The roster of the 2019 Campbell Sabers football team listed Kamaehu Kopa-Kaawalauole as a 6-foot, 175-pound freshman.
Not quite, he says.
“At the end of eighth grade, I was this skinny twig walking around. I was probably 6 foot, 140 or 150 pounds,” said Kopa-Kaawalauole, who transferred from Hawaii Technology Academy to Campbell. “At the end of ninth grade, I was 6-1 and a half, and 150.”
Kopa-Kaawalauole has grown in every way since then as a student and athlete. He wowed Nevada coaches during their camp last week, which led the Wolfpack to offer him a scholarship almost on the spot. He is 6-5 and 183 pounds as junior year approaches.
Kopa-Kaawalauole was stunned by the coaches’ attention, and then shocked when the offer came.
“They offered me after the camp. The coaches pulled me on the side. Coach Timmy (Chang) told me he was talking about me and said (to tight ends coach Chad Savage)? ‘Up to you.’ He said, ‘Can you pack on some weight by the end of sophomore year?’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘That’s what I like to hear. Then he offered me and I said, stop lying!”
The pandemic has sprouted some intriguing developments, some completely unexpected.
“He’s gotten bigger, faster and stronger. He’s working real hard and I know he’s focused. He wants to be a great player for us,” Campbell coach Darren Johnson said. “His focus is in all the right areas and he’s working hard in school. He’s taken care of business in every way. Now he just has to game up.”
Johnson believes Nevada is a prime fit for Kopa-Kaawalauole.
“That’s a great offer. A great place. If he decides to go there one day, we know he’ll fit in. He’s a college coach’s dream because he does everything right. He’s a coach’s kind of player because he listens,” Johnson said.
A 3.6 grade-point average doesn’t hurt, but it was his dedication in the weight room and on the field, as well as his penchant for academics, that led to great rewards during the global pandemic.
“At my house, we have a dumbbell machine, a barbell and weights, and an incline bench. We have a regular bench with the racks. My dad got all this my freshman year. Ever since I was young, I wanted to be a great football player and represent my family,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said.
While observing restrictions, he found ways to constantly — six days per week — to run routes and do non-stop drills, often alone. That led Nevada coaches to perk up when they got a close look at him. It was the tight ends coach, Savage, who made the first observatio. Soon enough, Chang, the former record-breaking Saint Louis and Hawaii quarterback, took note even though Kopa-Kaawalauole isn’t a speed demon.
“The 40, I ran a 4.7 or 4.8. It’s terrible. But they want a guy who’s deceptively fast and runs good routes,” he said. “Across the board, Nevada’s receivers are 6-4 and above, so it’s about, what’s different about you?”
Kawe Johnson, son of Darren and a former Star-Advertiser all-state football and basketball selection, has worked out Kopa-Kaawalauole since he was an aspiring middle schooler.
“I met him because I was at Campbell for a little while when he was in eighth grade. He already had a big frame, a long, lanky kid. He wasn’t the fastest, but he’s the type of kid you can tell him what to do and he’ll try to do it at 100-percent speed all the time,” Johnson said.
At one point, Darren Johnson told Kopa-Kaawalauole that he might switch to outside linebacker.
“So he started working with the defensive guys. No complaints. I told him, you got to get heavier. He started working out, gaining weight, lifting a little harder,” Kawe Johnson said.
Just when it seemed the world of four-wide offenses would take over the world, tight ends have surged into prime playmaking roles at pro and college levels.
“I think they’re recruiting him as a tight end. He’s got really good feet. He doesn’t run routes like a 4.8 40. He runs hard routes. He creates separation at the line of scrimmage, as well,” Kawe Johnson noted.
The dedication extends into the classroom. Kopa-Kaawalauole earned a 4.0 GPA as a sophomore and is driven to achieve more.
“Love your teachers and always, always do the extra credit when it’s given, even if you don’t think you need it. Trust me, you’ll need it in the future. There’s always going to be assignments that are too difficult and you can fall back on (extra credit),” he said.
