BIGGER THAN FOOTBALL
Former Rainbow Warrior Joe Onosai shares his life’s ups and downs – and how it all led to fulfilling his calling.
by Lance Tominaga
Luafalealo Lafaele Sakaria, High Chief of the Samoan village of Luatuanu‘u, cradled the newborn baby in his arms. The revered leader had walked miles from the village of Futiga to meet his grandson. Holding the infant, he began to pray. Then, with solemn conviction, he boldly declared what God had revealed to him.
This child, Joe Onosai, would one day carry his mantle as a Christian minister.
Today, nearly 51 years later, Onosai serves as Senior Pastor at Destiny Christian Church in Pearl City. Against long odds, he has fulfilled his grandfather’s prophecy.
“Looking back,” he says, “I can see God’s hand on this whole thing.”
Still, his journey to reach this point in his life has been nothing short of miraculous.
Rainbow Warrior football fans may best remember Onosai as an All-WAC offensive lineman who starred during the program’s Dick Tomey era. Others recognize him as a former World’s Strongest Man competitor. As a youngster growing up in Kuhio Park Terrace in Kalihi, however, Onosai seemed destined for…well, not much of anything.
“As a little kid, I didn’t see KPT as a dangerous place with a very high crime rate,” says Onosai, recalling life at the low-income housing project. “It was just life for me. Only when I got older did I realize that life in our neighborhood was a little different. There were police cars constantly patrolling the area and responding to everything from fights to domestic issues. Every once in a while, you’d have a homicide. But that was the norm for us. No one was really shocked or surprised when something like that happened because the police were always around.”
Onosai played several sports – “Believe it or not, my favorite sport was basketball,” he says – but by the time he enrolled at University High School as a freshman, his size and strength made him an intriguing football prospect.
Says Onosai, “I never played Pop Warner because I was told I was too heavy. Instead, I played flag football. And we did play a lot of pick-up football games at KPT. We would play on this rough, rocky fields. But it wasn’t easy when I went out for Pac-Five’s jayvee team. There was so much technique involved, and the kids who played Pop Warner seemed to shine because they knew what they were doing. Guys like myself, we didn’t even know how to put on our shoulder pads.
“But about a month or two into it, I realized that football was going to be my sport. I knew it could be my ticket to college.”
Onosai developed into an all-star fullback for the Wolfpack. As a junior, he was the second-leading rusher in the ILH. Then, in his senior year, he settled into a new role as a bruising 240-pound blocker for halfback Donny Ma‘a.
“In my senior year, I only touched the ball on short-yardage or goal-line situations,” says Onosai. “Donny was just an amazing athlete, and he just became the guy that we went to. It was then that I began to discover that I was a lot better blocker than a runner. When I ran the ball, I never could see anything in front of me. I would just tuck my head down and try to get a few yards. With blocking, I found my calling. I would kick out the ends on power plays, take on the linebackers on ‘iso’ plays and take out the cornerbacks on sweeps. I was able to pave the way for Donny.”
The transition worked. With Onosai leading the way, Pac-Five captured the 1982 Prep Bowl by beating Waianae, 14-7.
Next stop: UH.
Dick Tomey was entering his seventh season the Rainbow Warriors’ head coach, and he brought in Onosai as an offensive lineman. Tomey envisioned Onosai as agile and powerful pulling guard, a role formerly held by departed senior lineman Jesse Sapolu. (Sapolu went on to win four Super Bowl championships with the San Francisco 49ers. He was named to the NFL All-Pro Team in 1994 and 1995.)
“Man, we had some talent on those UH teams,” recalls Onosai, whose teammates included future NFL players Rich Miano, Raphel Cherry, Walter Murray, Nu‘u Fa‘aola, Ron Hall, M.L. Johnson, Mike Akiu, Colin Scotts and three Noga brothers (Falaniko, Pete and Al).
Then there was the head coach. “Coach Tomey had an amazing way with words,” says Onosai. “In fact, I think he missed his calling. He probably should have been a preacher – minus the F-bombs. He was just unbelievable at being able to make you feel like you could run through a wall. He knew how to inspire his players. He was a little man in terms of his physical stature, but he was the Napoleon of coaches that put the fear of God in you.”
As a Rainbow Warrior, Onosai (#73) paved the way for Hawaii’s strong running attack.
Once, freshman Onosai was late for a team meeting. “I walked into the room, and [Coach Tomey] was already addressing the team,” he recalls. “I learned that if you’re just a second late, you’re in deep kimchee! His blue eyes just looked right through me, then he dug into me real good. And the senior players like Niko Noga, Kesi Afalava and Alvis Satele were giving me the stink eye, looking at me, like, ‘Come on, freshman. Get it together!’”
