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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Notre Dame-bound Utupo will leave a lasting impression

Some high school football players give coaches headaches and tribulations. Others give them moments of ecstasy and memories that last decades.

But some players, like Lakewood senior defensive end Justin Utupo, found something unique to give his coach, and left Thadd MacNeal speechless in the process.

Earlier this season, Utupo and his family - as deeply rooted in Lakewood as any tree - gave a Kava Bowl in gratitude for what MacNeal has done for their son.

A Kava Bowl is a sacred item in Samoa. Tradition holds that it is given to chiefs and often passed down from royalty to people who have done something for the greater good of the Samoan community or family.

Utupo's father received his Kava Bowl as such a gift, and passed it on down to MacNeal - whose jaw still hits the ground every time he thinks of it.

"It's a gorgeous thing, large and with legs," MacNeal said this week as Lakewood prepares for Friday's CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division playoff opener against Newport Harbor. "I was flattered to get it and that was before I knew what it meant."

Simply, it meant the Lancer family took in Utupo and his family, and now MacNeal and his coaches have been taken in by the Utupos.

"It's something a Samoan family will do on special occasions," the Notre Dame-bound Utupo said in a soft voice Tuesday before practice.

"Coach helped me a lot. He gave film of me to a Notre Dame coach and a recommendation. He always says `it's you,' that they didn't recruit me just because he gave them a film.

"But I know other kids in the program who have the same story. They hear from schools and find out that Coach was the one who sent them film or talked to a coach about them. Coach does this out of love for his kids. It's a real family here."

A good football team is like a family, and family is intrinsically important to the Lakewood Utupos. Justin's older sisters Jane and Denise are Lakewood grads. He and his sister Emma currently attend Lakewood. His younger brother Jared will start at Lakewood in the fall.

"He's a baller," Justin said. "He's bigger now as an eighth grader than I was at the same age. He has the potential to make everyone forget about me."

Family also was a reason why he accepted Notre Dame's scholarship offer as soon as the Irish made it. He was floored that a school with its traditions welcomed him as quickly as it did.

"It's every kid's dream to play at the highest level," he said, "and Notre Dame is a school that everyone respects. When they offered me a scholarship, it was like `whoa, this is a great football program but also a great school that offers me a great education.' And the campus feels like a big family.

"It wasn't a hard decision."

It wasn't hard for Notre Dame and Charlie Weis to make Utupo a pre-emptive offer. He's that good. He has tremendous physical maturity and size as a high school senior, a chiseled 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, and he easily will be able to add more weight and muscle to his frame.

He's one of those players whose work often goes unnoticed because he's so adept at doing his job. He's not demonstrative on the field but respected for his leadership and toughness by his teammates.

There was a moment in Lakewood's Moore League-clinching win over Wilson when Utupo stood up Ezell Ruffin at the line all by himself, making it seem as if Ruffin had run into a wall. Utupo stood quietly by - no fist pump, no celebration.

"I just do my job, and inspire my teammates to do their job," he said.

Lakewood has a talented defense in general. Linebacker Keanu Kaholo has 77 tackles and Dion Bailey, Brennan Kelly and Rashad Wadood have 11 interceptions combined. But MacNeal said Utupo - 52 tackles, 71/2 sacks, four fumbles caused and three recovered, plus four TDs on four catches on offense - is its hub.

The last two summers, Lakewood participated in a passing league in Oregon. Even though he's an end and doesn't play much pass coverage, he went anyway for the learning experience and chance to further bond with his teammates.

Bernard Riley, the former Los Alamitos High and USC standout and current Lancers' line coach, says Utupo is the best technician he's ever coached.

"He makes all of the plays he's supposed to make," Riley said. "That's the thing in high school. A kid can make a `Notre Dame' play from time to time and then makes mistakes on the simple things. Justin has his six Notre Dame plays every game, and makes all the little ones, too. You don't realize how important that is.

"He's an emotional leader but not a rah-rah guy. He loves to play, and he loves to practice, which is also unusual. Some kids hate practice. He can't wait to put his pads on.

"He has the best hands, feet and mind of anyone I've coached, and he's only going to get bigger and better. Notre Dame will very happy."

Utupo is aware that the Irish have struggled of late and Weis' job is in jeopardy. But he likes the man when they met and he wants to play for him.

He can do a lot for Weis' career, and Notre Dame in general, if he can hand them a bowl or two, too - not necessarily a Kava Bowl, but perhaps a Sugar or Orange Bowl.

bob.keisser@presstelegram.com

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