Asking questions is part of his classroom life.
“Always ask for help, even when the teachers get mad. They might think you weren’t listening, but sometimes you just need some things to be repeated twice,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said.
While his Monday-through-Friday life is busy, weekends don’t let up. He works out with speed and quickness coach Kenny Patton on Saturdays. On Sundays, Kopa-Kaawalauole works out with Johnson’s high school group at Manana Park.
When the weekday grind restarts, he is often on a field with Campbell quarterback Shane Kuboyama-Hayashi, a 6-foot-3 sophomore.
“And the quarterback from Punahou, John-Keawe Sagapolutele, or the quarterback from UH, Chevan (Cordeiro). We’ve been training together since middle school. Shane and I were both with Kenny Patton,” he said. “But I’ve never played on the same team with him. Now I get to play with a tall guy.”
The consistency of work ethic is rare.
“I think recruiting has kind of hurt a lot of people through the pandemic,” said Kawe Johnson, who played football at New Mexico State. “But a lot of kids blossomed, as well. There were kids, you can tell were working through the pandemic. Coaches can tell when somebody’s been working or not. Kama’s one of those kids who found ways to get better through the pandemic.”
Kopa-Kaawalauole played at Village Park, where his father, James Kopa-Kaawalauole, was a coach. Then came a couple of years with the KapCity Hurricanes before he joined the squad at Ewa Beach Sabers.
“Coach Galu (Tagovailoa)’s brother was coaching the team with Pastor Tuli (Amosa). I was talking to my grandma, she’s close with the Tagovailoas. She says, ‘You gotta put him with Galu already!’ So we went and my first year, they divided (the team) into black and white (squads). The black team was stacked. That was probably the best year of football the Sabers’ white team ever had. We only lost two games that year, one against Waipahu and, I think, Aiea.”
Ewa Beach Sabers had a promising young passer named Mana Tarape.
“Mana was my quarterback for two, three years. He’s a great quarterback. That guy is unreal. It’s just sad because Mililani doesn’t use him,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said, not a bit shy about his bias.
Kopa-Kaawalauole used to wish his old friend, Tarape, would come to Campbell. Then Kuboyama-Hayashi enrolled.
‘Shane was with All-Blacks (Crusaders), then Mill Vill,” he said of the sophomore.
When Kopa-Kaawalauole was nearly done with freshman season with the JV at Campbell in the fall of ’19, things took a new turn.
“We were not the best JV team. I got pulled up to varsity. I can say I was terrible now that I look back at it. Maybe it wasn’t terrible, but compared to now, it’s just like, wow. It was my route running and my footwork. I’m not saying that I’m all that now, but my route running and footwork weren’t good,” he said.
Practicing with the varsity, with standouts Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala and brother Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, changed Kopa-Kaawalauole’s perspective.
“There’s a huge difference between varsity and JV. Varsity, that’s grown men. JV, you’re still learning how to adjust from middle school. Every practice was intense. Titus, Tama, Xavier Ceruti, grown men running across the football field,” he said. “It came down to what their grind was like. Some guys could be better, but they decided to chill it and say, hey, I’m on the varsity team.”
In ’19, then-starting quarterback Blaine Hipa was a sophomore. He completed 199 passes, not a single one to Kopa-Kaawalauole. Hipa is now a starter at Chandler (Ariz.) and Kopa-Kaawalauole has a scholarship offer. The COVID-19 pandemic created a new world for recruiters and prospects alike.
During that season, injured two-way standout Poki‘i Adkins-Kupukaa was legendary to Kopa-Kaawalauole.
“One of the greatest athletes ever. I remember when he was playing for Ewa Saints against my cousin. This was like elementary school. Then he went to the sabers. I was young and most of it my imagination, but he would hit somebody so hard that you would hear it on the other side of the park. When it came to making plays, he was the guy. He had that swagger about him,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said.
