By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
Today is “Early Signing Day” in college football, and programs across the country are busy stocking their rosters with talented new players. Over the years, the University of Hawaii has signed its share of great recruits, including the great Jesse Sapolu. In his 2017 book, Rise of the Rainbow Warriors, the late Dick Tomey recounted how he was able to convince the highly-touted offensive lineman from Farrington High School to join the Rainbow Warrior program in 1979.
“From the very start of my UH tenure, I emphasized the importance of recruiting local players. Our fans wanted to see the local athletes representing their team. We understood that. We also recognized that Hawai‘i was a growing source for Division I football talent. As a result, the number of local players on our UH rosters increased every season during my ten-year stay in the Islands. We had future NFL players like Falaniko Noga, Jesse Sapolu and Rich Miano, but we also brought in guys like Andy Moody, Kesi Afalava, Bryan Almadova, Emlen Kahoano, Amosa Amosa, Michael Beazley, Quentin Flores, Alvis Satele, Doug Nomura, Brian Norwood, Koldene Walsh, Joe Seumalo, Doug Kyle and many other homegrown players.
We also tried to recruit Polynesians or other players who had roots in Hawai‘i. These included mainland athletes who had some kind of connection to the Islands. We tried to take advantage of every possible inroad to bringing in players our fans could identify with. If we were going to fail at landing a prospect, we were determined that it wasn’t going to be a prospect that lived twenty miles away or even a hundred miles away. That player would live 2,500 miles or even 5,000 miles away. The farther you got away from a recruit, the more difficult it was to make an accurate evaluation of that recruit. After all, you might only get to see them once or twice, maybe three or four times at the most. With a local player, however, you can see him a lot. You can get to know him and his family. So we went after every local hard, even if we didn’t have much of a chance to sign him.
I remember recruiting Jesse. He was a player that we thought would be a terrific asset to our program. Standing 6-3 and weighing about 240, Jesse was a tough and agile lineman who starred at Farrington, and it seemed like the whole college football world was trying to get him. I remember visiting his dad’s church. It was a Samoan church on School Street in Honolulu, and I attended one of the services. The sermon was in Samoan, and I didn’t understand a word of what was being said. It seemed like the service was going on for a long time, but I just sat there patiently, trying to be respectful. After a time, people began coming and going, and I still sat there waiting for the service to end.”
“Finally, Jesse’s sister walked up to me and said, “Coach, you can leave now. They’re going over the financial report.” How embarrassing! There I was, thinking I’m listening to a sermon, when I was actually sitting in on the church’s financial report!”
“In those days, you were only allowed to visit five schools. I visited Michigan State, Hawai‘i, Oregon, Arizona State and BYU. My decision came down to Arizona State and Hawai‘i. After I came back from my Arizona State visit, I pretty much made up my mind that I was going to sign with the Sun Devils. But Coach Tomey paid one more visit to our home. He came and sat on the floor—that was the respectful way in our Samoan culture—and I remember my Dad having him stand up and sit on the couch. Coach’s act of respect kind of sold my mother. Coach Tomey asked me, “Do you want to go to a program that’s already established? Or do you want to stay home and be a part of a group that changes the UH program and brings it to prominence?” At the time, ASU was the No. 2 team in the nation. They had beaten Nebraska the previous season under head coach Frank Kush. It was a really tough decision and I waited until the very end. Ultimately, Hawai‘i was home, and that was important to me.”
Sapolu, of course, would become one of the greatest players in UH history. He went on to win four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers and make two NFL Pro Bowl appearances.