Star-Bulletin reporter Paul Honda was at Friday’s OIA Red championship when Kamana Akagi was injured against Kahuku, and spent the day with the team and his family three days later. His feature on Akagi appeared in Wednesday’s Star-Bulletin, but Honda expands on it here.
By Paul Honda
Time goes by so quickly. Too quickly.
One day, a son is barely old enough for elementary school, so full of questions and laughs and mischief. In a blink, he’s suddenly a preteen, wise to gadgets and technology, but the fun and hugs and laughter haven’t slowed. Not yet.
Another blink or two, and he’s almost an adult — a high school senior already — and out there on the football field, banging with other kids at full tilt. You love him more than life itself, but he’s no little boy anymore. He’s independent. He’s a man, practically, and he doesn’t need or want mommy or daddy to hold him anymore when things get scary.
Kamana Akagi was, and still is, not that kind of kid, really. He loves grandpa’s pork adobo. He actually enjoys chemistry class and watching Jim Carey movies. He hangs out almost all the time with his family, being the oldest of three children, and he’s never been closer to his mom and dad than he is today, maybe because of what happened just a few nights ago.
On a hot Monday afternoon, he sits next to the locker room with a visitor. Classmates walk by, waving and smiling. Friends drive past and honk. It’s almost as if he was mayor of Wahiawa, voted in by a landslide. Or they’re just glad to see him back to normal, sort of.
In the span of a few seconds, time went by in a blur for Mana and his family, for Mana and his adopted family — Leilehua’s football team. Coming into last Friday’s Oahu Interscholastic Association Red championship game with Kahuku, the senior receiver had amassed whopping numbers as Andrew Manley’s primary target. Akagi had 58 receptions for 957 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games.
Against Kahuku, he was somewhat quiet as the Red Raiders bracketed him and left other Mule receivers open. Teammate Darrien Shealy benefited and came up big with five receptions for 84 yards and two touchdowns. So did running back Carlos Marshall (seven grabs, 84 yards) and Marcus Rocha. But it was a picture-perfect post-corner route by Akagi against rare solo coverage that triggered a sweet spiral from Manley into the right corner of the end zone that gave Leilehua a 13-10 lead, setting up a frazzled second half for both teams.
“The post-corner, that’s something we’ve been working on the past couple of weeks,” Manley said.
It was in the fourth quarter, 7:35 left, when time froze. Moments after Kahuku closed the gap to 20-17 on a blocked punt and recovery in the end zone, Akagi ran a crossing route and went low for a pass when he was clipped on the head by a Kahuku defender coming from the opposite direction. What seemed to be a routine play turned into a moment of terror for Dean and Angel Akagi as their son laid there on his back, barely moving for the next several minutes.
Mana’s arms were both up, and one leg moved slightly. But he wasn’t conscious, and as Leilehua’s trainers sprinted to the fallen receiver, a hush fell over Aloha Stadium. Within another minute, the gravity of the situation was completely evident and silent prayers were whispered into the late-night sky.
A few seconds felt like years for Dean and Angel. After 10 minutes, it felt more like an eternity. Mana had played football since his Pop Warner days as an 11-year-old, first for the Wahiawa Thunderbolts, and then for the Mililani Trojans. Injuries came and went, but this was beyond normal.
One of his oldest friends, lineman Jiniki Timoteo, tried to stay on one knee with his team in prayer, but this hit too close to home. Jiniki suffered a concussion a year ago, which became a brain bleed — subdural hematoma — and ended his season. He eventually healed up and returned to the team this season, but to see Mana on the ground, unconscious and seemingly obliterated in the biggest game of the season, was too much.
“His parents are really cool to me. His little brother (Makanani) likes to see me a lot,” Jiniki said, recalling the play from his position at offensive line. “I seen it happen in front of me. I was thinking the worst. I dropped my helmet. I couldn’t really think. I couldn’t really stick with my team. I was too busy crying.”