Onosai laughs at the memory. “I’ll never forget that,” he says. “So much so that [punctuality] is still one of those things that I value today. I don’t ever like to be late.”
Onosai’s most memorable moment as a Rainbow Warrior occurred off the playing field. Before his junior season, Tomey brought in motivational speaker Tony Robbins to give his team a pep talk.
“We were going to walk on a bed of hot coals,” Onosai says. “Tony Robbins gave us a three-hour talk, and then it was time. Some of us were ready for it, and some of us weren’t. I was scared as heck! I was freaking out, not wanting to go. Finally, Nu‘u Fa‘aola went up, and we saw him walk over the coals like they were nothing. That created a lot of confidence in the rest of us, and we all followed suit. But until that time, the very idea of walking on hot coals scared the daylights out of me.”
As a player, Onosai excelled. He earned a starting position during his freshman season and became a two-time All-WAC performer.
Off the field, however, his life was unraveling.
“I did not adjust well from high school to college,” Onosai admits. “In high school, it took so much of our staff to keep me accountable. They made sure I went to classes and kept my grades up. They made sure I did my homework. I lost that infrastructure in college. I had all this freedom and I didn’t know what to do with it. All I did was chase girls and party all night.”
A major turning point in his life occurred the summer before his junior year, when his girlfriend, Ann, informed Onosai that she was pregnant.
“That was definitely a turning point,” Onosai says today. “I didn’t want to be a father. I was selfish. I actually wanted her to get an abortion. But she said, ‘You know what? If you want to leave, then leave. I’m going to take care of this kid.’ But on the day she began to have labor pains, it went on for a long time – more than 70-something hours. Something was wrong.
“She didn’t have any family here. I was her only family. I went to the hospital just to see how she was doing, and I could see the urgent look on the doctor’s face. I was finally told that the situation may come down to her surviving and losing the baby, or lose her and gain the baby. I said, ‘I would like to see both of them live.’
“It made me realize how important she was to me,” says Onosai. “We were high school sweethearts. She was a cheerleader and I was a football player. She helped me with my studies. She actually made me feel like I was a smart kid, whereas I used to think of myself as being from the ’hood at KPT – rough and tough, not smart. It was Ann who helped me break that mindset. In my first years of college, I began to lose appreciation for her. But on that day, I realized that this was the woman I wanted to be with for the rest of my life.”
Desperate, Onosai began to pray. If God would intervene and help both mother and baby survive, he said, he would serve Him for the rest of his life.
Both Ann and their daughter, Talia, both pulled through.
Becoming a husband and father changed Onosai. “I realized that I couldn’t act like a kid anymore,” he says. “I knew I had to change my act.”
It took time, but Onosai began to excel both on the playing field and at home.
“The statement that Coach Tomey gave us that is forever engraved in me was this: ‘I’d rather you be consistently good and occasionally great,’” Onosai explains. “I had been very consistent in football but not very consistent off the field. Coach definitely made an impact on my life. He helped me to take the passion that I had in football and put it into my family life.”
In the spring of 1987, Onosai was drafted in the sixth round by the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys – his favorite team since childhood.
“I was blown away,” he says, smiling. “As a kid, my little room at Kuhio Park Terrace, Building B, Room 208 was practically a Dallas Cowboys shrine. [In training camp] I had to keep pinching myself. I remember lining up against my childhood idol, Randy White. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ And then to be in the huddle and having to take control of the huddle was just unreal. Imagine having to tell Herschel Walker and Tony Dorsett to shut up and pay attention! Unbelievable.”
Then, with one fateful hit, Onosai’s dream came crashing down.
During a team scrimmage before the Cowboys’ first preseason game, Onosai collided with a middle linebacker and went down. Minutes passed, and he was still unable to move. His entire body seemed to shut down. Onosai had suffered a severe spinal contusion, and just like that, his football career was over.
“I thought my destiny was to play in the NFL,” he says today. “Ever since I was a kid, it just seemed that everything was pointed in that direction. So when the door was suddenly shut, I was confused and hurt. I fell into a major depression.”
It took two years for Onosai to fully recover from his spinal injury. Needing a paycheck, he returned to Hawaii and found work in construction and security. He even served as a football commentator opposite play-by-play legend Jim Leahey. All the while, he was regaining his strength – physically, mentally and spiritually.
Onosai tried his hand at powerlifting. In his first year, he won the Hawaii State Championship in the super-heavyweight division. He went on to win a national title and a spot on the USA team competing in the World Championships. At Worlds, he captured the silver medal.
