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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kahuku alums meet again

TAMPA, Fla. — If Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Chris Kemoeatu is blocking downfield and sees Arizona Cardinals safety Aaron Francisco in his path Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII, both know what will happen.

It's not the type of reunion the two former high school teammates at Kahuku relish. But they will set aside friendship for a championship.

"I'm heavier, so I'll get the best of him," says Kemoeatu, who is 6-3, 344 pounds compared to Francisco at 6-2, 216.

"Everybody back home keeps saying 'I hope you run into him on the field,' " Francisco says. "That'll be nice for those guys to see, but I don't know if that'll be good for me."

The two players have not yet talked since their teams advanced to the Super Bowl, but Kemoeatu said he planned to get in touch with Francisco this week. Francisco said the families of the Pacific Islanders (a group that includes Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Arizona's Deuce Lutui and Pago Togafau) were going to have dinner one night in Tampa.

Francisco's and Kemoeatu's presence in the Super Bowl is important in Kahuku, where some of the best surfing in the world can be found.

"I grew up surfing," Francisco says. "It was one of the first things I ever learned how to do."

Football has a special place in Kahuku, too. "It's a small country town," Kemoeatu says. "But football is everything to that little town. It brings everyone together."

In 2000, Kemoeatu and Francisco shared the same goal: to help Kahuku win its first state title. And they did, beating Saint Louis (Honolulu) for the title. Siuaki Livai, Kahuku's coach then, recalls contributions each player made in the game.

Kemoeatu had an injured knee ("swollen like a watermelon," Francisco says) but played both ways, recovering two fumbles — one to keep a Kahuku drive going and one to stop Saint Louis near Kahuku's goal line.

"He was struggling with his knee at halftime," Livai says. "He could barely walk. But he looked at me and said, 'Coach, we're bringing home the trophy.' "

Francisco had a big hit early in the game. "He leveled the receiver," Livai says.

After high school, the two players headed to the Rocky Mountains. Francisco played for Brigham Young, Kemoeatu for Utah. In head-to-head matchups, Kemoeatu is 3-2. The Utes won three of four games during their college careers, and Arizona defeated Pittsburgh in 2007.

Picked in the sixth round of the 2005 draft, Kemoeatu spent his first three seasons as a backup to Alan Faneca and moved into the starting lineup this season.

Francisco signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2005 and sees most of his playing time on passing downs. He had an interception against Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game but fumbled it and the Eagles regained possession.

Early in the playoffs, Kemoeatu rooted for Carolina. His brother, Maake, plays for the Panthers, and it would have been brother vs. brother in the Super Bowl.

If not his brother, Kemoeatu wanted Francisco's Cardinals.

On Saturday, Kahuku residents will celebrate the success of their homegrown talents at a potluck dinner. Organizers of the event will show highlights of both players' careers, and Francisco and Kemoeatu planned to tape video messages.

"The whole community is excited and proud of these men," current Kahuku coach Reggie Torres says. "The thing is, who do you want to win? Some are saying Chris already has a ring, so it's Aaron's turn."

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