It hasn't been an easy path to the state title game for Will Kanongata'a
Friday, December 1, 2006
By MICHAEL MCLAUGHLIN
BELLEVUE -- It was billed as a can't-miss matchup with scoring aplenty: Bellevue High School's four-time 3A state champions against 4A state champion Skyline, two perennial powerhouses led by offensive-minded coaches.
But when the teams lined up on the Sammamish Plateau in early September to open the season before a packed house at Spartans Stadium, only one team put up points.
Bellevue defeated Skyline 28-0, thanks largely to the efforts of 240-pound defensive lineman Will Kanongata'a, who sacked quarterback Tony Rehn three times by himself and once more with a teammate.
From the sidelines, Kanongata'a's blue-and-gold No. 75 jersey was a blur as he pushed past and darted around Skyline offensive lineman like they were children. Which, from his perspective, they were.
Less than three weeks after the game, Kanongata'a celebrated his 20th birthday, making him five years older than some of his teammates and opponents -- and closer to the age of most players in the college football games he watches on Saturday afternoons.
Not everyone was pleased with the idea of a man, literally, playing among boys.
Coaches from other schools groused about his age, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association ruled against him on eligibility issues, and his own coach wasn't sure he wanted Kanongata'a on the team.
"Look, he's 20 and he's playing for Bellevue. I get it," Bellevue coach Butch Goncharoff said midway through the season of complaints from rival coaches. "I know why people are upset, but he's eligible according to our state guidelines and I've been warned to treat him like any other player."
That Kanongata'a is still playing as the 13-0 Wolverines head into the Class 3A state championship game tonight against Kennedy at the Tacoma Dome reflects the changes taking place as high school athletics stretch to accommodate such off-field concerns as family difficulties, learning disabilities and frequent changes of address.
For Kanongata'a, it hasn't been an easy path.
Rife with potential
Kanongata'a's high school football odyssey began six seasons ago, as a freshman at Kennedy in Burien. He was 15 years old, already listed at 6 feet 2 and 245 pounds, and rife with potential. Letters from college recruiters began arriving on his doorstep during that first season in 2001.
"He was a big kid with a big motor," recalled Lancers coach Bob Bourgette, who will be on the opposite sideline from Kanongata'a tonight. "I think he got into some trouble, but he wasn't a problem when it came to football."
Trouble for Kanongata'a escalated after an older brother, Tuituiohu, was killed in a car wreck on Aug. 3, 2002, just before Kanongata'a was to begin his sophomore season.
"It seemed like everything came crashing down," he said.
He played football that fall but was expelled from Kennedy in January 2003. Court documents listed fighting, truancy and drinking at a school dance as reasons.
His parents later kicked him out of the family home after Kanongata'a fought with his father. At age 16, he moved to Salt Lake City to live with an uncle.
His stay in Utah was brief. Ruled ineligible to play football in the fall of 2003 because Utah transfer rules required a minimum one-year residency, he dropped out of Olympus High School in January 2004 and returned to Washington.
Still unwelcome at home, he moved in with Bellevue resident Glen Walker, a close family friend and Kanongata'a's godfather.
Kanongata'a hoped to play football at Bellevue, the state's most powerful program. The Wolverines won state titles in 2001, 2002 and 2003, and would win a fourth consecutive title the year he enrolled.
But his standing at his new school quickly took a negative turn: Bellevue suspended him in the spring of 2004 for gambling.
Back at square one, Kanongata'a enrolled at Robinswood, an alternative school in Bellevue, where he stayed the rest of the school year.
Medical disorder discovered
After sitting out the 2003 season, there was football for Kanongata'a in the fall of 2004, but not the kind he wanted.
Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules stipulate that a student who moves between school districts without his parents must wait a year before participating in varsity sports.
At Walker's urging, Kanongata'a petitioned the WIAA for a hardship exception, but the state's high school sports governing body turned him down.
So instead of contributing to Bellevue's 2004 championship team, Kanongata'a played for the Wolverines' junior varsity team -- the only team for which he was eligible.
That winter, doctors diagnosed Kanongata'a as suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define ADHD as "a neurobehavioral disorder characterized by pervasive inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity and resulting in significant functional impairment."
In May 2005, Bellevue High determined he had a learning problem that qualified him for an Individualized Education Program -- essentially a hands-on learning program with specific goals and services constructed to meet the student's needs.
