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Thursday, September 16, 1999

NFL NOTEBOOK

Tapa

Aleaga survives the hard way

By Pat Bigold
Star-Bulletin

Tapa

Ink Aleaga knows that the acronym, NFL, has a way of translating into Not For Long.

So the 6-foot-1, 251-pound linebacker for the New Orleans Saints practices and plays every day like his career depends on it.

"You have to play like you're on the bubble all the time," said Aleaga in a phone interview from New Orleans this week.

The former Pac-Five star is a third-year league veteran, solidly entrenched behind starter Mark Fields on the weak side. But Aleaga secured his NFL job the hard way.

Undrafted in his senior year at Washington, Aleaga signed with the Saints as a free agent on April 25, 1997.

Free agents come and free agents go, as Aleaga knows. This year alone, there were were seven with Hawaii ties under contract who didn't make it to their season openers.

But Aleaga has continued to impress the Saints and they keep bringing him back.

Last February, he was among 22 linebackers made available in the expansion draft to stock the roster of the Cleveland Browns. But he was passed over and re-embraced by New Orleans.

In his Saints career, Aleaga has appeared in 19 games and started four of them.

His career highlight was a seven-tackle game against New England four weeks into the 1998 season, when he recorded his only NFL sack. He brought down Drew Bledsoe 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage and forced him to fumble.

Aleaga plays a lot of special teams these days, but when he does get into the Saints' 4-3 alignment, his job is to go man-to-man with a back.

"Whenever the runs go to my side, I have to try to force 'em back in," he said. "It's pretty much containment."

Aleaga is poised to step in to a starting role if Fields goes down. One thing that might help him make the most of the opportunity is his condition.

He reported to camp this year in better shape than ever, and raised his bench press to 420 pounds.

He said he likes playing for coach Mike Ditka because he appreciates his brutal honesty.

"He's a down-to-earth, straight shooter," said Aleaga. "He's not a smile-in-your-face back-stabber. He'll tell you what's on his mind. He may offend some people, but he's the kind of man I like to play for."

Like any local boy who has to live and work on the mainland, Aleaga misses his island food.

But he and his wife, Kelli, an Iolani alumna, have developed a liking for New Orleans cuisine.

"The best thing about New Orleans is that there's a lot of great food," he said. "We've tried a lot of Cajun food, gumbo and jambalaya."

But Aleaga said Kelli is now finding ingredients at Asian food stores in New Orleans to cook shoyu chicken and other delicacies they used to eat in Hawaii.

Aleaga said he misses former teammate, eight-year veteran Pio Sagapolutele, whose contract was terminated by the Saints during the summer. Like Aleaga, Sagapolutele played for Pac-Five and attended Maryknoll.

"It's pretty boring here without Pio," said Aleaga. "He was somebody to talk to, and he was like a big brother to us (Aleaga, Kelli and guard Chris Naeole, New Orleans' first-round pick in 1997 from Kahuku). He used to give us hints about the ins and outs of the NFL and he's given advice about life in general."

Aleaga said he and Naeole go to lunch together often and visit each other's homes.

"We just had a birthday party for one of his two children," he said.

On Oct. 3, Aleaga will be seeing another good friend when the Saints play the Bears in Chicago. The idea of having to go up against former Huskies teammate Olin Kreutz (St. Louis), who starts at center for Chicago, doesn't make Aleaga feel very good.

He said he read Kreutz's statement in a story on starbulletin.com last weekend that he dreaded having to play against a fellow islander in NFL action.

"I agree with Olin 100 percent," said Aleaga. "If you have to, you have to, but it's the worst thing. I'd rather be cheering from the sidelines for him. I mean I'd be cheering for him, not the team."

The Saints travel to play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday (KHON, 10 a.m.).



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