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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Vainuku driven by warrior spirit

I drove four hours Wednesday to Eureka to see King Kong. I mean, how could I not? They weren’t charging admission. And I got almost as close to him as you are to reading this column without getting hurt — fortunate indeed as this time King Kong wasn’t carrying the football.

King Kong, known around here as Eureka running back Soma Vainuku, wasn’t playing the role however. Vainuku was so exceedingly polite, almost to the point of obsession, that it would have been rude for Vainuku to be arrogant.

His voice was surprisingly soft; in a room of 10 he would never be heard. And the swagger of the premier athlete was missing. I would never have known USC is calling him three to four times a week, that he has on-table scholarship offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Washington, Oregon State, Hawaii and San Diego State.

It is that way with the Polynesians, said his coach, Garrett Montana. Vainuku is Samoan-Tongan.

“Their bodies are built for football,” Montana said, “and they are warriors inside. But to meet them, to talk to them, they are as nice a people as you would want to meet.”

The warrior was there all right but I had to ask for the warrior to come out.

Has anyone ever laid a hat on you, really made you take notice?

“Big linemen jump on me when I’m on the ground,” Vainuku said. “But when I’m running? No, I haven’t yet had anyone give me a hit to wake me up. Not yet, anyway.”

I said it was rather slimy, a cheap shot, piling on someone who is defenseless.

“Happens all the time,” said Vainuku, lowering his eyes, shrugging, like what are you going to do? Get the football again for payback, possibly? Yes, most definitely.

“If you hit me hard,” Vainuku said, “I’m going to hit you harder.”

It is appropriate at this time to illuminate the physical specimen who just said that.

Last summer at nearby Humboldt State, working out with the Lumberjacks, Vainuku was run through some NFL Combine tests. He bench-pressed 465 pounds. He benched 225 pounds 30 times. He ran a 4.56 40. He had a 31-inch vertical. And he also jumped over an SUV in the parking lot. OK, OK, that last sentence is not true. The rest of it is.

He is 6-foot-1, 255 pounds. It is a legitimate, muscled weight. He is not a chubby buddy. He is not a bowlful of Jell-O. His handshake was a man’s handshake.

So, as so many have asked me since last Friday, yes, Soma Vainuku is the real deal.

He is also just 17 years old. Which makes all those numbers so bizarre. Seventeen-year-old kids aren’t supposed to be man-children. Seventeen-year-olds are still being formed, still 12-13 years away from reaching their peak of physical maturity.

Seventeen-year-old kids typically present the rough draft, the first sketch. Vainuku appears to be the finished product. With the attitude to make him dangerous.

“His size and intensity has been an issue for us in practice,” Montana said.

Meaning Montana has had to structure his practices to lessen the chance, if not remove it altogether, of Vainuku hurting his teammates. This fall, during double-days, free safety Jake Cruz tried to tackle Vainuku in a drill. Cruz hit Vainuku’s knee and sustained a concussion. Another Logger suffered a bruised sternum trying to tackle Vainuku.

“He said he didn’t know what year it was,” Vainuku said of Cruz.

Hell hath no fury like a chubby kid scorned. For years Vainuku wanted to play football but couldn’t, always weighing more than permitted in youth football. So he would be the ball boy at Logger games, starting at the age of 5, lasting all the way to 2003.

He would watch and he would wait and would wait with great anticipation.

“One day I knew I would get here,” he said. “One day I knew I would get a chance to distribute.”

“To distribute,” that’s Vainuku’s way of saying knocking the corpuscle out of someone. The thought of contact, the very nature of it, inspires Vainuku the way words inspire a poet.

“The first couple plays of every game,” Vainuku said, “I really like to distribute the hitting, letting the other team know we came to play.”

And if someone verbally responds, ready to face the challenge?

“It really fires me up,” Vainuku said.

Vainuku’s fires never really go out. Just the idea of running with a football keeps him up the night before a game. He usually doesn’t sleep much, going over and over in his mind his assignments and the contact, the plays and the contact, the thrill of competition and the contact. As if football was made for him and he for it. The NFL player he watches most is Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.

“He’ll hit anyone,” said Vainuku with deep admiration.

Sometime before his junior year, Vainuku said, this running back thing melded perfectly with his aggression, when the two came together to form the ideal couple as it were.

“Everything just clicked,” said Vainuku, who has run for 4,528 career yards at Eureka, 2,028 of them coming this season along with 35 touchdowns. “My vision (of the field) was there. It all just came together.”

It all came together so well that Vainuku, frankly, can’t describe what he sees, what he feels, what he thinks and what he does when he runs the football.

“I really can’t explain it except everything seems to slow down,” Vainuku said. “It’s just a natural reaction.”

This is the football equivalent of Willie Mays explaining how he hit a baseball: “I see the ball. I hit the ball.”

I see the hole. I hit the hole. If there are any defenders in the hole, I hit them, too.

“Soma has IT, you know what I mean?” Montana said. “You know IT, don’t you? Capital I. Capital T. The gift.”

The gift that everyone who plays the game wants but so few receive. The gift in which the game fits them like their name, like it’s their second skin. It was about that time, 18 months ago, that Vainuku saw D1 college football in his future and, exponentially, the NFL.

It’s not a difficult or an illogical leap to make, since Vainuku not only has the physical prerequisites but some DNA-linkage as well. Cousin Rey Maualuga, Eureka Class of 2005, was a three-time All-American linebacker at USC and is a rookie starter this year for the Cincinnati Bengals.

“I want to follow in Rey’s footsteps,” said Vainuku on why he wants to go to USC. Vainuku is being recruited by many colleges as a linebacker although USC is recruiting him as a running back.

In four years, barring injury, Maualuga will be 29 and Vainuku a rookie.

Would Vainuku prefer playing linebacker next to his cousin, who calls him 3-4 times a week? Or would Vainuku prefer being a running back on another team, looking at Maualuga across the line of scrimmage?

“I definitely want to be the running back coming at him,” Vainuku said.

Montana let out a small whoop when Vainuku said that.

“That’s the warrior spirit!”

Vainuku doesn’t want it any other way. Competition. Contact. Crunch a bunch. See who is better. Knowing no one will back down. Montana knows very well who he has, and his teammates do as well.

“They look up to him,” Montana said. “They get fired up by him.”

The Loggers even have a little saying, screamed by the entire team, made especially for Vainuku and the rainy conditions of Eureka football.

“God’s Going To Wet It Down And We’ll Let The Uce Get Loose!” Montana said.

“Uce” is Samoan for “brother.” As in, “Oh, Uce, here comes Soma Vainuku with that football again.”

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