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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hoomanawanui puts his heritage, skills on display for Illini


CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — Short sleeves are enough to cover most of the elaborate tattoos that adorn Michael Hoomanawanui's upper arms. And a ponytail can disguise his voluminous hair.

But when the Illinois tight end walks down student-populated Green Street or strolls campus wearing his colorful kikepa, nothing can dissuade passers-by from casting surprised looks.

A colorful skirt on a man's 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame tends to turn heads.

"People don't say anything," he said. "But I see them looking out of the corner of my eye.''

It's part of Hoomanawanui's message.

The long hair, tattoos and kikepa are the senior's way of honoring his Hawaiian culture, which he has studied through books and hours of stories ingested during annual visits with relatives on the islands.

Hoomanawanui (pronounced huh-oh-muh-NOW-ah-noo-ee) grew up in Bloomington, Ill., but developed a bond with family history after his parents were divorced and he lived with his father, Isy, who was born in Hawaii.

"I always realized I was different," he said. "But as I grew older, I realized I was special and used it to my advantage to learn about the culture and about my family, putting everything in perspective.

"I come from a culture of putting others before myself. That has played into my role at Illinois, starting slow and then getting a couple of passes here and there, but not fretting. Being patient.''

Patient: the meaning of the family name.

That attribute helped as Hoomanawanui, known to his teammates more simply as "Uh-oh,'' slowly blended into the Illinois offense. He started with no catches as a freshman and progressed to five as a sophomore.

Last year, he blossomed with 25 receptions and is expected to be a key target for quarterback Juice Williams this season. He has four catches for 53 yards in two games.

The Mackey Award candidate also is one of the most sure-handed Illini receivers, making him a prime target near the goal line. He is projected by several NFL draft websites as a mid-round pick in 2010.

"He's always been a great catcher, but now he understands the game so much better,'' coach Ron Zook said. "He's big and strong, he's a leader and he's getting better as a blocker. He has soft hands, and he was a basketball player and knows how to position his body.''

Hoomanwanui's body has made statements on and off the field. His confidence in wearing the kikepa rubbed off on teammates Arrelious Benn and Chris James, who each have one but have not been seen wearing them in public.

In four years at Illinois, he has added six tattoos — all incorporating family or cultural elements. His right arm includes a representation of his sister, her favorite Hawaiian flowers and a "band of strength.''

He has a tattoo of the family Aumakua, or protector, which is a shark. The other arm includes tribal representations. And he has the Hawaiian islands across his back.

"A lot of people get tattoos that don't really have a meaning; it just looks cool,'' he said. "Every one of mine has a special meaning, and they all come back to family and culture.''

The same goes for his shark-tooth necklace, which was carved by a family friend with symbols that represent energy. And there is the hair. Hoomanawanui arrived at Illinois with a short-cropped look but has let his hair flourish, Troy Polamalu style.

"You see a lot of Polynesian players who do that in the NFL or college,'' he said. "It's loyalty to the program and to my family. Plus it stands out a little more, so maybe Juice will see my hair and know who I am."

Hoomanawanui hopes to introduce himself to a few more opposing defenders in coming weeks, starting with Saturday's game at Ohio State. At 270 pounds, he is a load for any defensive back.

Illinois nickel back Dere Hicks has occasional encounters with his tight end in practice and gives up nearly 100 pounds.

"He's a good athlete for a tight end,'' Hicks said. "He can block, he can catch and he has exceptional speed for a guy his size."

Hoomanawanui has scored only four touchdowns in his career. But this week he was reminded that the three times he scored the Illini's first touchdown in a game, the team won.

That includes their trip to Ohio State in 2007. He planned to remind offensive coordinator Mike Schultz of that fact this week.

"I've got to let Schultz know that,'' he said. "I've got that on my to-do list.''

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