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Saturday, October 16, 2010

* Comment * Email * Print * Blog This * * Follow Jaguars Island roots run deep for Jaguars teammates Vince Manuwai, Tyson Alualu

There were plenty of examples of what not to do, Tyson Alualu and Vince Manuwai never had to look far to see those.
It was there in friends who chose to be gang members instead of athletes. Sitting on a wall beside a local store. In Alualu's own home, where his father, now a pastor, once was a criminal.
Their lives started in the same place — in a public housing project called Kuhio Park Terrace, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Honolulu. It's a place that made them who they are, a place removed from the beaches and resorts that constitute cliched images of Hawaii.
"I'm never embarrassed to say I grew up there, because that's what made me be a stronger person and able to be here to what I'm doing now," Manuwai said.
While their paths to the NFL diverged, this year Alualu and Manuwai found themselves right back together, this time in Jacksonville.
The journey is just beginning for Alualu — the Jaguars selected the defensive tackle first overall in last year's draft. It's almost over for Manuwai — the Jaguars selected the guard in the third round in 2003. He started every game he played through 2009, and then found himself in a battle to remain on the roster this summer.
However long it lasts, it started in KPT, a place that doesn't mean violence, negativity and poverty to them. It means family, friends and a sometimes difficult lifestyle that makes them proud.
Hard to leave the island
Manuwai chose that life as a child. The oldest of seven children, his mother married a military man when he was young. She moved around bases on the mainland while Manuwai stayed on the island with his grandmother.
At 11 years old, Manuwai's mother took him with her to Virginia to live, along with her husband and his siblings. To some it would have seemed a better lifestyle, living on a military base rather than in a public housing project. But Manuwai didn't like being away from the island.
They lived in Virginia for two years before returning to Honolulu on a two-month visit. When the rest of the family went back, Manuwai stayed.
"Just the pace of life, so fast, how hard the work was," Manuwai said. "It was a lot harder than Hawaii, definitely. It was just tough."
He preferred the laid-back feel back home.
Manuwai didn't play football until attending public high school, and he learned quickly. As he remembers it, gang members never hassled Manuwai, they even chased him away when he would try to sneak a peek at initiations.
Manuwai figured he would just get a job after high school, but suddenly colleges were interested in him. So he went to Hawaii on scholarship, again assuming once he was through there, he would get a job somewhere.
Instead, the Jaguars drafted him in the third round of the 2003 draft.
Back on the island, Manuwai knew about a neighborhood kid named Tyson, the little brother of some of his classmates at Farrington High School. He'd see little Tyson running around in his Pop Warner pads and had no way of knowing their paths would lead them to exactly the same place.
A father's past in prison
The images of gang activity, violence and drugs were familiar to Alualu. As a small boy of five or six years old, he saw his father involved in that dangerous and illegal lifestyle.
"I remember going in town on the streets and seeing him doing drugs and beating up people," Alualu said. "Getting into fights, carrying weapons. ...I don't know, even though my dad was doing all these things, I still looked up to him."
His father, Ta'avao Alualu went in and out of prison in Alualu's youth, convicted multiple times on assault and drug charges. Alualu, his mother and sisters were constantly running from him.
"Everything I did, running game rooms, even drugs, violence ... it caused me to abandon my life. My wife, my children," Ta'avao said.
In 1994, Ta'avao was released from prison for what he swore would be the last time. Upon his release, he dedicated himself to his family and his faith.
Those family members who were old enough to understand were wary at first.
"They were watching, actions speak louder than words," Ta'avao said. "I didn't smoke cigarettes anymore. The way I talked, actions were totally different. I just cast everything unto the Lord and God just cleaned me. He just cleansed me and cleaned me. My kids they testified that they had a new daddy."
Tyson was just glad to have his father back at home. He did two things for his kids. First, he made church a major part of their lives, eventually becoming a pastor. Second, he enrolled all his children in sports, including his son Tyson and daughter Tatiana in football. She played linebacker and running back.
As Tyson got older, his football ability showed. Unlike Manuwai, he attended the private Hawaiian high school St. Louis, which had produced several other NFL players, on scholarship. The idea that he would play football in college and one day in the NFL was a solid goal for Alulau.
