Jesse Sapolu is Centurians #6

HSB note: “A heart condition, caused by a rheumatic fever infection when he was a 5-year-old in American Samoa, made little Jesse Sapolu stick out as an elementary school kid in Kalihi.”

About how his heart condition prevented him from playing sports in Elementary School, Jesse Sapolu said:
“I was old enough to be embarrassed, not speaking English, but not here long enough to know the territory. I couldn’t play P.E. all the way to seventh grade, not even kickball. Whenever I got to play, I said I’m never going to complain.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “That’s why, on the night of Dec. 1, 1979, it could’ve been easy for Sapolu to call it a career night. Not only had he become a stellar athlete at Farrington High School, Sapolu was an anchor for Hawaii in a 29-17 upset win over nationally-ranked Arizona State. Sapolu was a true freshman who had played brilliantly on the offensive and defensive lines. Then-UH coach Dick Tomey hasn’t forgotten.”

About how Sapolu played both OL and DL as a freshman in their win over Arizona State, Dick Tomey said:
“He was very willing to play both ways. We’d complete a series, I’d wave my hand. Stay in there and play. He was willing to do whatever it took to help.” (HSB)

About talking with Sapolu as the Arizona State game was about to end, Tomey said:
“The game was winding down and I said, ‘You could’ve been over there.’ He said, ‘I’m so glad I’m over here.'” (HSB)

HSB Note: “Just months earlier, Sapolu was set to become a Sun Devil before Tomey talked him into staying home. That gave UH an O-line that also featured future pros Kani Kauahi, Jim Mills and Bernard Carvalho, clearing the way for super back Gary Allen. The season-ending win gave UH a 6-5 winning mark in its first campaign as a Western Athletic Conference member. It was especially sweet because ASU had dumped the WAC the year before to join the Pac-10.”

About Sapolu, Kani Kauahi (who transferred from Arizona State to UH) said:
“The first time I met Jesse, we were talking about him going to Arizona State. Jesse was a tiger, man. He was an animal.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “Hawaii went 8-3 and 9-2 in the next two seasons and earned the respect of pollsters nationwide. Jim Donovan, now UH’s athletic director, was a backup on the O-line during that ride.”

Praising Sapolu, JD said:
“Jesse was one helluva offensive lineman, maybe the best ever from Hawaii. Certainly the best guard-center combination.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “Keith Ah Yuen was a reserve tackle-guard when Sapolu arrived as a freshman.”

About how Sapolu remember their first meeting years later, Keith Ah Yuen said:
“He came to his first meeting on crutches with a sprained ankle. Years later, he’s back for his second Pro Bowl and he asks me how he’s doing. I said, ‘You’re playing in the Pro Bowl.’ But he says, ‘I’m asking you because when I came in as a freshman, you were thinking this guy’s not going to amount to anything. That’s the look you had. I was going to prove you wrong.'” (HSB)

About how Sapolu and he were among the few players who regularly competed against DT Tom Tuinei in practice, Ah Yuen said:
“Jesse came in and he was cultured, could speak well, but all the Kalihi guys had that competitive, ‘hood mentality on the field. People would be scared to go up against Tom. Jesse wanted to go up against the best. He always tried to line up against Tom.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “How did Sapolu choose UH over Arizona State? His mother, Lila, wanted to see her son stay close to home — no surprise considering the family had already come a long way. The Sapolus moved to Hawaii from American Samoa after Jesse became ill. By his senior year in high school, though, he had overcome his heart condition and became one of the state’s top prospects.”

About how Coach Tomey recruited him, Sapolu said:
“Dick Tomey came to our home. Ross (Hannemann), Mufi’s brother, had told him, ‘You sit on the floor because that’s the ultimate sign of respect.’ My mom was so shocked, they got out of their seats and sat him on the couch.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “On another occasion, Tomey paid a visit on a Sunday morning. Jesse’s father, Pa’apa’a, was preaching at Samoan Congregational Christian Church of Honolulu, but Jesse was out of sight.”

About Tomey visiting his church on a Sunday morning, Sapolu said;
“It was a good thing and a bad thing. I’d snuck out to go watch NFL games on TV. My dad was told by my sister that Tomey was there and they called me back into church.” (HSB)

About how he stayed at Sapolu’s church for a long time, Tomey said:
“Jesse wasn’t in church, but I went to listen to his dad. It seemed like the service lasted a long time and I’m not understanding what’s going on. I’m sitting there in the pew for a half-hour and his sister comes back, motions to me, ‘Coach, Coach, we can go in the house now. This is the financial report.’ I’m listening there like it’s the sermon.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “They can laugh about it now, but underneath the misunderstanding was Tomey’s diligent approach to recruiting.”

