Monday, November 30, 2009

Niumatalolo Falls Short in Return

Those same deafening cheers he heard as a high school player for Radford and as a University of Hawai'i quarterback and assistant coach reverberated through Aloha Stadium last night in the Warriors' 24-17 win against Navy.

But this time, it was different for Hawai'i son Ken Niumatalolo, Navy's second-year head coach. Those same cheers that inspired him to play hard were now backing his opponent.

"Feels weird," said Niumatalolo, just after listening to another familiar sound: UH's alma mater.

Trailing by seven, Navy just made a fourth-and-1 stand against the Warriors at the Navy 16 with 5:41 left in the game. Niumatalolo was on the line of scrimmage on his sideline to see the crucial play and pumped his right arm.

The Midshipmen would drive to UH's 39, but the Warriors preserved their lead on sacks on third and fourth downs as time ran out.

"Very emotional game," Niumatalolo continued. "To come back here to the stadium, it was different for me. I love these kids that I coach. Our guys on our team, I love them. It's unfortunate we came up short. I give Hawai'i all the credit in the world."

This is the same Niumatalolo who once sold newspapers with UH game lineups as a kid at Aloha Stadium.

It was the stadium where he would help Radford High — just in the shadow of Aloha Stadium — to the 1981 O'ahu Prep Bowl title that culminated an emotional season in which his coach John Velasco had passed away a few weeks earlier.

It was the same place he played collegiately for UH and graduated from in 1989. He also would help his college alma mater as a graduate assistant and assistant coach from 1990 to 1994.

Adding to the emotion was the presence of family.

On the Navy sidelines were cousins Thor and Fred Salanoa. Thor was his teammate at Radford and Fred, now Radford's football coach, was the team's waterboy.

Although his family lived in La'ie, Niumatalolo stayed with the Salanoas near Radford.

"I'm so proud of him," Thor Salanoa said. "Every week we talk to each other. In college (Thor went to Brigham Young), we were always calling up each other, still keeping in touch."

Also on the sidelines were Niumatalolo's sons, Va'a and Ali'i. It was extra special for Va'a, a 16-year-old linebacker for a Maryland high school. He said this was his first return to his father's home since he was about 1.

"It was great to come out there and see family and everyone," Va'a said. "This is the first time I've seen a game in here. Well, a second time. I saw the Kahuku (vs. Farrington state semifinal) yesterday."

He was impressed by the UH crowd.

"It's a lot louder than I thought it would be," he said. "Inside the stadium, it was as loud as Notre Dame and Ohio State. It got pretty loud. I was impressed."

Another family member was on hand and wished him well before the game. Mayor Mufi Hannemann greeted the nation's first college coach of Samoan ancestry as Navy left the field from its final pregame warmups to the locker room.

"It's very special because his mother and I are cousins," Hannemann said. "I'm so proud of him. He achieved what so many people just dream about."

Hannemann said Niumatalolo is a role model for coaches from here and those of Polynesian ancestry. He saw leadership ability when Niumatalolo was a youth.

"He was always a leader," Hannemann said. "He was always very intelligent; he was very disciplined. It's not surprising that he's doing so well."

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