Taking things slow
Kaniela Tuipulotu's laid-back demeanor is one reason he stands out in Kahuku
HE'S JUST another kid, really, sipping on Mountain Dew and reminiscing about the good old days.
Kaniela Tuipulotu is no ordinary kid, though. The T-shirt, shorts and rubber slippers do little to hide his size. At 290 pounds, he still has the running-back reflexes and acceleration that made him a promising player at Lahainaluna.
Fast-forward three years and he's at Kahuku, his third season as a Red Raider. He is one of the most coveted seniors in the state, even with ankle and foot injuries that have made his senior season one of suffering, pain and ultimately, patience.
That's where his laid-back demeanor kicks in.
"That's Kaniela for you. He's not in a rush," Penny Tuipulotu said.
Mother knows best, but Kaniela is battling time. His team is nearing the playoffs, his ankles are nowhere near 100 percent, and a sense of urgency is in his tone.
With his team clinging to a 13-9 halftime lead against an emotional Castle squad on Friday, Tuipulotu took a stand. After a summer and fall of injuries and immobility, he was sidelined. Coach Reggie Torres had wanted leadership from his talented senior, but the timing was never right. Not until the Castle game.
"It's hard for him to push everyone when he's on the sideline. But at halftime, he stepped up. He earned the right to be a leader," Torres said. "He told them that they needed to work even harder, work on getting turnovers."
THAT HALFTIME TALK helped spark the team. Kahuku outlasted the Knights 34-15 and secured a share of first place in the Oahu Interscholastic Association Red East. With a win this weekend against Moanalua, third-ranked Kahuku (5-2, 4-1) could clinch a top seed for the playoffs.
The injuries to his left Achilles heel and ankle, plus a strain to his right arch, won't heal easily. Two of the injuries occurred during his mainland summer camps.
"That's why he couldn't train during the summer," Torres said. "If we get by this game (against Moanalua), we'll get the bye, and he'll get his time to rest."
He began as a 215-pound running back with the Lunas before transferring after his freshman year. He's been a nose guard since landing in Kahuku.
"At nose guard, he's getting hit from all angles. People are coming at his legs," Torres said. "That's the nature of the game."
It's no wonder the 6-foot-1 senior thinks about the old days, before the aches and pains, when life was filled with a little more comfort. A little more family.
Tennessee has an offer on the table. So do Boise State, Oregon State, BYU, New Mexico State and Arizona. Hawaii was in early, but Tuipulotu's relationship with Utah's staff through the past few on-campus camps has given the Utes a slight edge in the recruiting battle.
He doesn't enjoy the process. He wants to be nice to everyone. The process, though, is a necessary evil, one that he could actually enjoy if he could just get comfortable with it. It's not who he is, though. When the season is done, Tuipulotu plans to square up and make that decision. Frankly, if he had to pick right now, he couldn't do it.
One part of him wants to venture once again. Moving from sleepy Lahaina to sometimes sleepy Kahuku was a bold move for a 15-year-old. A former Lahainaluna player, Tevita Finau, paved the way. Tuipulotu decided that Kahuku's game plan for developing talented football players into NCAA-eligible student-athletes was best for himself. The move has worked. He carries a 3.0 grade-point average, and if he maintains that B average, he will be compliant.
HE'S READY TO LEAVE Oahu. He's ready for the mainland. Yet, he said, if Maui had a Division I program, he'd love to play there. The two weeks he spent there in the summer wasn't long enough, he adds. Dichotomy, yes. Try moving away from your loving family at 15, and it's easy to see why there's a longing deep inside Tuipulotu that can't be fulfilled by football. There's mom, dad and his three sisters. Moana, the youngest, is a standout water polo player at Lahainaluna.
"It's easier to stay here (at Kahuku) as long as I don't talk to my mom-guys," he said of those long-distance phone calls. "She doesn't understand when I tell her I have to hang up the phone. My mom thinks I'm being mean 'cause I rush her. The longer we talk, the harder it is. It makes me want to go home," he said.
Penny, a part-time teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary School, admits that her tears are impossible to hold back when her only son is on the phone. It's no easier for Taniela, Kaniela's dad.
"The first year I was gone, one of my friends called and asked if I was home. My friend forgot I was away. My dad hung up the phone and went to the room," Kaniela said. "They said he was looking at old pictures of me. He was crying. It happened a couple of times, but he never tells me."
Taniela, who works maintenance at Kapalua Golf Course, is a golfer and tennis standout.
"He's a little shorter than me," the son said. "When my dad brought it up (going to Kahuku), it was to get more exposure."
Thirteen people live in the baby-blue house on the corner of Huehu and Pualalea streets, right across Kahuku Elementary. There, Kaniela and cousin Afa Bridenstine, a grayshirt football player at UH, get by with just two bathrooms.
"It's mostly guys, so it's not too bad," Kaniela said of those busy morning hours before school.
A block away is the community park where he plays rugby in the summer. The field is lush in the center, but crusty and covered with kakios on the edge, where the baseball diamond intersects. Rugby, a sport synonymous with Tonga and the Tuipulotu legacy, is a relatively new sport for Kaniela. Rugby is what unites him with his uncles -- he lives in the home of his father's cousin -- and the idea of playing the game professionally perks Tuipulotu up.
"I think it's (more fun) than football. Anybody can run into a wall wearing pads. You won't feel it. In rugby, you find out really how tough you are," he said.
That is how he developed from a running back into a lineman, both mentally and physically. It's all about the scrum.
"I was still timid. But playing with these big guys, I was getting hit harder than I ever got hit. I knew I could handle the punishment with pads on," he said.
THERE IS NO getting around the allure of Kahuku's nationally-renowned program. Former coach Siuaki Livai didn't hesitate to blend culture and family unity into the program.
"I always wanted to play for Kahuku for some reason," Tuipulotu said. "They had a Tongan head coach. The haka, that was one of the main reasons. After I got here, I didn't even care if I played that year."
But he did, and he made his presence well known. By his junior season, with a five-sack, first-half domination of Aiea in the OIA playoffs, there was no denying his ability.
Still, he is in Kahuku, doesn't drive, and seems to be content.
"You can't get in trouble here. There's nothing to do," he said, slightly exaggerating.
There are limitations, but there are also eyes everywhere. Kahuku players have a 10 p.m. curfew.
"Around here, everybody watches out. I guess it's for the good 'cause they're looking out for your safety," he said, pointing to families near and far. "My uncle, when I screw up he lets me know. The family is more kick-back, but they talk to me when I get in trouble."
So it is that the only son of Penny, a devout Catholic, and Taniela, a Seventh-Day Adventist, is surrounded by Mormon family now.
"I like Catholic church 'cause it's short," he said of life back on Maui. "I got choke friends there."
Since moving to Kahuku, he's been to church with his Mormon relatives.
"They have a lot of activities. The teachers make the classes fun," he said. "But I don't want to be baptized."
That part of his life, his faith, is not going to be a factor when he decides on the future.
"I'm still up in the air. It'll take me a while," he said.
He won't rush, which is one of the reasons Torres likes him.
"A lot of kids look up to him. He's an example to a lot of them. It's tough being away from your family, but he sees the positives. He's enjoying life at this age, but at some point, everyone's gotta understand the importance of school and college," said Torres, who has coached wrestling and football for nearly two decades at the school.
"He's starting to step up as the leader he wants to become."