Jiniki’s family, sitting next to Mana’s family in the bleachers, prayed for the best.
“His dad was panicking and stuff,” Jiniki said.
Kahuku’s entire team prayed for their fallen opponent. The defender on the play came over to Leilehua coach Nolan Tokuda twice, asking how Mana was doing.
Stabilized by trainers and paramedics, Mana was wheeled into a waiting ambulance, raising his left arm and pointing to the sky. Maybe he would be all right, after all.
“We’re glad we have the best trainers and doctors,” Angel said. “It put us at ease.”
BY THE TIME he arrived at Queen’s Medical Center, Mana was beginning to regain full consciousness. A parade of family and friends were there, anxiously awaiting word about his condition. It was 1:30 in the morning when he found out, from Dean, that the Mules had lost to the mighty Red Raiders.
Leilehua, down its finest receiver, clearly missed him. But the Mules had broken hearts, at least overnight, because they weren’t sure how Mana was doing.
By 7:45 a.m., they began to hear about his improved condition.
“I got a text from him,” said Manley, who’s known Mana since eighth grade. “He was asking how I was doing. I was just worried about him.”
By 9 a.m., the Mules gathered at Hugh Yoshida Stadium for their usual Saturday morning “practice,” which is more like a post-game breakdown. They were shocked to see Mana there. The doctor cleared his release, and he had begged his parents to let him go to practice. Once he left Queen’s, he went right to the field.
“I told my mom I had to come. I missed these guys so much,” he said. “I told them, ‘Thank you for your prayers and blessings.’ ”
By Monday afternoon, he was just another player in the trainer’s room with one difference. Instead of getting taped up, Akagi reported to the trainer, as he will daily. If he passes a battery of tests, there’s a chance he could return to the field this season. Leilehua plays at Baldwin in the state tourney on Nov. 20, two Fridays from now.
Manley and Akagi spent Saturdays and Sundays fine-tuning their connection in workouts with Vinnie Passas at Saint Louis over the summer. Their mastery of Leilehua’s intricate passing system, a flurry of coverage reads and signals (and bluffs) between Manley and Akagi is almost ethereal.
“I hope he plays,” Manley said. “You never know what could happen. It could be our last game, even if we’re not thinking it is.”
Timoteo hopes for the same, but knows better.
“My doctor showed me a video what can happen if you don’t take care of a head injury. You don’t want to rush,” he said.
Dean and Angel are in no rush, either. They’re just grateful.
“There were so many people, even strangers calling my son to wish him well, praying for him,” Angel said. “Thank God everything turned up good.”
One day, Mana may not recall every highlight of this senior season, but he’ll always remember Nov. 7.
“I pray. I’m a believer in God. It touches my heart when people are thinking of me. It really humbles me.”
TOKUDA AND HIS STAFF built a hybrid offense that accentuates Manley’s strong arm and ability to read coverages. Not long before Manley took the reins, it was Bryant Moniz, the new starting quarterback at Hawaii, who gave the coaches reason to expand the playbook.
“How do you stop Mana? You’d have to bracket him. That’s why we move him around. In a two-back system, he’s outside. In our four-wide (receivers), he’s an inside receiver. Against Farrington, in our two-tight end, two-receiver set, he’s on the right side,” Tokuda said. “That helped open it up for Darrien (on the left).”
Tokuda is optimistic about his receivers if Akagi doesn’t return.
“We’re going to move ahead and hopefully someone steps up. If the doctors clear him, that would be great, but if not, it’s not just his talent we’ll miss. It’s the leadership he brings.”
Time is moving by slowly now. No running yet for Mana. Being away from his team for a few hours tore him up. Being off the field for a week or two, maybe the rest of the season? Unbearable.
No, for now, it’s best to enjoy each minute and know that people care. Friends cry when you suffer. Your family reaches out in prayer for you when skies turn dark.
Your name is Mana Akagi, and you are loved.