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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Smith, Kaufusi buck odds, succeed on the field

By Emanuel Lee

Daily Journal Staff

They grew up 10 minutes apart, played on the same Pop Warner football team and later played against each other in high school.

But Menlo-Atherton senior Vaughn Smith and Woodside senior Sekope Kaufusi always remained friends, knowing what the other had to go through just to reach this point. The 2008 Daily Journal Co-Football Players of the Year, Kaufusi and Smith established themselves as two of the best players in the Central Coast Section, but their feats on the gridiron will never measure up to what they’ve accomplished off the field by just surviving.

Kaufusi and Smith still live in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, respectively, at the same houses they were born and raised. Their journeys to prep stardom is a story of perseverance, focus and determination. As elusive as Smith was on the football field, he had to be just as evasive once he stepped out of his house.

Smith said he’s had five close friends killed due to gun violence over the years, and gangs and drugs are prevalent all over his neighborhood. Getting to and returning from school was literally a matter of survival. Smith said he still hears gun shots at least every other day, at any point during the day or night.

“There are a lot of shootings on the streets,” Smith said. “It’s hard to get away from it. I’m always careful looking around outside and see what cars are coming before I step outside the house.”

Kaufusi experienced similar bouts of adversity growing up, but the one common denominator in his and Smith’s childhood upbringing was a strong will to succeed, a love of sports and strong parental support. Sports, particularly football and rugby, served as Kaufusi and Smith’s psychologist, a place where they could go to get away from the danger and grind of their everyday lives.

“There are a lot of negative things going on in East Palo Alto,” Kaufusi said. “I was never looking for trouble; I was just trying to be that good individual. My mom was always there for me and she kept me out of trouble. She always told me to be a good person and good things will happen.”

Kaufusi makes plays on both sides of the ball

And there’s no doubt good things have happened for Kaufusi and Smith. Kaufusi did everything for a Woodside team that advanced to the CCS Large School Division semifinals — where it lost to Smith’s M-A squad in double overtime — wreaking havoc at linebacker while also playing tight end, punting and kick returning. Unless he was injured or needed a rare bout of rest, Kaufusi never came off the field.

“He was out there for the full 48 minutes,” Wildcats coach Steve Nicolopulos said. “The impact he had on the game was he was always making big plays. On defense he was either making the tackle or being double and triple-teamed and freeing up someone else to make a tackle.”

While the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Kaufusi was effective in all phases of the game, he made his biggest — check that, loudest — impact on defense. One of the hardest hitters to come out of San Mateo County in several years, Kaufusi often resembled a heat-seeking missile — and whoever had the ball was his target.

A player’s offensive value can be quantified with statistics, but it’s harder to make a judgment on a defensive player’s impact. But Kaufusi was the rare defensive talent who could do just that, often recording several jarring hits a game. Often times the players on the receiving end of his hits had to be helped off the field. It was only human to see opposing players suddenly get gun shy to go over the middle, knowing they could be the next one to get popped.

“Big hits bring a lot of intimidation, but they also bring a lot of encouragement to your teammates,” Kaufusi said. “Trying to deliver that big hit is always on my mind. They can be a momentum-changer, and I go into every game to be that difference-maker.”

A number of childhood friends said Kaufusi had tremendous instinct, vision and an uncanny knack for the football from an early age.

“I know how it feels to get hit by Sekope, and it doesn’t feel good,” said Smith, who was teammates with Kaufusi for the East Palo Alto Pop Warner Razorbacks when they were 9-years-old. “Sekope used to knock my head around.”

Said Kaufusi: “I think hitting came naturally for me. Growing up around my uncles and playing rugby, I always had the mentality to go after the ball. Basically I was running around and banging heads. That was the fun part for me when I was little. I guess I was a wild child. I’ve kind of calmed down since then.”

His opponents would beg to differ. While Kaufusi was a physical specimen, Nicolopulos said it was his star player’s work off the field that paid dividends.

“A lot of his hits came with how he prepared for the game,” Nicolopulos said. “He became a student of the game and learned how to study a team’s tendencies on film. If you know what your opponent is doing, it makes a mediocre player look average, an average player look good and a good player look fabulous.”

Kaufusi was switched to linebacker this year after playing defensive end last season. It was a change he welcomed with open arms, just for the simple fact that opposing teams couldn’t run away from him.

“Last year wherever I lined up the other team would have the play go the other way,” he said. “So it was kind of frustrating.”

Even though Kaufusi will be playing on defense at the next level — he’s in the process of making official visits to Division I programs — the highlight of his year came when he returned a kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown in a win over Menlo School.

“The hits are exciting, but taking one to the house was a dream,” he said. “When I hit the wedge and saw nothing but the end zone in front of me, I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I’m doing this now.’ I kept running and running and was happy as I could be.”

Smith’s breakout season

Smith had an even more magical season. His team won a CCS championship in thrilling fashion, and the 5-foot-10, 175-pound tailback/corner back/kick returner had another superb big-game performance. Smith had kickoff returns of 76 and 96 yards for touchdowns, and rushed for 85 on 14 carries. Defensively, he knocked down several passes and did all of this while noticeably limping after getting hurt in the second half.

Smith finished the season with 1,564 yards and 18 touchdowns on 191 carries, a hefty 8.2-yards per carry average. More importantly, he was at his best in the most important games. Against Aragon Smith rushed for 244 yards on only 12 carries — that’s 20.3 yards per carry! — while ripping off TD runs of 81 and 88 yards. Smith also came up with a key interception late in the game to effectively seal the outcome.

The victory was a crucial one en route to Menlo-Atherton’s second straight Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division championship. Out of Smith’s 18 TDs, nearly half of them were for 60 yards or more. Time and time again whenever his team needed a big play, Smith delivered, often in scintillating fashion. Smith credited a powerful offensive line for much of his success.

On his big runs once Smith got in the open field, he was as good as gone because of his blazing speed. And there were plenty of times when he had to make a nifty cut near the line of scrimmage to gain yardage, a testament to his vision and ability to change directions on a moment’s notice. Talk about a breakthrough season.

Last year Smith primarily played on special teams, carrying the ball a grand total of two times, he said. Entering this season the M-A coaches told him he was going to be a big part of the team’s offense, but Smith wasn’t entirely convinced until the team’s second game, a win over Independence. Smith rushed for over 100 yards, the first time in his varsity career had gone over the century mark.

“Right after that game I finally thought I could be good at this,” he said. “I didn’t know I could do that (become a team’s featured back) even though I’ve played running back all my life.”

Smith is talking with some Division I programs, but if that doesn’t work out he always has some powerhouse junior college teams as a backup plan. Smith comes from a football family — his dad and uncle played but both never got as far as they wanted — so it’s proven to give Smith a primer on what not to do.

“My dad tells me not to be like him,” Smith said. “I’m going to take my opportunity seriously. Sports gave me something to do to stay away from all the violence growing up. If it wasn’t for sports I don’t think I would be alive.”

Smith is alive and well. When he thinks about his good fortune, nothing tops the chaotic celebration in the aftermath of the team’s CCS championship game win. As the M-A students flooded the field in a moment of bedlam, Smith was one of several players who were hoisted off their feet and carried upon people’s shoulders. At that moment he felt every spectrum of the emotional gamut, from unmitigated joy to tears of joy.

“I felt like I was in a movie,” Smith said, “like I was in a dream.”

He was. Living one.

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