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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Defensive standout tackles adversity

By Ben Nishimoto

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 12, 2008

Long before toe meets ball, in the waning pregame hours when adrenaline begins its steady crescendo, Soko Tonga asks her son, "Did you visit your dad yet?"

Upon receiving the gentle reminder, Kahuku's Aulola Tonga Jr. packs up his game-day gear and makes the 5-minute drive to Laie Cemetery, where his father, Aulola Tonga Sr., lies in rest.

The conversation that follows, that between father and son, fortifies the younger Tonga's inner strength, preparing him mentally for the football game that night.

"I just go talk to him. Just me," said Tonga, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior free safety. "I tell him that I miss him, I love him and that he helps me during the game."

The game last Friday held added significance. For the second time this season, Kahuku found itself toe-to-toe with Oahu Interscholastic Association Red East rival Farrington. The Red Raiders bested the Governors in a hard-fought regular-season game, but this time, the winner would lay claim to the OIA championship and a bye in the upcoming state tournament.

Knotted at 13-all and with the Governors offense in Red Raiders territory, Tonga reacted swiftly on a pass from Dayton Kealoha, swooping in front of the anticipated receiver for an interception and running 89 yards for his team's final touchdown.

"All I could think was touchdown," said Tonga. "It was the fastest and hardest I ever ran. I didn't want to go down."

It was the signature play in Kahuku's double-overtime victory, a frightening display of instinct and athletic prowess that Red Raiders coaches had been looking for from Tonga since the start of the season.

Tonga's combination of size and speed has garnered an early scholarship offer from Hawaii and drawn interest from BYU, Colorado, Washington and Oregon State. He leads the Red Raiders with five interceptions.

"He has the potential to be one of the greats that I coached," said secondary coach Keala Santiago, who has been at Kahuku since 1985. "We got him playing more physical and he's peaking at the right time."

"He's our center fielder on defense and he covers a lot of ground," said Red Raiders head coach Reggie Torres. "He's bringing the hat this year, real aggressive."

Free safeties, especially those born and raised in Kahuku, are expected to play with reckless abandon, having little regard for personal welfare.

But at least they play with pads.

AULOLA TONGA SR., a native of the country bearing his name, never played football. He was a tough-nosed rugby player, and had the scars to prove it.

"My dad said rugby was too dangerous," Aulola Jr. said. "He had scars on his knees, scars on his ankles. He didn't want to see me get hurt."

So at his father's urging, Tonga began playing Pop Warner football. Two years later, when Tonga Jr. was 11, Tonga Sr. died unexpectedly, leaving behind his wife and four children.

And since then, Tonga has played for his father.

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