OCEANSIDE — A 15-year-old sophomore quarterback at Oceanside High attempting to make the leap from freshman to varsity football, Tofi Paopao stood behind center Sept. 2 when the Pirates opened the season against Anaheim Servite.
Oceanside was riding a 39-game unbeaten streak. Gone were the core players who constructed the bulk of that streak. Servite, by the way, is now 10-0 and the No. 1-ranked team in Southern California.
The final: Servite 31, Oceanside 7. Paopao’s vitals that evening: zero touchdown passes, four interceptions.
“That,” said Oceanside coach John Carroll, “was his varsity baptism.”
At his father’s behest — and with the son’s buy-in — Paopao ran 16 100-yard sprints and lifted weights by himself the following morning.
The next week the Pirates visited Temecula Chaparral, then the 10th-ranked team in the state. The final: Oceanside 21, Chaparral 14. Paopao’s stats: 11-of-16 passing, 222 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions.
“Talk about a dramatic change,” said Carroll. “That was a huge, huge step in his progress as a football player and also a huge step in earning everyone’s confidence in him as a quarterback.”
Winners of six consecutive section titles, Oceanside opens the Division II playoffs Friday night at home against La Costa Canyon. The Pirates beat the Mavericks 38-14 last month.
After compiling that 39-game unbeaten streak, Oceanside has slipped a notch in 2010, finishing the regular season 7-3. Now it’s football’s second season. Lose and come Monday morning you’re turning in your gear.
Against that backdrop, the Pirates will count on Paopao, their 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore quarterback who has thrown for 1,825 yards and 18 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
“I don’t consider him a sophomore anymore,” said LCC coach Sean Sovacool. “He’s had 10 games as a starter. He hasn’t been perfect for them, but he’s been very good. And when you hear that name it’s got some credence. He’s lived up to the name.”
Ah yes, the name. Paopao (pronounced Pow-pow).
Stretching back to the early 1960s, a string of seven Paopao brothers played high school football in Oceanside. In chronological order, there was Paul, Ben, Buck, Junior, Joe, Tony and Mickey. They were dubbed Oceanside’s first family of football.
Joe coached and played quarterback in the Canadian Football League. Tony earned a scholarship to UCLA. Mickey led Oceanside to a section title in 1975, switched to El Camino when it opened in 1976 and guided the Wildcats to a section title as a 260-pound option quarterback/linebacker.
Four of the brothers — Paul, Ben, Buck and Mickey — are deceased.
Tofi is Paul’s grandson.
Three of the brothers played quarterback, and when Tofi was 6, his father, also named Paul, suspected there might be another throwin’ Samoan in the family. At a summer vacation in Virginia, family members headed outside to throw the football at a bordering golf course. Tossing a regulation-size ball, Paul started at close range with Tofi, then instructed him to gradually step back.
“I told him to go to a distance where I knew there was no way he could reach me,” said Paul, an assistant pastor at an Oceanside church. “It was 20, 25 yards. Not only did he reach me, but it was a perfect spiral. Right then I was like, holy smokes. From that day on I had him throwing to me.”
Paopao is a classic drop-back quarterback. His arm strength is excellent, particularly for his age.
But when assessing Paopao’s skill set, Carroll doesn’t mention the kid’s accuracy or arm strength. Carroll lists his quarterback’s steadiness under pressure, mental grasp of the game and willingness to stand in the pocket “and take a licking.”
Added Carroll, “The greatest thing about him is he deals with failure and success the same way. He just works hard.”
Paopao attributes his calmness under pressure not to football experience but to playing club basketball tournaments in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
He learned a valuable lesson last season when he was a freshman playing varsity basketball. Paopao said another student, who expected to compete against Paopao for the starting quarterback job this season, was provoking him during a Spanish class.
“He was just saying I’m terrible, I’m not going to do good if I start on varsity,” recalled Paopao. “He kept going on and on, and I got sick of it.”
Paopao punched the student in the face and was suspended for five days. Paul punished his son by taking away video games and making him do chores that included cutting the lawn with a machete, pulling weeds, cooking and cleaning.
Said Paul, “I told him if you’re going to use your hands for (fighting), you’re using them for the wrong reason.”
“I learned that if somebody tries to provoke you,” said Paopao, “keep it inside.”
Paopao’s discipline was tested after the loss to Servite. He said at least three times when he was walking the halls the next week, he heard students mutter, “You (stink).”
“I just kept walking,” he said.
Paopao is liked by his teammates, and not just because he throws a tight spiral. At 15, with his braces and seemingly permanent smile, he brings a youthful exuberance to a team steeped in a winning tradition.
“He makes football fun,” said senior running back/linebacker Noah Tarrant.
Added senior center David Vasquez, “That kid, if he gets his groove going, he’s going to be a special quarterback.”