POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 07, 2009
It can be such an unforgiving game, football.
Every play, every day, there is something to prove. It's not just about being better than the next guy, it's about being the best.
It's the essence of the sport.
It's the essence of Pisa Tinoisamoa.
It wasn't a blind-side hit when the St. Louis Rams released him May 8. Although Tinoisamoa led the team in tackles for four of his six seasons, the money he was scheduled to make -- $3.25 million base, $4.25 million against the cap -- didn't make business sense to the front office.
Yet again, the 27-year-old Tinoisamoa knew he would have something to prove if he wanted to keep playing the sport he loved. It's happened so often, the former Hawaii linebacker doesn't know any different.
He was 8 when called to his dying uncle's bedside. Cancer-stricken Sal Aunese had been the star quarterback at Colorado, the pride of the Oceanside, Calif., Samoan community, and the father figure for Pisa and his two brothers after the boys' father returned to his native American Samoa.
It was the same year that Tinoisamoa began playing football.
"All my sons have been gifted athletically but you could see in Pisa, from the age of 8, there was the flash of what he is living today," his mother, Ruta Aunese-Tinoisamoa, said. "He was influenced by his uncle Sal, Joe Paopao, Junior Seau. ... He wanted to be like them.
"The plan was to play for Colorado, follow in his uncle's footsteps. It was not meant to be."
Proving himself on the football field wasn't the problem, as he earned all-league and all-state honors three seasons, and was an All-American as a senior for the Vista (Calif.) High Panthers.
No, he'd have to prove that he was more the charismatic Pisa, the one voted to the homecoming court as a senior, than the Pisa put on probation for spray-painting graffiti on public property. The one jailed after intervening in a fight to help his brother Mike.
Most of the colleges vying for Tinoisamoa couldn't backpedal away fast enough. Colorado, USC, UCLA ... but not Hawaii. Then-Warriors coach June Jones had followed Tinoisamoa's career while with the San Diego Chargers, and had assistant Dennis McKnight attend the sentencing hearing.
"June knew that this kid's heart was pure," McKnight said. "He told me to be at the trial and when the judge asks if anyone has something to say, you tell him you have a scholarship in hand. Tell him that we believe in this young man and that if we can get him out of San Diego, everyone will see what kind of person he is. Let us give him a chance.
"Think it started off hard for Pisa. The one thing he loved more than anything was football and, his first year, he wasn't eligible to play, couldn't do what he does best and he withdrew from everything. When he did come back, I think he thought he would show up and be 'The Guy.' All of a sudden there were a lot of other players just as good competing for his position."
Another proving ground.
"I never doubted my ability, my talent, but I hurt myself when I ballooned to 265," said Tinoisamoa, whose ideal college playing weight was 215. "I wasn't as good as I wanted to be and, working on losing the weight, I was underachieving.
"And there was competition. Chris Brown. Matt Wright. Keani Alapa. I thought I should be right up there. I made it a goal for me to be mentioned in their group. That third year (2002) I knew I had to take it to another level, trim down, get back to explosive."
And prove he could be the player everyone expected. Jones gave him that challenge.
"He wasn't focused, his work ethic wasn't there," said Jones, now the coach at SMU. "I told him before his last season that this was it -- 'If you don't get focused after we've given you this chance, I'm done with you.'
"He took it and took it to another level, played as well as anybody in the country that year."
In 2002, Tinoisamoa was named first-team All-Western Athletic Conference and the MVP of the Warrior team that finished 10-4, 7-1 WAC. He opted for the NFL rather than return for one last season.
"I would have liked him to stay, but once I knew he was going to be a second- or third-round draft pick ... it's hard to tell a kid to pass up the money," Jones said. "If he stays and gets hurt, then you'll always second-guess yourself. I could never look him in the face if that had happened."
Tinoisamoa was drafted in the second round by the St. Louis Rams (43rd overall) and signed a four-year, $2.9 million contract. In 2006, he signed a five-year extension for $24.7 million, but he was released eight weeks ago with three years remaining.
Agent CJ LaBoy didn't need much time to find his client a new home. On May 29, Tinoisamoa agreed to a one-year contract with the Chicago Bears, re-joining Lovie Smith, his defensive coordinator in St. Louis.
When organized team activities ended last month, Smith, the new Bears head coach, announced Tinoisamoa would be the starting strongside linebacker heading into camp.
"It's a good fit for Pisa, being back with Lovie," McKnight said, and then, laughing: "But come November and December, with that weather, we'll see how tough he is.
"As far as a naturally gifted athlete, he fell out of the womb that way. He could have won a (Olympic) decathlon gold. What stands out to me, though, was that big, dynamic smile of his that lights up the room. That, and his passion for football. He plays the game for all the right reasons."
Still, it can be such an unforgiving game, football. Every play, every day, there is something to prove.
"You get released, your ego does take a blow," Tinoisamoa said. "This was a little different because I felt I held up my end of the bargain, did what they wanted, and they still let me go.
"But it's life. I've been through the adversity before, been told I couldn't play, been told I was too small. I've been abandoned, locked up, hurt. Faith is what carries me. Prayer allows me to fight another day."
Tinoisamoa and high school sweetheart Shannon have been together since they were 16, and celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary last Thursday. Shannon is expecting their fourth child in November; the family also includes sons Kaleb, 6, and Ryder, 2, and daughter Mylie, 3.
Tinoisamoa said he will always owe the Hawaii football program for the loyalty shown through his troubled youth and the Warrior teammates and fans for their support.
"For me to be on the all-century team for UH, to be considered one of the 100 elite, is such an honor," he said. "When I got there, I had to prove to people who I really was. I think I did that. I hope I did."