Sua’s humility, talent bring sweet music to Kaimuki

(Here’s the original, longer version of the feature story about Kaimuki football player Chester Sua.)

Of the photos I took, this one best captures his personality and demeanor. He's not demonstrative or loud, but quite the opposite. A careful listener and very calm, and buddy Mason Kualii-Moe cracks him up often. (Photo: Paul Honda.)

When the helmet and pads are off, Chester Sua can hear the music again.

It’s not just the Lil Wayne riffs that filter into his ears. When all’s said and done, he transports himself back to a small place on a small island that was once home.

He can hear the a capella of a choir, hymns locked in his heart and memories. He made the voyage from Sailele, American Samoa, just two years ago, but there’s no choir for him on Sundays now.

Instead, he churns out his own music on the football field, shadowing receivers who dream of escape. He makes cutbacks that leave off-balance defenders grasping at the jetstream, launching into ridiculously balletic excursions to the end zone. When necessary, he cradles the pigskin with two hands and steamrolls unsuspecting foes with his 6-foot-1 1/2, 208-pound frame for extra yardage, then helps his tacklers up.

There’s more than one reason why the Kaimuki Bulldogs — just 34 strong — have racked up eight wins in eight Oahu Interscholastic Association White Conference football games, but Sua is clearly a force of nature. He has lined up as a running back, slotback, wide receiver, safety, linebacker and kick returner.

“The sky’s the limit for Chester. He’s real driven,” said Kaimuki coach Clint Onigama, who has also taught Sua in his Algebra II class.

Sua has also gotten reps at quarterback during practice, but it’s far from overload. You won’t hear him complain, even in the process of being one of Hawaii’s top prospects. Or while enduring an interview with media.

If there’s one fact of life that’s constant for Sua, it’s respect. He might not want to hear your recruiting pitch linger for one minute, five minutes, 30 minutes … but he’ll nod and take it. He doesn’t want to hear about his accomplishments when there are teammates whose blocks made his touchdown happen. Yet, he’ll stick it out all the way through while a writer recalls finer details.

There’s a politeness that comes with being raised in Samoa. It’s power through kindness. It’s also mandatory to everyday survival.

“Or else you’ll get lickens,” he says with a big grin.

When I got to Kaneohe, where Chester was hanging out with teammate Mason Kualii-Moe, it was getting dark already. The sun had dropped on the other side of the Koolaus. But fortunately, we had enough light bouncing around the area and the photo wasn't too dark. (Photo: Paul Honda)

TUMAMA AND POLINI Sua’s family — there are seven children in all — had moved to the Bay Area, and then Las Vegas years ago. One brother, however, was in Hawaii, and though Sua was a very good student at Faagaitua High School, he was the last one left behind. It was time for a change.

He moved in with Naff and his wife, and thus began life in a whole new world, a place where he saw classmates and new friends with a strange way of looking at life. One of those people was Mason Kualii-Moe, who wound up playing football and basketball with Sua last year.

They’re a year apart and almost brothers. When Sua says he’d like to coach one day, Kualii-Moe doesn’t even flinch. That day is well off in the horizon, but they share the same calm disposition. Both advise younger players to work hard and steer away from drugs. It’ll be surprising if they aren’t on the same staff one day.

Until then, Sua tends to business — a 3.2 grade-point average. The senior has rushed for 956 yards (6.5 per attempt) and 12 touchdowns, and caught seven more balls for 98 yards and three scores while manning the secondary full-time as a safety. His biggest performance came in a 27-21 win over conference rival Waipahu, scoring all four of his team’s touchdowns, including an 88-yard kick return to start the game. He ended the night by picking off Waipahu’s Hail Mary pass in the end zone.

They were best friends before they became statistical leaders on the field. Kualii-Moe, a junior, leads the Bulldogs with 21 receptions for 352 yards and four touchdowns. One of the scores was a high-leaping 25-yard snag in a 34-12 win over rugged Pearl City on Saturday.

