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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Lineman on top of his game: Dane Uperesa

Posted on: Sunday, August 20, 2006

SUNDAY Q&A: DANE UPERESA
Lineman on top of his game

UH football team begins fine tuning

By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer


Dane Uperesa has transformed himself into one of the strongest Warriors, though when he first came to UH, "I was intimidated," he said.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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"I've been a project the day I first put on that helmet," says Dane Uperesa, adding his first love was basketball.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

A deal is a deal, and if University of Hawai'i football player Dane Uperesa wanted to make a public announcement, he needed to come through with his part.

"Tell a joke?" Uperesa said, his voice trailing into a mutter. "That's not easy for me."

It was a difficult request for the self-described "boring guy."

But it was no more difficult than the other things he has done that went against his nature.

Like how he struggled as a Punahou School freshman before working up the courage to ask for tutoring. He averaged a B-plus as a junior and senior. Or how he followed his father's "suggestion" to play football, even though he never really felt comfortable in the sport, and now is a pro prospect as an offensive tackle.

So after several pauses, Uperesa said: "Why do scuba divers fall backwards into the water?"

Shrug.

"It's because if they fall forward, they would fall into the boat."

Uh ... OK.

"That's about as good as I can do. That's the only clean joke I know, and I stole it from (offensive lineman) Brysen Ginlack."

Then Uperesa said: "I know this is coming out on my mother's birthday, so I want to wish her a happy birthday. My mom is my spiritual and emotional guide. I can talk to her about anything. I'm very blessed to have her opinion on many things. She broadens my view of the world. So, happy birthday, Mom. I love you."

Uperesa also discussed life in the "happiest place on Earth," learning a lesson from an Appalachian State player, and why real men wear poker bracelets.

On living in Southern California for eight years:

"I was born here. When I was about eight months old, my dad (Kevin Uperesa) had been in Los Angeles trying out with the Rams. He hadn't seen me when I was born. Finally, we moved to California when I was eight months old. That was the first time he saw me. He always stresses how hard it was not to see his first born.

"Unfortunately, he blew out his knee. That was the end of his football career. We stayed there (in Fullerton). He worked security for Disneyland, and became management over there. We got in for free, actually. I've been there so many times. It was tons of fun."

On moving back to Hawai'i.

"My parents didn't want us growing up in Southern California. They had a lot of childhood memories growing up here. They wanted to send me and my brother to Punahou. They worked hard. They sacrificed a lot.

"Because my dad and his brother (Keith Uperesa) were standout athletes (at Punahou), and they tried to contribute to the school, I had a better shot (at being admitted). I did well on the test. Fortunately, I got in. It was still hard, even though I had financial aid. It's an expensive school. It's very competitive from an academic standpoint. I went to a good school before Punahou, but when I got there, it was still tough. I started in the ninth grade. Everyone is talking about Harvard and Yale. I found it a struggle at first.

"We lived in Hau'ula. My dad woke up very early, made breakfast, got us up. It was a long drive. But I wouldn't trade living out there for anything. I love it out there — the atmosphere, the people, the scenery. Even though it was a long drive, it was a nice drive."

On adjusting to Punahou:

"I almost made academic probation as a freshman. Not that I wasn't working hard, but I thought it was too much for me. I was really struggling at the time. I thought I might have to leave the school. I had that kind of fear. The thing was, I was always pushed to do well in school, and I always did well in school. It was hard to struggle like that. My biggest thing was I was scared to ask for help. I didn't want to seem like the stupid kid. I finally got the courage to ask teachers for help, to stay after, to do what no other kid wants to do: to appear less than average to his peers. But I had to suck it up and do it. I started to get the study habits down, probably by the end of my sophomore year. That's when I was no longer in the red. I was getting my average up. My junior and senior years were when I hit my stride. I knew how to write papers and do the work. The last two years, I got a 3.4 GPA. It really came together for me." On taking up football:

"I played basketball. That was my first love. I didn't want to play football in high school. I wanted to focus on basketball. My dad said I had to play. I never played it, but I thought, 'why not?' I could still remember my first day of football. It was JV conditioning week. I had never worn a helmet before. I was always this out-of-shape kid. I put on the helmet, and it was just hell. It was the worst day of my life. My neck was sore. I couldn't breathe. I thought, 'Wow, this is football.'

"They told me to line up at defensive end. I ran 20 yards away from the coach. He was yelling: 'What are you doing?' I didn't really know anything about football. If I ever watched a game, it would be to see who would score a touchdown, because I knew what that was.

"I've been a project the day I first put on that helmet. Football never came naturally for me. In basketball, if you throw me the ball, it feels right. You put me in pads across from a guy just as big as me, I have to adjust."

On choosing to play for the Warriors.

"At first, they weren't recruiting me at all. We were almost at the end of our season, and my friend was invited (by the UH coaches) to a game. He had an extra ticket, so he invited me. I was sitting there, eating my meal with the recruits. (Mike Cavanaugh, who was UH's offensive line coach at the time) came up to me and asked if I committed (to a school) yet. I said, 'no,' and that's when we really started talking. He came out for my last game against Iolani. He went on to offer me a scholarship during my recruiting trip.

"(Southern California offered) a walk-on deal. Cal(ifornia) offered a full ride. It came down to Cal, Hawai'i and maybe SC. Everybody thought I was going to Cal. When I was sure about my decision was the BYU game (in 2001). I went to that game. I remember traffic was horrible. I just got there before the kickoff. I saw Chad Owens' touchdown. To see that crowd respond, my home crowd, I knew right then that's where I wanted to go. If Chad Owens doesn't take it to the house, maybe I'm at Cal today.

