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Friday, April 17, 2009

Sapolu speaks, Warriors listen

Moments after San Francisco defeated Chicago, 28-3, in the 1988 NFC Championship game, 49er center Jesse Sapolu approached Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and said: "This is payback for all of those years." Sapolu added: "He started laughing."

The true measure of a Hawai'i football player is his feelings toward longtime rival Brigham Young. Sapolu's teams never beat BYU (twice led by McMahon) in his four seasons as UH center.

"BYU will always be my rival," said Sapolu, who gave a pep talk to the Warriors during yesterday's spring practice.

Sapolu recalled the BYU quarterbacks his teams faced were Marc Wilson, McMahon and Steve Young — all record setters. Young is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sapolu joked about how the BYU players were more mature as collegians.

"They were four years older than us when we played," Sapolu said, smiling. "I played with (BYU graduate) Bart Oates with the 49ers, and he was a good four years older than me. We were seniors together."

Most of the current Warriors were in elementary school when Sapolu retired in 1997 after a 15-year NFL career, all with the 49ers.

Still, he drew respectful awe as he spoke about the importance of team unity.

"I look up to the man," left tackle Aaron Kia said. "He was a beast when he played."

Kia said Sapolu's message had special meaning for the blockers.

"He was coming from the offensive linemen's perspective," Kia said. "I liked when he told us that the (49er) linemen only needed a head nod (to communicate calls). You want to get to that level where it's automatic, no static."

Center John Estes said his parents grew up in Redwood City, where the 49ers used to hold training camp.

"We were all 49er fans, all the way through my grandparents," Estes said. "We knew everything about them. It was really cool to see him out here."

Sapolu enjoyed his nostalgic visit. He pointed to the small grass hill bordering the Warriors' practice field.

"We used to run up these hills," Sapolu said. "Back then, it was dirt. Hard dirt. Now everything is so nice and manicured."

Sapolu, who works in the 49ers' organization and coaches a high school team, said he still considers himself to be a "shy kid from Kalihi."

"When I think back, it's, how did I get here?" he said. "There were some twists and turns. It it weren't for certain people who helped me, I could have gone the wrong way."

He said he received guidance from Al Espinda, his head football coach at Farrington High, and Gordon Miyashiro, the offensive line coach.

He recalled Miyashiro "not screaming at me, but talking to me. 'These are your possibilities if you straighten up and believe in yourself and go to class and do the right things.' It was one of the first times I played for a coach who was really positive with me."

Sapolu has two sons playing football. London Sapolu is at Orange Coast Community College. Roman Sapolu is at Edison High in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Sapolu said both sons have received offers from the Warriors.

"I would like one or both of my sons to come here," Sapolu said. "It would be nice to hear that name here again. It's been a while. I would be proud to see one of my sons be a Warrior.

"That would be the closest way for them to feel what I felt when I played here," he added. "Times are different, but we can still talk about things that are the same, like the dorms."

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