(Below is the extended version of a feature story on Kahuku football player Salanoa-Alo Wily. The slightly shorter version was published in Tuesday’s edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.)
Beyond the B-plus grade-point average and the wrecking-ball style of play, he just wanted to come home.
Salanoa-Alo Wily is a walking contradiction to some. At 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds, he loves to draw. He hits the books consistently. As a fullback at Kamehameha during his first two seasons of high school, he was a lead blocker and occasional ballcarrier. Back then he was a mere 260 pounds.
But after that fall season of 2012, he couldn’t deny himself anymore. He yearned to be home in Laie, surrounded by family and friends. He pulled up and transferred back home to Kahuku High School.
He hasn’t regretted it since. Even as Kahuku went through administrative and coaching changes a year later — coincidentally, Kamehameha had some big changes, too, in the ’12-13 year — Wily stayed right there. Well, more or less, right there.
First, then-coach Reggie Torres and his staff had Wily play part-time as a running back and introduced him to the world of the trenches. He got his first taste of playing defensive tackle right there at Carleton Weimer Field.
This year, things were a little different. Coach Torres departed when the new administration required all coaches to re-apply for their jobs. First-year coach Lee Leslie didn’t change Wily’s dual role.
“Salanoa-Alo is a great, great kid,” Leslie said. “He’s one of the most humble kids I’ve ever met. It’s almost a non-football comment, but he’s one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met and he’s one of the most tenacious players I’ve ever seen. His mother has done a good job and his father’s done a good job. If we rode him on offense.”
Wily simply came to love his new line of work as a nose tackle/defensive tackle taking on one or two blockers on every snap.
“I like playing defensive tackle. I like the challenge, the work. You’ve got to work hard to earn your play,” he said.
His enchantment with the gory life in the trenches hasn’t changed his preparation, though. In the OIA Division I title game on Friday, he was ready to step up. With running back Kesi Ah-Hoy dinged up with an injury, Wily became the feature back in Kahuku’s I-formation and ran for 70 yards on just nine carries. With Tuli Wily-Matagi at quarterback, Mililani’s defense had to play honest, and that left Wily with some workable space. His footwork and brute strength, running through a tackler in the secondary for a big gain, got Kahuku’s fans amped up.
Then came a head injury to Wily-Matagi on a long run, and Kahuku’s offense was never the same. Mililani locked down defensively and Wily had nowhere to run. The Trojans won their second OIA title in a row with a 20-7 victory.
The good news for the Red Raiders is that life goes on when the state tournament kicks off. The OIA’s Division I runner-up will play Hilo in the 7:30 p.m. game on Friday at Aloha Stadium.
Salanoa and Alo are names that ring though generations. Salanoa is his great-grandmother’s last name and Alo is his great-grandfathers last name. Older brother Aofaga Wily is one of the greatest running backs in state history, now an assistant coach with Kahuku.
And even with his homegrown ties, Wily was up every morning at 5 a.m. to get on the Kamehameha school bus starting in seventh grade. The pickup was at Foodland, 5:30 a.m. sharp.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was doing it because of my parents,” he said.
He played intermediate football in seventh and eighth grade, then JV football for the Warriors as a freshman. (The ILH does not permit freshmen to play varsity football.) An uncle brought him home from practice every night.
“After three years of going there, I felt like it was time to come home,” he said.
Halfway through sophomore year, he enrolled at Kahuku.
“The hardest part was leaving some of the boys I was close to, especially the guys who went there with me from Laie like Alohi Gilman and Mika Tafua,” Wily said.
Gilman wound up leaving at around the same time, moving to Utah for a year before returning to the islands. He’s a standout defensive back with Kahuku. Taufa, one of the state’s top defensive linemen, remained at Kamehameha.
“I always talk to Mika. We check up on each other. We miss going to school together. We were really close to him going to school together,” Wily said. “Always being away from home for a long time, it’s hard. You learn to love it. You just do what you’ve got to do. ”
Yet, the pull of home never leaves.
“Growing up around here, you’re already adjusted to it,” he said.
Coming home meant taking on the task of being on the front line, literally. Instead of becoming a 1,000-yard rusher — he has 360 yards and three TDs (7.3 yards per carry) as a part-time running back — Wily’s value as the key cog in Kahuku’s swarming defense is beyond measure. He’s a 270-pounder with the agility and nimble feet of a player 100 pounds lighter.
“Last year was my first year playing defense. Coach Reggie wanted me to play nose guard. A lot of people can’t do it. Not a lot of people can play D-line. We don’t get the glory most of the time. We do everything for those behind us. We don’t make the plays and we accept it. You do what you’ve got to do,” he said.
“The way we’re taught is, if we’re making the play and not the linebacker, we’re not doing our job. We’re taught to keep the O-lineman from getting to the ‘backer. We’re not on the field to make plays,” Wily said.
The grind of the trenches is something few running backs would embrace, but in less than two years, Wily has thrived on it. He committed to Hawaii in the offseason. Oregon State chased him after that, but he stuck with the Rainbow Warriors.
“I always felt strongly about UH. I always wanted to go to UH. I always had dreams of staying home and playing ball,” he said.
Wily has a 3.2 GPA.
“My parents are strict on that,” he said.
He’s taken the SAT once, but plans on taking it a second time.
“I haven’t been able to take the (SAT) prep class yet. There’s going to be one for the football boys soon,” he said.
Wily’s hoping to play right away at UH. If the coaching staff redshirts him, he’ll have a chance to work on speed and technique, he said, but he’d rather get on the field.
“I have a hard time during bye weeks. Staying away from football is hard. Bye weeks, I’m bored,” he said.
Thinking of the future, that’s part of Wily’s mindset. But the present matters, and he’s glad that he and his team have learned from the past. His favorite memory from this season isn’t a happy one. It’s the 20-19 upset loss at Kaiser, when Wily and his teammates committed seven turnovers. Coach Leslie attributed Wily’s fumble to fatigue — too many snaps on offense after going full-bore on defense, but Wily is grateful for the painful lesson of that night.
“It was a big wake-up call. We all took it bad at first, and then we ended up looking at it in a good way. From then, everybody started to work harder,” he said.
Now, the Red Raiders have more adversity with the injury to Wily-Matagi as the state-tournament matchup with BIIF champion Hilo looms. When Kahuku’s war chant goes full volume in Aloha Stadium, cue to Wily the protector. Coming home was his choice, and he’s relishing every moment in the trenches.