(Here’s the longer version of this morning’s feature Star-Advertiser story on Rex Manu.)
For some time now, he’s been the Answer Man.
Rex Manu gets to the classroom after school while other kids are gallivanting their way off campus to Jamba Juice or Burger King. He sits in Rod York’s classroom, waiting. Waiting. Soon enough, his Mililani teammates show up, books and backpacks in hand.
Manu is a 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive tackle, offensive lineman, playmaker, standout force of nature on the gridiron. But after school — before practice — he’s Rex, the tutor. He’s a senior with a 3.5 grade-point average — he notched a 3.8 in the first quarter — who hits the books hard for everything from trigonometry to English.
“He’s a guy you can trust when no one’s looking,” said York, Mililani’s head football coach. “The kid is unbelievably smart. I tell people the kid is smarter than me. We challenge in a game of Jeopardy and it’s not even close. “He cares about making a difference in other people’s lives. He will sacrifice his personal gain for another person’s gain.”
The football numbers scintillating: 32 solo tackles, 63 assists, 21 hurries, 11 sacks, three fumble recoveries and six forced fumbles. The sheer energy and power of his play on the field, plus the sharp intellect and academic prowess have made Manu one of the state’s most coveted prospects.
For now, though, 12 games into the 2014 football season, Manu and his teammates are gearing up for the ultimate prize: the unbeaten Trojans face No. 1-ranked Punahou on Friday in the finals of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division State Championships at Aloha Stadium.
Punahou is the defending champion; the Buffanblu edged Mililani 28-22 in last year’s title battle. Manu has moved forward since then, to say the least. Mililani is winning with speed, precision and power. Especially power. High-scoring tilts by the explosive, warp-speed offense of Mililani have been reduced to smart, patient ball control in their last two games. The men of Troy have been willing to let their defense and special teams sink their teeth into these battering-ram matchups: a 20-7 OIA-title win over Kahuku, and Saturday’s 17-14 state-semifinal victory over Farrington.
Mililani’s defense has scooped 22 interceptions this season with outstanding coverage and a fierce pass rush led by Manu inside and Kaimana Padello from the edge. Manu and his cohorts in the trenches carried a big load and emerged with the satisfaction of knowing that defense does, indeed, wins championships.
“Rex Manu is definitely an impact player,” Farrington coach Randall Okimoto said. “He makes plays series after series. Sacks, tackles, pressure, and tackles for loss. He also plays on the offensive line in their “heavy run package” and makes an impact on the field when he’s in that capacity. He’s a big part of their success on defense just like Breiden Fehoko is for our defense.”
York says Manu has the talent of two great players combined in one.
“On our (short-yardage) package, he’s our right guard. Rex is actually a better O-lineman than D-lineman, in my opinion,” said York, who played defensive line at the University of Hawaii. “He didn’t want to play O-line. He knows he means a lot to our defense. The most important guy is the big nose guard who commands a lot of double-teams. He’s one of the reasons we lost all-state players and yet our (defensive) numbers haven’t changed, and they’ve improved in terms of forcing turnovers.”
There’s much to absorb this week, from video study to fine-tuning the mechanical aspects of offense, defense and special teams. For Manu, passion for the game is not all-consuming, 24 hours a day. He’s got plenty on his mind, and the wits to speak on those other passions and issues. From malasadas to transfer rules, and car detailing to Reggie White, Manu was willing to chat.
It all starts at home for Manu, who has a simple wish for dinner any night: palusami or laulau. His dad, Tika, makes either from scratch.
“The only thing I don’t know (about making them) is how long to cook it. He makes it once every three months. Every day would be better,” he said. “It takes a long time to make it, hours, but it’s worth it. My dad has a simple, basic cooking style, but it’s just good for some reason.”
The debate rages for Manu and some of his friends. Leonard’s versus Champion.
“Leonard’s, Leonard’s, Leonard’s,” Manu says of the maker of the finest malasadas on earth.
He severely discounts comparisons to Champion or even any other reasonably delicious malasada.
“I know my brother (former Mililani standout Veni Manu) agrees with me, but I have a lot of friends and pretty much everyone else disagrees. I don’t know what they see in Champion or the Leonard’s truck in Waikele.”
Moderation is important in satisfying that sweet tooth. Except for Manu.
“Probably a dozen to yourself, that’s a small dose. I like the haupia (filling), the custard. The chocolate, too,” he said. “But only a couple. I’m not a big chocolate fan.”
Dad and Reggie
“My favorite athlete, aw man, that’s hard. I guess I’d have to say my dad,” Manu said.
Tika Manu played defensive end and outside linebacker at Ricks College (Utah), where he met Dee, the future Mrs. Manu. She was a volleyball player.
“He transferred to Utah. He got drafted to the (Miami) Dolphins and then he got injured and that was the end of it,” Manu said. “I’ve seen a couple of stories about him from the Utah newspaper.”
Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White is his other favorite athlete.
“Right after (dad), I’d say Reggie White. The fact that he lined up pretty much perpendicular to the line, that was so different, but it worked so well,” Manu said of the former Eagles, Packers and Panthers defensive lineman.
“That’s innovation right now. Nobody teaches it. Nobody knows how to play against it or practice against it. You have to be kind of crazy to do it. He knew how to do it to his advantage,” he said of White, who died in 2004. “I wouldn’t dare try to line up like that. I’d probably get snubbed out of the play.”
York thinks White is an interesting comparison to Manu.
