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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Article on UH's Nate Ilaoa: He's poetry in motion

Posted on: Sunday, June 18, 2006

He's poetry in motion

By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

In the opinion of his University of Hawai'i football teammates, running back Nate "Nasty" Ilaoa is prepared for the prose.

"Nasty can stick," slotback Jason Ferguson said of Ilaoa's skill as a freestyle rapper. "The dude can flow."

Running back Jazen Anderson, whose father has served as a bodyguard for Will Smith and Jay-Z, rates Ilaoa "in the top 15."

In Hawai'i?

"In the country," Anderson said. "He's a freestyle champion. He can take a random beat, and go on. I would put up my money on him against anybody."

Ferguson said Ilaoa's iPod is loaded with 1,000 instrumental beats.

"He can spit it out to any beat," Ferguson said. "The best thing is he never sits down and writes. Everything he spits is off the top of his head. It's on the fly. He thinks quick."

In the week leading to the 2004 Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl, Ilaoa, Ferguson and a few other teammates would strut through Waikiki looking for freestyle challenges. Ferguson remembered Ilaoa out-dueling players from UAB, the Warriors' bowl opponent, on Kalakaua Avenue.

"That's Nasty," Ferguson said. "He kept spitting it out. He can go for three minutes straight. He's got skills."

When he's not patrolling the streets as a rhyme fighter, Ilaoa is serving as the Warriors' emotional leader.

After shoulder and knee injuries limited him to one game during the 2003 and 2004 seasons, Ilaoa reclaimed his status as a top play-maker last season. Despite a painful turf toe and pulled hamstring, Ilaoa led the Warriors with 643 rushing yards and was third with 917 all-purpose yards. Only two of his 85 carries were for negative yards.

He had 36 receptions and, more important, his yards-after-the-catch average was 9.0. He averaged more than one broken tackle per play.

Ilaoa, who is 5 feet 9, weighed 249 when he reported to training camp last year. The heft could be traced to his knee injury, which prevented him from participating in many cardiovascular activities. He said he now weighs 238.

"He can play at that weight if he's in shape, and he's in shape now," UH coach June Jones said.

UH quarterback Colt Brennan said Ilaoa, a sixth-year senior, is "going to be the straw that stirs the drink this year."

Ilaoa took a break from his workouts to answer questions from The Advertiser:

On his rapping ability:

"It's something I picked up in Virginia (as a high school student). Growing up, with the kind of guys who joke around, you've got to have a quick head in order to stay ahead of the punch lines, no matter who you're talking to, whether it's brothers or friends. It grew from there."

On being raised in a military family:

"I grew up everywhere. I was born in Oakland, but raised throughout. I lived in Hawai'i earlier, California, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri. I graduated in Virginia.

"That was tough. You've got to be the new kid all over again, find a place to sit at lunch. You've got to meet new people, make first impressions all over, introduce yourself to the whole class. At one point, it was tough. When my dad went to Desert Storm, we moved to Utah. I ended up going to four or five elementary schools in one year. That was tough, but it also helped. I learned how to adjust. You learn to make friends faster." On how he ended up in Hawai'i:

"I didn't want to take my (recruiting) visit to Syracuse. It was snowing. My dad tried to get in contact with coach Jones. Thursday night, before I was going to leave (for Syracuse), coach (Mike) Cav(anaugh, a UH assistant at the time) asked me if I wanted to take a visit out to Hawai'i. I said, 'Yeah, I want to get out of this stuff.' He set it up for me the very next weekend. I canceled my trip to Syracuse, and I made it out here.

"That was tough on that flight. You'd wake up, and the plane would still be over Colorado. But the trip was well worth it.

"It was nice to be back (in Hawai'i). I was around 5 or 6 when I left. I remembered the house back in Kane'ohe, where we used to live. The stadium. And Leonard's Bakery. I didn't think the island was this big. I didn't know there were this many high schools. I thought there were only seven or eight high schools. When I came back, I was like, 'Holy smokes! It's a lot bigger than I thought.' I got to see my family for Christmas. And that was all she wrote."

On being on the same team with cousins Melila Purcell III, Amani Purcell, Samson Satele, Hercules Satele, Brashton Satele and Larry Sauafea:

"We never saw each other our whole lives. To come to school together and meet each other and find out we're all related, it's cool. Our parents keep track. I'm not too good with keeping track of so many names. My dad is. One day, he was like, 'Don't you know you're related to Mel and Larry?' I'm like, 'OK.' I just didn't know. Mel's dad came up to me and said, 'My wife is related to your dad, and I'm your uncle.' It's kind of cool. It's a special thing to play alongside your family members, especially since they're such good guys."

On living in Hawai'i:

"This is the longest I've lived in a place. Usually, it's three years and out. I'm almost ready to double up.

"I've been trying to learn how to speak Samoan. I want to learn more about my culture. Out here, it's just common (to be Samoan). Out there (in Virginia), you're a rare species among some people. They think you're Mexican or Puerto Rican. Some people thought I was black. I had to explain to them what a Samoan is. Then you come out here, and it's a common thing, which is cool. I've never been in an environment with so many Polynesians. That's another reason I wanted to come out and play. I never had a chance to play with Polynesians before."

On moving from slotback to running back last year:

"It wasn't too hard. Picking up the blocking schemes was the most difficult part. Other than that, I had a lot of good teammates who helped me. (Former UH running back Michael) Brewster was here last season. He was with me on the road. He kept me up to date on how to run certain plays. He was definitely a big part. I think playing receiver and going into the backfield is a lot easier adjustment. You can see defenses better going from receiver to running back. You see the whole coverage from the backfield. It kind of gives you an edge how you can deal with certain plays and protections."

