Thursday, November 30, 2006 - 12:00 AM
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JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
20 questions for this Bellevue tackle
By Michael Ko
Seattle Times staff reporter
The long, strange tale of William Kanongata'a comes full circle Friday night at the Tacoma Dome, six football seasons after it began, when Bellevue meets Kennedy for the Class 3A state high school championship.
Kanongata'a is a starting two-way tackle for top-ranked Bellevue High School.
He also turned 20 years old on Sept. 18.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder began his career at Kennedy High School in Burien as a freshman — in 2001.
Kanongata'a is the rare beneficiary of athletic eligibility in his sixth year of high school, granted to him not by Bellevue High School or the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), but by a U.S. District Court judge in June.
That occurred despite the Bellevue School District and the WIAA, which oversees high-school sports in the state, fighting to keep Kanongata'a off the field, claiming, among other things, that he misrepresented his address to get into the school district and play football.
Controversy is nothing new for Kanongata'a, who earned all-league honors as a freshman at Kennedy, and this season was considered one of the most disruptive defensive forces in the KingCo 3A Conference.
According to federal court documents, Kanongata'a's route to Bellevue has been a tumultuous series of starts and stops: a troubled family life, a diagnosed learning disability, multiple school suspensions, run-ins with the law for marijuana possession and shoplifting, a try for a new start in Utah and a federal lawsuit.
Over the last few years, those factors, and how they relate to his athletic eligibility, have been the subject of many discussions by school officials, attorneys, WIAA representatives, Kanongata'a's loyal advocates and ultimately, the courts.
On the field, the spotlight has also followed. Against Issaquah in September, Kanongata'a knocked an opposing player unconscious on a hard but legal hit. He was flagged for standing over the player and taunting him.
And opposing coaches and parents have grumbled about the fairness of allowing a 20-year-old to play high-school football against players three and even four years younger.
"It is the way it is. It's not my fault," Kanongata'a said. "I'm just playing the cards I've been dealt."
WIAA rules says that all students playing fall sports must be under 20 years of age on Sept. 1. Kanongata'a was 19 at the deadline.
Glen Walker, a Bellevue resident and Kanongata'a's godfather, took in Kanongata'a several years ago and stands by him.
"He's a good kid," he said. "He's had his stupid things he's done, which kids do. When you're a kid, you don't make the decisions you should make.
"He's a good kid and he deserves to be playing football."
Kanongata'a grew up in the Highline School District and attended Kennedy, a Catholic school in Burien, for the 2001-02 school year, when he played football as a freshman, and the start of the 2002-03 school year, when he also turned out for football.
But he was expelled for drinking at a school dance and fighting. Prompted by some other personal issues that year, including disagreements with his parents, and an older brother dying in a car accident, Kanongata'a moved in with an uncle in Utah.
He enrolled at Olympus High School in Salt Lake City for the start of the 2003-04 school year.
Court records detail the WIAA's confusion about how much football, if any, Kanongata'a played there.
However, when WIAA officials later asked for school records from Utah, they were provided forged documents with conflicting information about Kanongata'a's involvement in football. Kanongata'a and Walker denied knowing anything about the forgeries.
Kanongata'a, homesick, came back to Washington sometime around Christmas 2003. He moved in with Walker, a family friend from his childhood who was later granted power of attorney over him, and enrolled at Bellevue High School.
Kanongata'a was suspended from Bellevue in March 2004 for gambling, and he enrolled at Robinswood High School, the Bellevue School District's alternative school. There, he had a semester grade-point average of 3.0.
Kanongata'a re-enrolled at Bellevue to start the 2004-05 school year, and played junior-varsity football. But he was caught cheating and was suspended from school in January 2005 for failing grades and truancy.
About that time, Bellevue principal Michael Bacigalupi began to question the legitimacy of the address Kanongata'a had used to enroll at Bellevue. Court records detail how Bacigalupi believed Kanongata'a was living in SeaTac, but had improperly used the address of a former school-district teacher.
Bacigalupi said the former teacher told him that Kanongata'a had never lived with him.
Before the address issue was resolved, however, Walker filed a complaint against the school district, alleging it was ignoring that Kanongata'a had been diagnosed in late 2004 with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as related learning disabilities.
Kanongata'a was allowed to re-enroll at Bellevue and placed in a disability-assessment program at the school in spring 2005. He was caught cheating twice more that spring, which meant Kanongata'a had three cheating violations and was ineligible to participate in any extracurricular activities for a year.
In September 2005, Kanongata'a, now in his fifth year of high school, appealed for another year of athletic eligibility, citing the hardships caused by his troubled family history and learning disabilities.
The WIAA denied his claim and Kanongata'a sued. He argued the WIAA mistakenly counted his time in Utah as one of the four years of eligibility, and alleged the Bellevue School District and the WIAA violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The case went all the way to U.S. District Court Judge John C. Coughenour, who ruled June 20 the WIAA had "misinterpreted and misapplied" its season-limitation rule and reversed the WIAA's decision, in effect giving Kanongata'a the chance to play this season.
In his 38-page opinion, Coughenour also said certain definitions in the WIAA's hardship rules might violate the ADA. As for Kanongata'a's poor performance at school, the court said he wasn't given the opportunity to present evidence that his learning abilities were the source of such things.
"It was hard," Kanongata'a said of having his future rest on the lawsuit. "Just dealing with everyone not helping me out. It would have been easier if they would have helped me out in the first place, instead of neglecting me ...
"I worked so hard just to get it [eligibility]. It's worth it now."
Butch Goncharoff, Bellevue's football coach, declined to comment about Kanongata'a, referring the matter to the school district and the WIAA.
Sharon Howard, legal counsel and assistant superintendent for the Bellevue School District, and Mike Colbrese, WIAA's executive director, both said their hands are tied by the judge's order.
"He wouldn't have been playing but for the federal-court litigation," Howard said.
Kanongata'a does not now attend Bellevue High School, but receives individualized attention from the school district for his learning disabilities. He hopes to graduate this year and go to college.
His younger brother, Loka, is a starting running back for the Wolverines.
The family has five children and limited resources, Walker said, and football offers him a way to college.
"He could get a college education by playing football, and my thing was to Will, 'Instead of going to a junior college, fight the fight and have an option. You deserve an option.'
"He's doing the things he needs to do. He's going to school, getting good grades."
Kennedy coach Bob Bourgette doesn't remember much about Kanongata'a. He was nicknamed "Poco," Bourgette said, and he received the second-most votes for Seamount King Division's lineman of the year.
Bourgette said he doesn't see any special significance in playing against Kanongata'a on Friday.
"I don't even think about it," Bourgette said. "He's just a good football player for Bellevue, that's all."