He picked up his dad’s guitar and within a moment, Sione Tavo Motuapuaka felt home again.
“I rarely watch TV and movies,” the 6-foot-5, 280-pound Mililani junior said. “Usually on my free time, I’ll be trying to learn a new instrument or learn new songs on the ukulele or guitar.”
Moana Motuapuaka was a musician at the Hawaiian Hut back in the day, performing for more than two decades. That career led to his wife, Lisa, and two children who have found their path in another performing world.
Oldest son Hale Motuapuaka, who became a renowned fire and knife dancer, wound up at Utah State to play football. Younger brother Tavo, however, wasn’t sure exactly what would happen. A fibula injury while he played for Pac-Five ended his first year of high school football. Then came a season at Radford. This 2020-21 school year became excruciatingly complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. His junior season at Mililani was postponed, then cancelled in January.
There was so much potential with the Trojans under Coach Rod York. But the team couldn’t work out on campus. York keeps a close watch on his student-athletes academically. There was nothing he could do about the cancellation.
Meanwhile, Motuapuaka took the news about the cancellation hard. A month later, it was February. He decided to be assertive. He inquired with a training group-turned-club team, Trench Dawgz. Team founder Whitley Fehoko was an offensive line coach at St. Francis, coaching against Pac-Five when Motuapuaka suffered his leg injury in 2018.
“I find out we’re practically family. He heard about the Trench Dawgz,” Fehoko recalled. “We’re free (of cost). His mom said, ‘Go. Let’s go.’ He comes the first day and introduces himself.”
The Dawgz had seen an increase in daily turnout after revealing plans to travel to Southern California to play Winner Circle Athletics in a showcase-style event.
“I had just announced that we were going to start closing out tryouts. I’m studying him, and he’s working by himself on the side during water breaks. He becomes a sponge. He just does it. That’s what I brag to colleges about him. He’s so coachable,” said Fehoko, who played at San Diego State after graduating from Farrington.
In the time he spent working out with the Trench Dawgz’ lineup of pass rushers and offensive linemen, Motuapuaka became conformable with playing tackle after lining up inside during his career. Fehoko’s penchant for providing video clips on social media — something many of the Dawgz have done to open communication with college recruiters — became a valued tool for the talented new Dawg.
“I reposted his eight-second clip and tagged it to Coach Lew,” Fehoko said of Utah assistant coach Lewis Powell. “Tavo is Coach Lew’s cousin. Lew tells me, ‘Whit, a lot of family have been talking about Tavo, but I’m going to offer him right now. I didn’t know Tavo is technically sound.’”
That was on Thursday. Utah’s offer was followed by offers from San Diego State on Thursday night and Washington State the next morning — all three within a 24-hour span. Motuapuaka’s head was spinning from the get-go.
“It was really fast. I had a really hard time sleeping that (Friday) night,” said Motuapuaka, who normally hits the sack by 9:30 p.m. “That night, it was probably 11, 11:30.”
He recalls his conversation with Coach Powell.
“That was a lot of help from my coaches. (Utah) saw some training film and one-on-ones on Twitter. It was really nice talking to him. He really got to know me. It was a long talk, about 30 minutes, pretty late at night,” Motuapuaka said.
On Friday, he was on campus at Mililani when the second offer landed.
“It was during my lunch break. I actually go to school (in person). Twenty-five percent of the students go and I get to see my teachers,” Motuapuaka said. “My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I didn’t know why, but I just picked up the phone.”
Coach Savaii Eselu of SDSU was on the other end. It wasn’t tough connecting with the offensive lineman, whose phone number is posted on his Twitter page.
“He introduced himself. I like that he was talking about how strong the passion is at San Diego State. He brought up my current coach, Whitley Fehoko, is alumni there. San Diego State is known for their O-linemen, their ruggedness and toughness,” Motuapuaka said.
He called his mother after that.
“She told me, ‘Congratulations.’ She was happy for me. She was surprised, too. All of this was unexpected” he said.
Lunch break ended. He headed to Mr. Brett Cornelison’s chemistry class. After school, Motuapuaka’s mother picked him up.
“We went home. I got all my stuff to go training, and the Washington State (assistant) coach, Josh Omura, called,” he said. “We FaceTimed and he was mid-practice. He showed me the field and the players practicing. That was basically him showing me around, getting to know me, showing interest in me.”
While he was working out, Motuapuaka missed two calls from WSU assistant coach Craig Stutzmann, a former Hawaii assistant coach and player.
“I called him back and we were talking story. When he was at UH, he offered my older brother, Hale. He knew my family pretty well. He said, ‘Congratulations, we’re offering you a scholarship to Washington State,’” Motuapuaka said.
The weekend normally includes a pre-sunrise workout with the Trench Dawgz at the beach. This time, the team was focused on a fundraiser. Kalua pig from the imu.
“We just had to get the banana leaves and rocks on Saturday night. We came back and started around 7 in the morning. It was in Papakolea at one of the uncle’s houses. We had to shred the kalua pig from the (cooked) pork butt. Forty players, we each sold 25 pounds,” he said. “And we bought some for ourselves.”
Motuapuaka was as tired as any other Dawg, but he stopped by Coach Steely Malepeai’s home with some kalua pig.
“Coach Steely helped me with everything in football. He helped me get in shape, condition and helped me with footwork the past six months,” he said. “I can’t really relax now. I feel like I have to keep working my hardest. There’s always room for improvement.”
The process won’t stop with three offers. Hawaii and Syracuse are interested.
“I don’t really have a dream school. I would have to visit before I make a decision. I don’t think I would commit early. I would wait until after senior season and really think about it. It would probably be a family decision, not just what I want,” Motuapuaka said.
Top 3 music artists
1. Bob Marley – “Ride Natty Ride”
2. Credence Clearwater – “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”
3. Brooks & Dunn – “Neon Moon”
Top 3 food/snack/drinks
1. Tasty Chicken, Aiea Bowl.
“It’s like a better version of the Zippy’s Korean Chicken. I feel like it’s juicier and the texture has that crunch on the outside.”
2. Mom’s fried rice
“Eggs, Spam, Portuguese sausage. Sometimes she puts steak in it instead of Spam.”
3. Peanut butter smoothie
“Sometimes I make this with my protein (shake) after I work out. Peanut butter, banana, milk and a little bit of ice cream.”
Fun and healthy
“I just play basketball for fun and to be in condition. I also enjoy boxing, but not for real kind, but to keep in shape. The heavy bag, sparring sometimes with Coach Steely. Instead of running, we would hit mitts.”
New life skill
“I just picked up the guitar. I found my dad’s old guitar during quarantine. His name is Moana. He still plays. He was a musician for the Hawaiian Hut show, from 1985 to 2008. He met my mom at the show. She was a performer at the show. Hula dancing, Tahitian dancing. My brother (Hale) is really a performer. He does the fire and knife dance. He’s a six-time world champion.”
“Shout out to all of my coaches like Steely Malepeai. The workouts were at his house so every night, and he fed me dinner. Shout outs to my coach, Whitley Fehoko and my coach from school, Rod York. He actually fed me at school every day. He would keep me in check academically, making sure I keep up with my school work. My uncle, Dino Alvarez. He has strong support for me ever since I was a little kid. He would show up to my games. If I get a sack, he would give me $10. A tackle is $5. A touchdown would be $20. I was always a big boy, but my coaches would let me run in short yardage and give me the rock. As a little kid I was always playing both ways. Our team wasn’t the biggest. We didn’t have the biggest numbers. I played for Halawa Knights in the JPS league.”