On his elusive running style:

"I don't want to say this in a cocky way, but I guess I was born with it. Growing up playing tag and stuff, just trying to run, playing backyard football, you're always trying to be faster and develop moves. ... I honestly don't think too much when I'm running the ball. I just try and go. Moving the ball forward is my best motivation. First downs lead to touchdowns."

On why he does not ease up to avoid injuries:

"My brain didn't get injured. My mentality for the game is still the same."

On his injury-filled career:

"Every player has obstacles he has to go through physically or mentally. Mine so happens to be injuries on the football field. Everything happens for a reason, I believe. Whatever happens, happens. I try to get back up and get through."

On how he endured sitting out the 2003 and 2004 season because of injuries:

"I spent those two years doing a lot of thinking. I was able to sit back and get a grasp of the offense even more than when I was playing. That kept me motivated. I was able to watch Chad (Owens, an All-America slotback). I met Chad when he came in. He was backing up Channon Harris at the time. To see him come up, that was such a great thing. I got to sit back two years and be a fan, which I am. I got to see Pisa (Tinoisamoa, now a linebacker for the St. Louis Rams) play. I got to see Timmy (Chang, a record-setting quarterback). Those guys were motivation for me. Those two years I got to learn — about football, about life. I got to grow up in a way."

On the NCAA's decision to grant him a medical exemption, which allows him to play as a sixth-year senior this season:

"All of the waiting put some stress on me by the end of the spring semester. Spring ball was finished, and you're still waiting and waiting. Every day, every where I turned, the question was: 'Did you get your (extra) year yet?' It kind of wears on you. You're going through spring ball, but for what? It was a big relief to finally get it. It was a lot of weight off my back."

On the attention paid to his weight:

"Nothing really bothers me. You can't do too much to get on me. That's how it goes. Everybody has his story. With me, it's my weight. It's something I've got to take care of. People ask me all of the time. They're curious. They want me to be in shape, to be at my best. That's what I've got to take care of to be good at what I'm doing."

On being criticized publicly by Jones for being out of shape at the start of last year's training camp:

"You never want to hear your coach say those type of things about you. But coach Jones expected a lot out of me. I expect a lot out of myself. I let him down. That's what happened. Words aren't going to hurt me. I thought coach was speaking the truth. I put that as a way to motivate myself, to gain his trust back. A lot of fans heard that. They had comments about that. I felt I let them down, too. I'm not going to be the one to shy away, like, 'Oh, what he said hurt me. Forget coach Jones. Forget Hawai'i. Forget the people.' I took it as, 'You're right. I needed to come (into camp) in shape. I needed to be that person to help my team. That's being selfish to show up out of shape.'

"Being at the University of Hawai'i, people in Hawai'i expect a lot out of you. That's fine. I never had any hard feelings toward anybody. I'm supposed to be that person playing football. That's what I chose to do. That's what I need to be doing. It's totally cool. Coach Jones is hard on me, but that's the way it should be. He shouldn't be giving me any leeway. I'm not the sharpest kid out there, but to have the coach believe in you like that, I've got to respect him. I've got to respect him for the comments." On his relationship with Jones:

"Me and Jones never had problems. A lot of people think I might be mad at him, but I'm not mad at coach Jones. Coach Jones is still the man."

On his production in 2005:

"A lot of people are like, 'Yeah, you proved everybody wrong.' I've got friends saying, 'You showed them.' In a way, I knew what I could do, and what I had to do. But it wasn't like, 'This was payback time.' I didn't go into every game like, 'Man, I've got to show everybody they're all wrong.' That's not how it works. That's not going to help anything. I had to do what I had to do, whether I was in shape or out of shape. I understood people were going to say things whether I was in shape or out of shape. I just needed to go out there and play football. I had to prove to myself I could still do it. I feel I could have done a lot more."

On his health:

"Everything is good. Last spring, I used to work out, and my leg would be bugging me for a couple of days. I couldn't do anything. My hamstring would be bugging me. Now I'm working out like I did out of high school. I'm able to work out on a consistent basis."

On the Sept. 2 opener at Alabama:

"You always think about the first game. Last year, it was USC. This is a big opportunity. Each year we have a big opportunity to do something. I honestly believe this team is more focused than I've ever seen. We had a rough season last year, but we've got a lot of special players, and a lot of the games slipped away from us. We're going to try and build on that. Alabama is the first stage."

On playing before more than 90,000 Alabama fans:

"To be honest, with a big crowd, you go, 'Whoa,' when you first come out. Once you get on the field, it's just playing. It only gets to you if you let it get to you. It's on an individual basis. To me, it doesn't matter. We could play Alabama on the practice field, and we're still going to play hard."

On the upcoming season:

"We've got tremendous guys. I'm just blessed to be a part of this. I went through the years when we had Timmy Chang and Chad Owens. Now I've got (quarterback) Colt (Brennan) and (slotback) Davone Bess. They're such good athletes. Davone is really good at basketball. If he was 6-3, 6-4, he would be right there guarding Dwyane Wade on Sunday. Colt's good, too. He was in a position where he had to replace one of the greatest athletes Hawai'i has ever seen. He went out there and did his thing. How can you not be excited playing with these guys?"

Reach Stephen Tsai at

Nate Ilaoa looks forward to an injury-free season with the Warriors.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser and Advertiser

Nate Ilaoa averaged more than one broken tackle per play last year when he had 917 all-purpose yards.

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