About that church incident, Tomey said:
“I’m this dumb haole, just trying to be respectful to his family and his dad’s church.” (HSB)

About how Sapolu was patient and cautious through the recruiting process, Tomey said:
“He deliberated for a long time. I never take anything for granted. I just felt recruiting’s the lifeblood of football. If you’re not out there working, in every single home as many times as you’re allowed and making contact, you’re not doing everything you can do. That was my feeling. I have so much respect for Jesse and his family.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “Players like Blane Gaison, who arrived on campus a few years before Sapolu, had opted to stay and give Tomey a try rather than leave. Among local high school recruits, Tomey puts Sapolu in a category of his own.”

About the importance of Sapolu picking UH, Tomey said:
“He was the first terrific player to stay home.” (HSB)

About why he chose UH, Sapolu said:
“Dick Tomey’s a helluva recruiter.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “Sapolu did his part, of course. All-WAC honors preceded four Super Bowl rings during the San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the 1980s and ’90s.

Even with a monumental pro career, he’s quick to rattle off his favorite wins in a UH uniform. The Arizona State win was big, but so was the victory over Colorado State, another game that called for his defensive play.

He remembers the loss to Nebraska. Hawaii led 16-7 in the fourth quarter before falling, 37-16. Wins over South Carolina and West Virginia — the latter saved on a blocked field goal by Niko Noga — also stand out.”

About their 1981 season, Sapolu said:
“We were 9-2. Ranked 17th in the UPI, 16th in the AP.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “Shortly after losing to Hawaii, Arizona State was placed on two-year probation by the NCAA for 30 rules violations. Sapolu seemed to have a knack for picking the right path, even if the road was bumpy early on.”

About the opportunity he had at Damien, Sapolu said;
“I went there on scholarship after begging my doctors to relent.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “But the school later learned about his heart condition and wouldn’t allow him to play. Then he went to McKinley, but came back to his district school, Farrington, and flourished under head coach Al Espinda, Harry Pacarro and line coach Gordon Miyashiro.

These days, Sapolu is busy with his duties as the 49ers alumni coordinator, and his four children. His only daughter, Lila, played volleyball at Chaminade. Son London recently committed to play football at UH and another son, Roman, plays for Edison High in Huntington Beach, Calif.”

About the example he set for his kids, Sapolu said:
“The thing that makes me happy is my kids can understand the impact, to make a name for themselves. What people remember is how you treated them off the field. I make time, and if I don’t, I make an effort to explain. Without the fans, none of us exist.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “EVEN WITH ALL the injuries — three during his first three pro seasons — and the constant checkups on his heart condition, Sapolu became an elite athlete in the trenches. At 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, he was a highly mobile offensive lineman who was an easy fit in the 49ers’ West Coast offense.”

About how both he and Bob McKittrick believed in the Crowther, a sled that is still the basis for fundamental OL technique at many programs, Tomey said:
“Bob McKittrick was their line coach and he liked players that could really move. Jesse understood that progression and could execute it perfectly. That was something they felt was unique with Jesse. Most college players had not been taught that progression. It takes a long time to learn. Jesse’s mastery of it made a difference. There’s a videotape out there someplace of Jesse with the fundamental use of the Crowther that’s perfect.” (HSB)

HSB Note: “That ability to stay ahead of the pack wasn’t new. Sapolu was drilled and disciplined by the time he arrived at UH thanks to Farrington’s coaching staff.”

About how Farrington prepared him for UH, Sapolu said:
“UH was pleasantly surprised at how far along I came.” (HSB)

Gordon Miyashiro, now at Word of Life, was the O-line coach, and they still keep in touch.
About how he still keeps in touch with his OL coach at Farrington, Gordon Miyashiro, who is now at Word of Life, Sapolu said:
“Last year, the first thing out of his mouth is, ‘Jesse, I have a kid 6-4, 6-5, who might be better than you.’ I said, ‘You’ve said that 14, 15 times.'” (HSB)

HSB Note: “In 1997, Sapolu became prominent in medical journals as the first U.S. patient to undergo the Ross procedure, which repaired his damaged left aortic valve and prolonged his NFL career for one final season.”

About how he had heart surgery instead of retire from the 49ers, Sapolu said:
“The doctor said, ‘Your heart is like one in an old man.'” (HSB)

HSB Note: “Instead, he opted in favor of surgery. His right aortic valve had done virtually all the work and his left valve had enlarged. The procedure required two delicate steps: replacing the faulty valve with his own pulmonary valve and proximal pulmonary artery; then, replacing the pulmonary valve with a human cadaver aortic valve and proximal aorta.”

About why he had that procedure, Sapolu said:
“It’s crazy if you look at it from the outside, but I didn’t want kids with the same condition to suffer like I did. You can do the procedure, go back and chase your dream.” (HSB)

HSB NOte: “Four days after the surgery, Sapolu left the hospital. After one week, his enlarged valve had shrunk. After three weeks, he was running again. Eight months later, each valve was basically normal-sized again, and he was cleared to play a final season.”


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