When Kanongata'a applied for a hardship waiver to play football in the fall of 2005, the WIAA again turned him down, ruling him ineligible for that season and any future season.
The WIAA argued he already had played four consecutive years of football -- two at Kennedy, one in Utah, and one with the Bellevue JV, though Kanongata'a said he never played in Utah.
And there were other eligibility issues, including a 1.63 cumulative grade-point average (Bellevue requires a 2.0 GPA for participation in sports) and three alleged classroom-cheating violations during the 2004-05 school year.
On Sept. 26, 2005 -- almost a month into the football season -- the WIAA determined that regardless of his actual participation in Utah, Kanongata'a had been given sufficient opportunity to play there. Further, it said there was no basis for a hardship exemption based on his family circumstances or learning disability.
Another football season came and went, Kanongata'a denied a chance to suit up with the varsity for the third consecutive year. Meanwhile, Walker and Kanongata'a's parents pressed ahead with legal action, suing the WIAA and the Bellevue School District in U.S. District Court.
"I wanted to help him do something with his life," Walker said, "and be a positive influence on his younger brothers."
In court, Kanongata'a's lawyers argued he had a valid hardship claim based on his family situation and relocations, and also his disability -- the direct cause, they said, of his poor grades.
On June 20, 2006, Judge John C. Coughenour sided with the player, ruling that the WIAA's denial of a hardship waiver was "arbitrary and capricious."
Six years after it started, Kanongata'a was free to resume his high school football career.
A learning situation
Kanongata'a's family moved to Bellevue in 2005, he moved back into the family home shortly after, and this fall, he finally returned to the football field -- though not without incident.
A dispute with the WIAA over summer-school credits forced a last-minute court hearing. Finally, on Sept. 1, a judge issued a temporary injunction allowing Kanongata'a to play that night in the season opener against Skyline.
"Will held up his end of the bargain the whole way," said his attorney, Thomas Degan. "The final month of this process was disappointing. ... I often saw no rhyme or reason with the WIAA decisions. They certainly don't seem to have a problem continuing to bully people until they get what they want."
"Our goal is to be consistent and fair to everyone who applies for a hardship," said WIAA lawyer John Olson. "The judge made his final decision and now we all go forward."
Kanongata'a played brilliantly against Skyline, but two weeks later, Goncharoff pulled him from a game against Issaquah after Kanongata'a taunted a fallen opponent.
"We made it clear there was no room for actions like that on our team," Goncharoff said. "We pulled him from the rest of the Issaquah game and sat him the following week against Liberty. Will was obviously caught up in the moment and learned his lesson."
Three days after the Issaquah incident, Kanongata'a turned 20, barely qualifying under a WIAA rule that says anyone older than 19 on Sept. 1 is ineligible to play fall sports.
Goncharoff said he heard second-hand complaints from rival coaches about the merits of letting a 20-year-old play, and even Goncharoff questioned the WIAA age rule.
"Do I think a 20-year-old kid should be playing high school football? No. But it's not against the rules as they're written," he said.
Goncharoff said he's happy to have Kanongata'a on his team.
"Will has been a pleasant surprise," the coach said. "He's had some discipline problems in the past, but give him credit -- he's been a positive. He feels like playing football is an opportunity to take advantage of.
"He's turned the Issaquah incident into a learning experience. Since then, he's kept his mouth shut on the field and works hard at practice. The guys on the team really like him and support him. They've embraced him wholeheartedly."
Three years away from varsity football put Kanongata'a behind the learning curve this season. He struggled to develop his blocking technique on offense. He often was too aggressive on defense, running himself out of plays. And inconsistent effort on the practice field cost him playing time early in the year, Goncharoff said.
But coaches and scouting services say Kanongata'a has the size, strength, quickness and tenacity to play college football, most likely as a pass-rushing linebacker. Recruiting Web site Scout.com lists Kanongata'a as one of the state's top 60 prospects.
Academic issues could affect Kanongata'a's ability to play in college, however. He is taking five classes at the Academic Institute in Bellevue. He said he expects to pass all five.
"I think my chances to play at the next level are very realistic," he said. "It would be great to play close to home and my family. I'm going to do my best to draw only positive attention the rest of the season and see where it all takes me."