“On a high-school level, he’s on that path. Rex is a captain among captains. That’s how important he is to us, just like Reggie White. He’s our spiritual leader, talks to the team on the bus, during practice. He always speaks a lot through his action, but this year he’s been more vocal. It’s a great comparison to Reggie White, the leadership part,” York said. “He’s a big, athletic guy. You watch his feet and the way he moves, he’s very agile for a big guy, and he recovers fast. There’s a big possibility he’ll be playing on Sundays, not just Saturdays, because of his speed and agility.”
Slick threads and college offers
The Trojans have donned some interesting and bright uniforms in recent seasons. There were the dark brown helmets a couple of years ago. They have white helmets now with the unique Trojan head logo, along with those yellow jerseys and white pants.
“I don’t care what’s going on with the uniform, but there were guys who were asking about wearing white helmets or brown helmets. I was like, don’t worry about the uniforms,” Manu said.
He was orally committed to Stanford before the season, but de-committed after a visit to Oregon. He’ll visit Colorado and Washington in early December, and there is a pile of other offers on the table, including one from Hawaii.
“I told UH I’d keep them in mind,” Manu said. “But when it comes down to it, I’m not looking to stay here.”
The visit to Eugene, where Oregon’s campus is located, was unforgettable.
“I couldn’t say it was what I expected. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was awesome. I got hosted by DeForest (Buckner),” Manu said, referring to the former Punahou two-sport standout. “That was fun. I got a good feel for how the players bond, what they do. It was eye-opening.”
He remains open, but Oregon’s imprint on his memory is permanent.
“The whole program in general, Oregon being at least Top 5 every year obviously shows they’re doing something right with their players. I really think that they could bring out my full potential,” Manu said.
AP classes, Trojan football and transferring
Manu took AP (advanced placement) world history and calculus last year, getting an A and a B.
“I think it’s more painful than it’s worth. Just get me out of there,” he said of the rewarding, stressful process. “A lot of kids want to come here for the education. It just so happened that I love football, too.”
Mililani, he believes, is simply a little different.
“It’s not necessarily that there’s more teachers, but they make you feel more individualized. You might be in a class of 25, but if you need help, the teacher will help you right there, hands on. If you need help, they’ll give it to you. They’ll make sure you understand what they teach,” Manu said. “That’s what separates Mililani from other schools.”
He doesn’t aspire to become a teacher, but as York said, his leadership skills are natural and real.
“The main reason is my D-line coaches (Thor Salanoa and Steely Malepeai) put responsibility on me to bring up the underclassmen and get them ready to take on the reins for next year. I feel good about making sure they do what they need to do,” Manu said. “It feels good. I like coaching. It definitely helps right now that I can set an example of how to really do things.”
Three years ago, Manu was enrolled at Punahou, which seemed like a perfect fit for a scholar-athlete.
“It’s really unfortunate. You may think a school may be all you want it to be, but you might find out, this is not me,” he said. “It might go against all you want to believe.”
It wasn’t sports at Punahou that turned Manu off.
“I went through most of the season with them. Ronley (Lakalaka) and those guys were freshmen, too,” he said, noting that freshman don’t play varsity football in the ILH. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was the kids outside of football who are high makamaka. I didn’t think that was true until I saw it myself. Moving my backpack off the table. Walking away like they won the championship. I was mad, but I realized it’s not even worth it.”
Manu says he’d handle the immaturity of other kids differently now. Back then, at 14, he was simply upset. He enrolled at Mililani halfway through freshman year and found a comfort zone. He took everything the curriculum could offer and became an NCAA academic qualifier. Easily. Stanford is still on the table.
Tongans and identity
There have been a lot of super athletes in Hawaii athletics with his surname. At Kaimuki, three decades ago, there were power running backs Manu Lakalaka and Vea Manu. In the years in between, there have been countless elite athletes named Manu, including current UH volleyball star Tai Manu-Olevao. Even in this year’s state football tournament, the name/root name Manu is part of the landscape, from Pena Fitisemanu and Tamanui Nagy of Kahuku to Iokua Manuia of Kamehameha-Hawaii. Most fans can rattle off a number of Manus who were football standouts.
“Manu is a name that’s common in Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii,” Mililani’s favorite Manu said.
There isn’t a lot of ethnic history taught in high schools. The result is a lot of assumption by many people, even friends.
“It doesn’t matter as much, but when people come up to you and say, ‘What’s up, sole?’ I want to say, ‘Hey, I’m Tongan’,” Manu said. “You don’t want to be nit-picky, but it’s my pride. You can call me sole, I don’t care.”
Public perception, he added, is related to public activity. Sports is a good vehicle, maybe.
“Tongans need to get involved in the community and stay involved,” he said, noting what former mayor Mufi Hannemann has meant to the Samoan community. “Samoans are everywhere. People know who they are.”
Oh, and about football…
The Trojans will be prepared. Manu promises that.
“I think the standard for us and Punahou is to be ready, come out 100 percent ready,” he said. “You can’t hold nothing back.”
MANY MANU FAVORITES
>> Movie: Undercover Brother.
>> TV show: How it’s Made (Science Channel).
>> Class: Trigonometry. “It was challenging and do-able at the same time. I got an A.”
>> Teacher: Mr. Ken K. Watanabe, civics teacher. “His fishing stories. He has a very distinctive way he talks and everybody at Mililani knows Mr. Watanabe. It’s hilarious.”
>> Food: At home, dad’s palusami and laulau. Away, it’s Leonard’s Bakery malasadas.
>> Athlete: Dad (Tika) and NFL Hall of Fame defensive lineman Reggie White.
>> NFL team: San Francisco 49ers. “After my dad was let go by the Dolphins, the Niners signed him.”
>> Hobby: “The closest things would be detailing cars, auto mechanics and landscaping. I used to work with my dad.”
>> College major: “I’m thinking of engineering, but I’m keeping my options open.”