The first time Sola Soliai met Matt Faga, it was two alpha dogs sizing each other up.
Soliai was an assistant at Kaimuki back in 2007. Kaimuki was in the process of searching for an additional defensive line coach.
“Practice starts. We’re running a drill with the D-line. Here comes this huge guy from the parking lot wearing a red shirt. I’m telling the D-line something, Matt walks on the field with his mad dog face, and I’m who the hell is this guy? We run another play and he corrects the D-line, and I’m thinking, who’s this guy correcting my D-linemen,” Soliai said on Monday.
That guy was a standout Kaimuki and Hawaii defensive lineman who had just been released by the Miami Dolphins. Defensive line coach Ese Moi clarified the situation.
“Finally Ese says, ‘This is my nephew, Matt.’ Finally we got to know each other. We were like two birds in a tree going at it. A week later we started chilling. He said, ‘Sole, you know when we met the other week, you want to fight.’ I said, ‘No, I wanted to crack you.’ But over the years, you get to know him. He’s a fun-loving guy. Once you meet him it’s like you’ve known him for 10 years. He ends up being like my best friend,” Soliai said.
Faga, 39, died on Saturday from COVID-19 complications.
“The last time I talked to him, last time I seen him was the Polynesian Bowl (Combine) showcase after Alohi (Gilman)’s camp. Then the week after that’s when I only talked to him on the phone. I didn’t want to call him because I know he needed his energy. I texted him,” Soliai said. “I talked to him once before he went to the hospital. You could already tell he sounded very fatigued so I didn’t want to talk too long. I was worried, but I knew it is what it is. Either way he way he would be fine. But I knew he needed every ounce of energy for his oxygen. We were talking to his wife Gianette every day.”
Soliai and Faga’s excellent adventures had rerouted from Kaimuki to Kaiser, where the Cougars won a Division II state title, and then to Kahuku for a D-I state crown.
“The first impression I had of him was the wrong one. I looked back on that yesterday and I started laughing by myself,” Soliai said.
When they left Kaimuki, it was Faga who first went to Kaiser in 2010. Soliai followed to become the Cougars’ defensive coordinator in ’11.
“That was when Will Lobendahn was the head coach. Matt convinced me after 20 conversations on the phone. I said, ‘You know what? I’m coming.’ I couldn’t let him down. Matt always gets his way somehow, some way,” Soliai said.
Kaiser won the D-II state title in 2013 under then-head coach Rich Miano.
“Then we made the move,” Soliai said.
Kahuku’s coach at the time, Lee Leslie, courted Soliai, who became the DC in ’14.
“I went to Kahuku and brought Matt over. It was just word of mouth. I got hired. Coach called me in and gave me the job, and I said I have a great D-line coach,” Soliai recalled. “I was going to bring him along if he said no.”
The Dawg Pound. The Wolfpack. Rebel Squad. Everywhere Faga went, the dedication and training followed. Year-round, players turned up and worked. Faga would drive from Palolo Valley to Kahuku every day.
“Rebel Squad stemmed from Matt. He was training kids for a long time, just being around him that long inspired me to do it with the kids on the North Shore. Matt is a key ingredient in all these kids that came to Rebel Squad, which is part of the Wolfpack, and the Wolfpack is part of what Rebel Squad is,” Soliai said. “We’re glad we’re just keeping his legacy alive.”
In 14 years of coaching, Faga squeezed in a lifetime of passion and influence. Much of it was captured in photos and videos, compiled by Soliai and others on social media. The Rebel Squad page on Instagram is filled with tributes from players to Coach Faga.
“A lot of people don’t know the Rebel Squad stemmed from Matthew Faga. We didn’t charge anything. We did anything to get you moving or laughing,” Soliai said. “He inspired us with the Rebel Squad, even the Fyah Squad on the west side, and a Sasa Squad in Las Vegas. They just threw their big football camp with Paul Soliai, my cousin, and Xavier Sua. It stemmed from this big guy right here, Matt Faga.”
The current Kahuku squad is handling the loss of their D-line coach as best it can. They’ve posted videos in memoriam of Faga. The vigor. The spirit. None of it has changed.
“Tell you the truth, nobody can replace this guy. I really don’t want to look that much forward into it yet,” Soliai said. “It didn’t hit me yet. It feels like he’s going to walk around the corner and say, ‘Partner, how’s it going?’ “