His success opened the door to an entirely unexpected platform: The World’s Strongest Man Competition. In 1994, Onosai received in invitation to compete in the international event in Sun City, South Africa. At the competition, he quickly became a crowd favorite pulling jeeps, lifting logs and performing other feats of strength. Although a decided underdog, Onosai reached the finals that year, and then again in 1995.
Pulling a trolley bus? It’s possible when you’re one of the world’s strongest men.
Onosai’s strongman career took him all around the globe, with stops in Malta, the Bahamas, Germany, Scotland, Sweden and other locales.
Later, Onosai formed his own power team, Men of W.A.R. (“Wisdom, Authority and Righteousness”), to reach young people in the community.
“It’s funny because most of my team were not strength athletes,” he recalls. “Most of them were society’s rejects. Ex-cons and former gang members. Most power teams around the country had résumés of their achievements. With my guys, the only things that were a mile long were their rap sheets! But it allowed us to take a different approach in reaching kids. We were guys who had been at the bottom and were somehow able to get our heads above water. A lot of people could identify with us.”
Onosai was attending Word of Life Christian Center in Kakaako, learning under Senior Pastor Art Sepulveda and his wife, Pastor Kuna Sepulveda. He also served as athletic director and coach for Word of Life Academy. When the school closed in 2010, Onosai decided it was time to move on.
“I never had a desire to start my own church,” says Onosai. “I have so much appreciation for Pastor Art and Kuna. But when the school closed, I felt like my season at Word of Life was over. Leaving was tough because I was at Word of Life for 17 years. But I felt the calling. I knew I was supposed to pastor my own church.”
Onosai opened Destiny Christian Church in April 2011. He and his wife Ann serve as Senior Pastors. “We have a good mid-sized church,” he says, “and we feel we’re on the cusp of growing again.”
Onosai recently added another title to his impressive life résumé: author. His autobiography, The Power of Destiny: The Journey of Discovering My Purpose is due out by Thanksgiving. (Editor’s Note: See Book Review below)
“It’s a miracle that I wrote a book,” says Onosai, shaking his head. “In my early days, I didn’t even like reading. I hated it. I couldn’t stand writing term papers and book reports. But I think everything in my life has prepared me for what I do today. As a pastor, I write reports and messages that teach principles from the Bible. I take things that can be very complex and simplify it for the everyday person.”
Onosai has learned to accept – and even embrace – his life’s ups and downs.
“I live with such a grateful heart,” he says. “In hindsight, you can see the hand of God in my life. Things didn’t work out the way I thought they would, but if you were to ask me if I would change anything, I would say no. Even with all the pain and hurt that I’ve been through, I’ve learned so much.
“I can share my life from the perspective of ‘This is where I was.’ Yes, I’ve experienced disappointment. But I’m so grateful that things turned out for the better. There’s a sense of hope that I aspire to give people when they read this book.”
There’s a reason Pastor Joe Onosai’s first book, The Power of Destiny: The Journey of Discovering My Purpose, took five years to be completed. And it had nothing to do with scheduling problems or writer’s block.
“With my autobiography, I tried to take readers into my life, and some of these experiences were really heart-wrenching and hurtful,” says Onosai. “It was tough for me to revisit these emotions. By writing this book, there were emotional bridges that I had to cross. Much of the book was written in tears.”
Indeed. Onosai bares all in his debut as an author, retelling his life’s fantastic highs and horrifying lows. This is not an ego-driven project meant to chronicle only Onosai’s lofty achievements both on and off the football field. He openly recounts the negatives he’s endured: His career-ending injury. His marital problems. Even a harrowing suicide attempt.
The goal is clear: Onosai wants his readers to be inspired by his triumphs and to learn from his mistakes.
He also pays tribute to some of the men and women who helped him along the way. He credits former University High Principal Dr. Loretta Krause, for example, for guiding and challenging him during his high school years.
“I recently got together with some of my old classmates,” says Onosai, “and they kept telling me, ‘Joe, there is absolutely no way you should have graduated at University [High]. You should have been kicked out so many times!’ And they’re right. Yet, Doctor Krause just believed in me. She fought for me. She told me, ‘Joe, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but there’s something in you that’s worth saving.’
“There’s no way I would be where I’m at today if it weren’t for the help of some of my mentors. Every chapter in the book is dedicated to them.”
The Power of Destiny is an inspiring, anecdote-filled read. Sports fans will undoubtedly enjoy the football and strongman stories that Onosai masterfully tells, but there is plenty of material to satisfy even non-sports fans. Ultimately, through Destiny, the good pastor takes you along his remarkable life’s journey, bumps on the road and all. It’s a ride you won’t soon forget.
Published by Mutual Publishing, The Power of Destiny is available at select stores in Hawaii and at Amazon.Com.
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