"I think when Tyson went to St. Louis High School, the stakes were raised," said Kenny Zuckerman, Alualu's agent with Priority Sports and Entertainment. "Then he went to Cal-Berkeley. A lot of players don't see themselves ever getting off the island."
Transitioning to the mainland was hard, though, just as it was for Manuwai.
"I missed everything about Hawaii," Alualu said. "I missed my girlfriend at the time [now his wife]. She was back home pregnant. I just had to go home."
Instead his girlfriend, Desire, went to California, and that helped.
Alualu led all Pac-10 linemen with 65 tackles. He was the Bears' three-time winner of the Brick Muller Award, for the team's most valuable defensive lineman. Integrity and trust — the kind he developed for his father — became a big part of Alualu's life.
In his senior year, when agents began calling, Alualu asked them to let him finish the season first. Most ignored his request. He picked Zuckerman in part because Zuckerman listened.
He was a relatively unknown player coming into this year's draft. The Jaguars shocked nearly everyone by taking him 10th overall.
That didn't shock Ta'avao. Earlier that morning he had walked out to a plot of land near his home. He wrote "Top 15" on a piece of paper while visiting this land. When Tyson signed his contract, he decided to spend part of his signing bonus on that plot of land and a church for Ta'avao's congregation to call its own.
Different NFL careers
Alualu and Manuwai spent their offseasons in very different ways. Manuwai struggled through OTAs, still not fully over a 2008 ACL tear.
"It sucked," Manuwai said.
Alualu spent it getting used to being an NFL player, stunned at people wanting his autograph.
"He's shy," said D'Anthony Smith, who lived with Alualu during minicamp after being drafted in the third round of this year's draft. "He'd be like, 'Dude, they want our autographs.' I'm like, 'What are you talking about Tyson? You're the No. 1 draft pick. Of course they want your autograph.'"
Manuwai stayed on the mainland instead of going home to Hawaii where his wife and children now live.
He had to get his knee stronger; he had to play better if he wanted to start or even stay on the team.
"This job ain't very long," Manuwai said. "It's not 30 years that you're here. It's kind of a year-to-year thing. ... This is the reality what I faced before this season. Wow, am I going to be here? What's going to happen?"
Alualu returned to Hawaii after OTAs, waiting on his agent and new team to work out the details of his contract. His holdout lasted four days before he agreed to a deal worth $28 million with just under $17.5 million in guarantees. The kind of money that changes lives, but changing his own life wasn't what Alualu was after.
"I don't think he's going out and trying to change his lifestyle," Zuckerman said. "I mean, if it wasn't for [former Jaguar] Chris Naeole selling him his home, I wouldn't be shocked if he lived in an apartment and rented it forever."
Manuwai remembers what that first year felt like.
"You start off they give you a check for half a million, you're like oh .... can't beat that," Manuwai said. "I'm like all right, let me see how long this is going to last."
Manuwai asked to go against Alualu for an Oklahoma drill which pits linemen in one-on-one battles against one another. At Alualu's second camp practice, he and Manuwai battled to a draw.
Maunwai lost his starting guard job to Justin Smiley and handled the demotion gracefully. He knew his team might need him at some point — and it did last weekend in Buffalo when Smiley went out with foot injury.
Alualu recorded a sack on his very first NFL play, in a preseason game. He's fourth on the team with 27 tackles, third with seven quarterback pressures and has 1.5 sacks.
Remembering their past
When Manuwai goes back to KPT these days, his old friends try to clean up before he arrives. They get embarrassed to show him their homes.
"I'm like man, we grew up in roaches — roaches would crawl all over your body when you're sleeping," Manuwai said. "Now they look at you like you're different. I'm like man, you don't have to clean up for nothing. I'm used to all that."
Manuwai doesn't want anyone to apologize for KPT because he never does. Neither does Alualu. He was a speaker at a celebration the community had earlier this year.
"In Hawaii you say KPT and the only thing that pops in your head is a bunch of negative things because of how the media portrays it," Alualu said. "It's good that we celebrate all the good things that are happening now in the community. All the good things that came from the community."
He's been away from the island long enough that it doesn't make him homesick anymore, especially with his wife and two young children living in Jacksonville.
"This far passes all my dreams," Alualu said. "Where I'm at now. Just being here is a blessing for me. I'm happy where I'm at today but I'm a long ways from where I feel I need to be, where I want myself to be at this level."
And as Alualu learns how to grow into his position, Manuwai knows the days of his career are numbered. He expects to go back to Hawaii when it's over. His life, and the lives of his children, won't be in KPT, but the neighborhood will remain with him.

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