"My parents never said they wanted me to go to Hawai'i. But I could see it in my dad's eyes. I remember my dad and mom were in their room, watching TV. I knocked on the door, and came in. I told them I verbally committed to the University of Hawai'i. They were really happy for that. I know my dad was waiting for me to get him tickets. They never used to follow UH sports. Now they're two of the biggest fans. They'll go to basketball games and volleyball games.

"There is pressure at Punahou to send the kids to the Mainland. I didn't feel pressure. I knew once I made my decision, that was it."

On redshirting as a UH freshman in 2002:

"I remember being on the scout team that year. I tell all of the freshmen, 'Scout team is nothing like it was for us when we were freshmen.' We had Pisa (Tinoisamoa), Chris Brown, Lui Fuga, Isaak (Sopoaga), Lance (Samuseva), Houston (Ala), Travis (LaBoy). Big, strong guys. And they were fast. There was probably no better way for me to learn than by throwing me into the fire against them. And they'd beat up on us. I couldn't believe their speed.

"I thought Kevin Jackson was probably the toughest guy. He had the speed to get around you, and he was physical enough to bull rush you. It's funny. He wasn't even starting."

On his struggles as a second-year freshman in 2003:

"I started against Appalachian State (in the opener). That was a wake-up call. I got my butt kicked that game. I can still remember the defensive end, K.T. Stovall. If I ever see him again, I'll thank him. That's what I needed, to get up in front of all of those people, and get my butt kicked. I needed a wake-up call. From then on, I made an effort to get in the weight room six days a week, and work hard.

"I remember in 2003, that was the toughest year for me. There were a whole bunch of things going on — on the field and off the field. I got through that year, and the next year I was asked to move to the defensive line by coach Jones. It wasn't an order. It was an open invitation. He said, in the end, it's up to me. I consulted Cav, who still thought I had something in me to play the offensive line. He told me ultimately it was up to me. He told me if I did return to the offensive line, I'd have to make a better effort to be the player he thinks I can be. My dad and my family said the same thing. I was probably very close to switching over to the D-line. I remember one night I made the decision that I was, but the next morning I changed my mind. Coach Jones told me he thought I could still be a player. I made the decision I was recruited for the offensive line; that Cav, who is a great offensive line coach, still believed in me; that my family still had faith in me. I made the decision to stay on the offensive line."

On his comeback in 2004:

"Against Idaho, there was '260,' which is a screen to the right. I probably got up to the (line)backer faster than I've ever done before. I really tried to put it on him, because I was trying to change my attitude. Everybody always tells me I'm too much of a nice guy. I don't think my problem was the nice-guy thing. I think it was because I wasn't comfortable as a football player until recently.

"In the bowl game against UAB, I was backing up both the right and the left tackle. Tala (Esera) had some food poisoning the night before. He started the game, but I could tell something was wrong. I went in there (at left tackle) about halfway through the first quarter. I got to block for Timmy (Chang) and Chad (Owens) in their last game. It was exciting. I did good enough, I guess, to make me the starter the next year.

On developing into one of the strongest Warriors:

"There's no way I thought I'd be there. I was benching probably 260 after high school. I used to see guys throw on three plates, and I was like, 'Oh, my goodness.'

"I remember my first day coming to UH. It was the Monday after I graduated. I came in to work out. I walked into the weight room. I was intimidated. I wasn't very strong. I saw these guys in there — La'anui (Correa), Wayne Hunter. I remember seeing Vince (Manuwai) for the first time, and how big his arms were. I was very intimidated. I didn't look like that. I kept my shirt on. I remember sitting outside the weight room. I saw Tala sitting outside, too. We knew each other from before. We struck up a conversation. We were like, 'Man, everybody in there is huge.' We sat out there for an hour, thinking of what we were going to do, or waiting for them to leave. I remember Jonathan Kauka came out, and he helped us get into a weight program, to calm our nerves around the veterans. He was so good at it I thought he was a coach. On the first day of camp, I see him come out with a helmet. We're like, 'What is this?'

On his future wife:

"We've been together for four years. We got together during graduation. She's a Punahou grad. Her name is Brook. She's a very smart and dedicated woman. She's one of the most beautiful people I've known, both inside and out. She just graduated (from college). She's studying medicine. I see a future with her. Definitely. She's the love of my life."

On his other great love:

"I was born a Lakers fan. We were on the San Jose State trip (three years ago), and I got a phone call from Kainoa Akina. He told me the Lakers were in the weight room. That was the year they had Karl Malone and Gary Payton. I ran to the weight room to see if they were there. I got on a bench, because no one was in there at the time. I did a set, I sat up, and I looked to my left, and Kobe (Bryant) was benching right next to me. There went my whole workout. Needless to say I was staring in his direction most of the time."

On being a regular at the Warriors' Texas Hold'em tournaments:

"I've been fortunate to win five of these circuit events. Hercules (Satele) is good. Ian (Sample) is good because he's aggressive. The worst is Marques (Kaonohi). He doesn't really know how to play. He's always asking, 'Can I bet?' or 'Can I raise?' One game he kept doing it. He kept catching cards. We play for pride. We call them bracelets. I think coach Jones would have a good poker face. I definitely wouldn't want to call him."

Reach Stephen Tsai at stsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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