Seattle Times staff reporter
MUKILTEO — When Jomesa Samuela stepped on the football field last year, he offered to play without shoes. In fact, the Kamiak defensive tackle would still prefer to play barefoot. Well, maybe not now. It's getting a little cold for the native of Suva, Fiji.
"It's more fun playing barefoot than wearing shoes," the 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior said. "You can feel the ground."
Knights coach Dan Mack remembers the first time he met Samuela. He showed up in the teacher's classroom and was taken with the quiet, well-spoken teenager.
As a teacher, Mack thought, "What a great kid."
As a coach, he noticed the big body and thought, "I hope he can play D-line."
Now, as Kamiak prepares to play at third-ranked Auburn in the in the Class 4A preliminary playoff round-of-32 Friday night, Mack has been proven correct on both points.
Mack eventually found a pair of cleats that fit Samuela's size-13 feet. But they are so wide he has had several blowouts.
Over the past two seasons, Samuela has grown from a rugby player who knew little about football to an adept defensive tackle.
"He didn't know exactly what he was doing, but he would go full speed where he was going," Kamiak quarterback Jake Sortor said. "We had to put him in the right spots, but when we did that, he just started making plays."
Samuela moved from Fiji to Missoula, Mont., for his sophomore year of high school. He received a brief introduction to football, but didn't really start to grasp the game until he arrived at Kamiak.
At first, he thought it strange that there was a break between each play. Samuela was used to the constant motion of rugby and soccer. Mack runs a conditioning drill called 10 seconds of glory. The idea is to play for a full 10 seconds, about four seconds longer than most football plays.
"We want to go to 10 seconds, and he wanted to keep going," Mack said.
Samuela also didn't understand the idea of double teams and being blindsided.
"In rugby, you're one-on-one," the 17-year-old said.
Eventually, Samuela started to figure things out. He played in a couple of junior varsity games last season, and every day in practice coaches worked with him playing the three-technique, a concept that at first felt as foreign as it sounds.
"It's really cool to see someone learn it from the ground up and see improvement every week," Sortor said.
As the Knights' season winds down, Samuela continues to scratch the surface of what Mack thinks is a deep well of talent. To see how far he has come in little more than a season gives the coach reason to believe he could play college football.
"He does have a future," Mack said. "I believe he's going to go on and play somewhere when people see his film and see where he started from."
In addition to becoming an impact player, Samuela has grown into a teammate that brings others together. When he plays on the defensive scout team and chases down Sortor, he sometimes releases a shrill scream that makes the quarterback laugh when he thinks about it.
"He just brings a lot of happiness and fun stuff to the program," Sortor said.
Samuela doesn't say much, but he has a flair for timing.
"All of a sudden, he'll say something very poignant where everybody will look and say, 'That was pretty good,' " Mack said.
As he learns the game, people are starting to take notice of his ability. The boy who wanted to play barefoot has become one of the Knights' driving forces.