of opioid deaths in the U.S.

June 21, 2021

“I know I’ve written some awful texts in the past and I’m sorry for that,” he expressed in a letter to his family last year. “It’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve done throughout this battle.”

Said his mother, Betsy: “He loved us. I mean, he was always sorry for how he’d act at times. That’s what’s so hard. It had to be something else, something bigger, the demons getting to him. … He hated it when he’d get like that. He’d say mean things. He couldn’t help himself.”

Finding peace

Colt Brennan on Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head mountain in the background on Aug. 16, 2007.
(Lucy Pemoni / Getty Images)

Brennan’s death was a tragic end that brought sadness to those around him but also needed finality.

“He’s at peace,” Terry said. “He doesn’t have to fight the battles anymore.”

Added Betsy: “I think he’s at peace because I think he battled so hard just to be happy. We don’t know what he felt, what weight might have been on him all the time. You just don’t know.”

Former Hawaii assistant coach Rich Miano called it “almost a sense of relief” when Brennan passed.

“For those [of] you [who] loved Colt, those who were closest to him, those who tried so hard to change him and influence him and help him, this at least is closure. They no longer have to go to bed thinking about how this is not going to end well. …

He’s in a better place. He can’t be in a worse place.”

Everybody’s friend

Among the things for which Brennan will be remembered are his easy smile and his equally easy demeanor.

“Colt didn’t get nervous about a whole lot of things,” said Bruce Rollinson, his coach at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. “He was a laid-back kid with a smile, that big old smile of his.”

Rollinson recalled watching Brennan breeze through the hallways at Mater Dei exuding the charm that would mark so much of his life.

“Colt was a friend to everybody,” Rollinson said. “I used to kind of laugh to myself. I’d go, ‘Look at him, man.’ It was like he was carefree, loving every day of his life. And that’s what’s so hard about this now.”

Trying to find answers

Colt Brennan sits on the bench with teammates during a loss to Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
(Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

The Brennans continue to question of lot regarding their son’s fate, including the impact their attempts at tough love had or didn’t have on him.

“I had some friends say, ‘How can you do that?’ and some say, ‘You’re doing the right thing,’ ” Betsy explained. “You’re caught in the middle. You try to do the tough love, but then you want to help them. I mean, it’s your son. It’s just so hard as a parent.”

Signs of hope

As far as Brennan’s parents know, he was never diagnosed with depression, though they’ve concluded that he struggled with that too. He tried medication at times but always stopped taking it because of how it made him feel.

“That’s what upset us because he never would give it long enough to work,” Betsy said.

Asked if, given the totality of what their son was dealing with, the Brennans thought it was inevitable he would die the way he did, Betsy explained that recent events had altered their outlook.

Brennan had spent four months at a live-in treatment center in Costa Mesa. His visits to similar places had never lasted longer than a few weeks.

“We did at one time [think this was inevitable],” Betsy said. “But I think these past few months … because of this latest treatment center, we thought he’d made it, turned the corner. … The facility where he was at told us he was always positive, always upbeat. They raved about him.”

Recognizable name

Colt Brennan and his mother, Betsy, after a Hawaii game.
Colt Brennan and his mother, Betsy, after a Hawaii game.
(Brennan Family)

Brennan’s parents named him Colt after his father looked at a map of Southern California and noticed “Colton,” a city of about 55,000 in San Bernardino County.

Colton James Brennan was born Aug. 16, 1983. James was one of Brennan’s grandfathers. He died of ALS.

Brennan’s head coach at Hawaii, June Jones, said that after Brennan died, he received messages from “people in New York, South Carolina, Texas that watched every game [on late-night TV]. … He captivated all of Hawaii and half of the mainland. Everybody knows that name.”

Trying to stay clean

Betsy on the times when Brennan was able to stay clean: “What’s really crazy is all these years of drinking and whatever he did … when he was sober, his mind was clear. He was funny. He loved telling stories. He could recite lines from movies. That’s why I think it had to be something bigger.”

Gifts from Hawaii

Along with the memories, Brennan left his parents two cats, both of whom he brought home from Hawaii: Toa and Kona.

Praising others

Miano recalled driving home after Rainbow Warriors games listening to the radio and marveling at Brennan’s interviews.

Along with displaying remarkable “charisma,” Miano said, Brennan always made a point to praise Hawaii, his coaches and his teammates, especially his offensive linemen and receivers.

“You couldn’t have had a media consultant script it any better in terms of saying the right things,” Miano said. “It was like, ‘Gosh, this guy is a media genius. He just gets it.’ ”

What was lost

Colt Brennan, second from right, poses for a photo with his father Terry, sister Chanel, center, and mother Betsy.
(Brennan Family)

Betsy: “We got a good piece of him these last four months. He was back to being himself. We was really doing well. It was the best I’d seen him. The sparkle in his eyes was back.”

Jones: “We were hoping he’d bottom out and save himself before it happened. … Everybody tried to help him. Other players, teammates, coaches. Unfortunately, the demons were just too much to handle. … Those drugs, those different things, they’re eventually going to kill you.”

Miano: “We’ve lost a beautiful person. There will never be another Colt Brennan in Hawaii history. … People say he was the greatest player ever at Hawaii. How do you argue that? He was.”