The inspiration of being surrounded by several elite playmakers honing their craft day by day was powerful. He keeps the momentum moving forward. Simplicity and precision.
“The (Campbell) system is still the same, but everything is run to perfection. Coach Kawe, he’s about the repetition of reps. The same thing every single day, every time you train. Even though it seems like simple drills, it’s more than that,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said. “A guy my height and age, footwork has to be on point and perfect. Training with Kawe and Kenny helps a lot.”
Savage and Chang weren’t completely surprised by Kopa-Kaawalauole, who had reached out to them before attending the camp.
“Coaches want to know what kind of person you are, your work ethic. They want to know how you will represent their school. You have to build a relationship,” he said.
Kopa-Kaawalauole hasn’t forgotten much, if anything, about his first college camp.
“It was my first rep. That first rep says everything about you. The coach gave me a go route and you have to make the most of your opportunities. The coach is watching. I had this guy beat and (the ball is) a little underthrown. I had to get up and make a play. I actually caught it, and everybody does the same thing,” he said. “I can attack certain points.”
Kopa-Kaawalauole was still in Reno when he spoke with a sportswriter.
“I’m just grateful for my first offer,” he said. “That’s just from working hard.”
He was born at Wahiawa Hospital. Most of his family, however, resides in Waimanalo and Ewa Beach.
“I went to Ewa Beach Elementary. The facilities weren’t the greatest, but we made it work and I was blessed with good teachers,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said. “The facilities are a lot better now. They have A/C! When I was there, I was sweating. As a kid, you just got done with recess and playing. A/C helps you focus.”
From there, his parents decided to enroll him at HTA.
“It’s funny. It’s located in a shopping center in Waipahu. Mondays, you don’t have school. You just do schoolwork at home. It’s located near the baseball field (at Hans L’Orange Park), down the road from Golden Coin,” he recalled. “I had no choice. I wanted to go to Ilima or Ewa Makai (middle schools) because that’s where all my friends were. My dad didn’t want me getting into trouble.”
It was a bit of a change, socially.
“HTA was for kids who were bullied at other schools. It worked, kind of, except I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I was tall. I was this local boy rolling into school with a lot of kids who got bullied. Everybody ended up liking me. I was never that kid of kid to bully others,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said.
The mixed distance- and in-person learning format at HTA also afforded him more free time.
“Seventh, eighth grade, I would lift weights before or after practice. I had that luxury because of home school. Weights give you that strength and a confidence boost. If I hadn’t lifted weights, I would be doing drills every day. I would be 150 (pounds), maybe 160 or 170,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said. “I would look like a tree.”
His weight gain is an ongoing process.
“I like steaks and chicken. It’s good for you, especially grilled chicken, and it gives you healthy weight. I throw in salads, oranges, apples and cucumbers just to snack on. You do need that nutrition from fruits and vegetables, and it helps clean out your system,” he noted. “It’s really a science. You have to figure out what works.”
There was some discussion about repeating a grade.
“If I wanted to get held back, I would’ve had to go to OLPH. Because I had the grades, my dad didn’t want me to repeat, which I totally understand. I was kind of introduced to the idea when I was at a young age. A lot of my friends repeated eighth grade,” he said.
And now, he has mixed feelings about the concept, one that is becoming more popular among young student-athletes.
“Now that I look back at it, if I did get held back, it would be a better option. It gives yourself that extra year to get ready for high school football. When you get held back, once you go to high school, you get put straight into varsity if you’re that good,” he said.
Kopa-Kaawalauole stayed in his grade. He has obeyed and worked, worked and obeyed. No regrets.
“Shout out to James Campbell High School, the guys playing. I’m not going to do well without my team. We have a lot of potential,” Kopa-Kaawalauole said. “And my mom (Kim Kopa-Kaawalauole), she’s a firefighter at the airport, and my dad. He coaches our D-line.”