Former Kaimuki Bulldog recalls transformation from player to coach under late Matt Faga

Matt Faga, at right, and Allen Fortson, left, enjoy a moment with former Kaiser defensive lineman Zeno Choi. Faga died on Saturday, leaving a legacy for his former players, including Fortson and Choi. Photo courtesy of Allen Fortson.

It took no time for Matt Faga to walk from the highest level of the game back to his roots.

Faga died on Saturday at 39, a victim of COVID-19 complications. The football community, from Kaimuki to Kaiser to Kahuku, remains in disbelief. He was an assistant coach at Kahuku under head coach Sterling Carvalho and defensive coordinator Sola Soliai, mentoring and guiding young players with the Rebel Squad in the offseason. The former Kaimuki and Hawaii standout defensive tackle went immediately into coaching when his playing career ended roughly 14 years ago.

Allen “Dubz” Fortson was lineman at Kaimuki when Faga, a multiple-sport Bulldogs standout, was done with pro football.

“I knew him, knowing him around the neighborhood and (Palolo) housing. The summer going into senior year, he gave us a phone call to make sure we showed up at UH at 6 o’clock in the morning,” said Fortson, who had no idea he was soon to embark on a long friendship with his soon-to-be mentor.

Faga had the high schoolers at the facility, training as then-head coach June Jones and other Warriors looked on before UH had its own 7 a.m. practice.

“That was when he first came back after getting released by the Miami Dolphins. We were there almost every day to get ready for the season. A lot of us weren’t going to be play because we didn’t want to, but he showed up and told us, ‘Six o’clock,’ and it went from there,” Fortson recalled.

The actual workouts were more than grueling.

“A lot of us were throwing up. There were 15 of us. Everyone was throwing up after two gassers,” he said.

A gasser is a set of 10 220-yard sprints from the back line of the end zone to the other back line, and back. As with the college players, the Bulldogs’ gassers were timed.

“June Jones, Davone Bess, (Ryan) Grice-Mullens. They gave a couple of our skill guys some cleats. We had nothing, but they were there for Matt,” Fortson said.

There was an element of entertainment value, seeing out-of-shape high school kids enduring the same, borderline-tortuous gassers that the Warriors ran.

“They were beyond laughing,” Fortson said. “Coach Matt ran it before us. His nephew, Maua Tuitele, he was all-state, he was a junior in our senior year. Matt took his nephew in, he took all of us in, all of us from the housing.”

That was the foundation for the “Wolfpack,” the group of young players from all parts of Oahu, training through the offseason with Faga.

After graduation, Fortson found himself following his mentor’s footsteps.

“I became his prodigy. It was rough at first because I was just one of those guys who didn’t want to coach, but he said, ‘I see it in you. You’re going to be a great coach,” Fortson said.

Four years later, Faga was on the Kahuku coaching staff as the Red Raiders won the Division I state championship, and Fortson was on the staff at Radford as the Rams captured the D-II state title.

On Saturday, family and friends gathered at Kaimana Beach Park to remember their friend and coach.

“That’s his go-to. He made sure everyone worked out before we got to swim,” Fortson said. “Zeno Choi, Andrew Kaufusi, all those guys are here.”

Faga was his normal, busy self despite the pandemic. He was among the coaches at Alohi Gilman’s camp on July 9, then coached at the Polynesian Bowl Combine the next morning. Preseason at Kahuku officially began on July 19. In the past week, however, he contracted the virus and was admitted to Straub Hospital.

“It was quick. He was doing good, and then (Friday) night they put him on a ventilator. Then within an hour he was gone,” Fortson said.

The two old friends had linked up on FaceTime that same night.

“I talked to him around 7 o’clock. It was mostly yes or no. His oxygen was still low,” Fortson said.

The legacy of Matt Faga is as pure and simple as his mantra: why be great when you can be legendary?

“The grind. Always putting in that work. Never fall short. That was his thing,” Fortson said.

Faga is survived by his wife, Gianette, also a Kaimuki graduate.

“When we were doing things wrong, she knew what was gong on and yelling at us. We called her mom. Everybody in the Wolfpack calls her mom,” Fortson said. “All of us were their kids.”

The other side that many never saw outside of the ‘Pack was a commitment to any kid wiling to learn.

“His heart. He never turned any kids down. You could be someone who didn’t know anything about football, but he took everyone in. He made sure you left with some kind of knowledge, whether it was about football or life,” Fortson said. “I’ll miss the talks, on game day, especially. Even during the week. ‘What’s going on with your D-line?’ Or when I was a DC (defensive coordinator), ‘What’s going on with your defense?’ Those little talks, those little arguments on the sideline, we’re not really arguing. That’s how we communicate.”

Now, silence.

“That guy, man, I love him. If it wasn’t for him, I would’ve been messed up with some kind of drugs. I was afraid to tell him about my son more than I was telling my parents,” Fortson said of his then-girlfriend’s pregnancy. “He took Kellen in and groomed him.”

The first child of Allen and Kassy Fortson is now 14.

“Kellen’s taking it hard. He made Kellen a leader of the Wolfpack,” Fortson said.

Like all of the coaches and former players, Kellen Fortson couldn’t believe the news. He later compiled video footage and edited it as an homage to his coach.

“I’m going to miss all his jokes and his laughter. It’s hard. He was like a second father to me. He always took care of me after I was born. He helped me get better every day. When I didn’t have a ride to practice, he gave me a ride. He was there for me and I thank him for that,” he said. “He treated every Wolfpack, every Rebel Squad player, he treated everyone like his kid. His sons and daughters. Everybody loved him.”


  1. HailFromDaNorth August 8, 2021 4:22 pm

    RIL uso! Fiya squad, wolf pack, rebel squad!

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