STOCKTON - Coach Doug Murray had a simple message for the prospective players he would speak to during the long offseason when he was assembling the Stockton Lightning's roster.
"Don't dwell on, 'I shouldn't be here, I need to be somewhere else, this is Mickey Mouse, I'm an NFL guy, what am I doing here?' " Murray would tell them. "Be comfortable and OK with this. Good things can come from this."
Murray's message can be applied universally to those who populate the rosters to play minimum-wage football in arenafootball2. But for some, the message has particular resonance, and perhaps as good an example as any on the Lightning is rookie defensive end Manase Hopoi.
Less than a year removed from playing preseason games for the Minnesota Vikings, Hopoi is not much more than a year removed from Pac-10 stardom at the University of Washington.
But this week, the 23-year-old is preparing for his arenafootball2 debut Saturday at Spokane - far from the bright lights he knew only recently.
"Right now," said Hopoi, a Sacramento native, "I'm going through some adversity. I've got to keep driving. I've been at the University of Washington. I've been in Minnesota. But that's in the past now."
Hopoi's story reads like a South Pacific version of a Horatio Alger tale - minus the completely fulfilling ending.
The tale began in the early 1970s, when Hopoi's mother, Mele, and father, Toetuu, immigrated to the United States from the island of Tonga. They met and married only after arriving in Northern California.
Manase was born in 1983, and though rugby was his first sport, at age 8 he began playing Pop Warner football. Toetuu retains a vivid memory of a discussion with one of his son's early coaches.
"One day," the coach told Toetuu, "he'll be in the NFL."
Along the way, however, Manase has had many opportunities to stumble. At Burbank High in Sacramento, he recalls being torn between wanting to focus on football and school on the one hand and wanting to "hang with the girls and hang with the big guys" on the other.
A steadying force was an older cousin, David Lose, who was Burbank's student body president during Hopoi's sophomore year. Today, Hopoi credits Lose with keeping him on the right track."He doesn't know it, but he did," Hopoi said of Lose, now the Lightning's center. "He was a natural-born