To hang out with his pal on a quiet Sunday, Sua gets a ride from his brother to the other side of the Koolaus. Kualii-Moe, whose family has moved a time or two, lives in Kaneohe just a short walk from a string of fast-food joints. This is where best friends can chill before another week of humility can begin.

I have mixed feelings about this shot. One-hundred percent of the time we spent chatting, Chester was focused and gracious, not a single bit of typical teenage bravado or cockiness. I suggested he hold the ball this way, and his game face turned on. (Photo: Paul Honda)

THERE IS A SIGN in the Kaimuki lockerroom that Onigama installed, a quick read that is practically scripture engraved in the hearts of his team.

“Be Humble in Victory, Gracious in Defeat.”

The second-year head coach inherited a talented team in 2009, but found himself practically learning a new language and culture though Kaimuki’s campus is a one-minute walk away. Attitude differences were a chasm, and though Onigama tried to teach old dogs new tricks, disobedience and disorder reached a climax one night at Kaiser when a glass window was shattered in a lockerroom.

Things had to get worse before they got better, and that was the bottom. Onigama and his staff stuck to their core values. Players continued to weed themselves out. Time passed.

Onigama’s patience has been rewarded beyond any expectation. Co-captains like Sua set the tone. Discipline and submission to coaches is real. It goes beyond that. Players have learned to take a knee early and often, whether it’s in reaction to a generic skirmish on the field, or for team prayer.

Solo Fifita, a 240-pound senior, and Siaosi Hala‘api‘api, a 200-pound junior, often lead prayer before and after practice, before they board the team bus for a game, before they start pre-game warmups and just about any time in between.

“What I really love is they don’t ask for wins,” Onigama said.

Sua hit the weight room with a fury in the offseason, ran on the field almost every day.

The kid who was 185 pounds a year ago, has thrived in a new home where there’s less talk of destroying your opponent. The Bulldogs’ request line is filled with hopes of good, safe practices and games.

By spring, Division I college recruiters were wearing out the old asphalt road leading into Kaimuki’s athletic department. Coaches from four, sometimes five schools per day visited.

Two schools to offer scholarships were Idaho and Washington State. Another was UNLV, which could’ve been a perfect fit since his family lives in Las Vegas. Most wanted him as an outside linebacker. Some like him as a classic tailback. He has 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, but recruiters have seen up close what Kaimuki already knew: Sua has “game speed” that doesn’t measure in sprinting technique for hand-held stop watches.

Sua hoped to end speculation and all the on-campus visits by committing to Washington State over the summer. That’s where his aversion to distractions kicks in.

“He doesn’t really like attention,” Onigama said. “He doesn’t. A big part of it is he just wanted the recruiting process to get done. It was overwhelming. He has a hard time telling people, ‘No.’ ”

The way recruiting works is always interesting from the outside looking in. By committing early, the smaller colleges quit calling cold turkey. But the commitment also put Sua on a radar with much broader range.

“It fueled the fire,” Onigama said.

Still, he believes Sua will stay put with the team in Pullman.

“He wants to go somewhere where the distractions will be at a minimum,” Onigama said.

THE BULLDOGS ARE one win away from a state-tournament berth. They need to get past Pearl City in the opening round of the OIA White playoffs this weekend to seal a spot. A loss means an unbeaten regular season went for naught. More victories means more attention for the team in kelly green and yellow, a spectacle that Sua can tolerate as long as he’s just Bulldog No. 6, helmet on at all times, handing that football to the nearest official with each touchdown.

He’s already made poignant memories for his coach.

“Football’s such an emotional game, but people will remember you as a person,” Onigama said. “For a lot of our kids, it takes preaching, but it’s sunk in.”

Sua and his teammates are prepared in every way.

“Be humble. Focused,” he said. “We set our goals before the season starts. One goal: a championship.”

The sound of it makes Sua smile. It’s almost music to his ears.

Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser


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