Tuesday, February 8, 2000
players enjoy relative
obscurity at home
They're not household names,By Pat Bigold
but four of Hawaii's native sons
are earning respect
in the league
A horde of autograph-seekers pressed in on Molokai's Kimo von Oelhoffen at the Pro Bowl Kickoff rally last Wednesday in Aloha Stadium's parking lot.
Everyone knew he had to be a National Football League player because of his powerfully trim 6-foot-4, 305-pound stature and the fact that a reporter was interviewing him.
But as several of the fans were walking away, looking satisfied with having secured the signature of the Cincinnati Bengals' six-year defensive lineman, they were heard to ask each other, "So, who was that anyway?"
The fact that von Oelhoffen is coming off his career-best season didn't help.
Meanwhile, Olin Kreutz, the Chicago Bears starting center, walked right past von Oelhoffen's crowd en route to the rally stage. No one even paid him a second look. He didn't look enough like an NFL player.
No jewelry on his body, his hair cut very short, Kreutz dressed like he was going to watch a prep football game. He still can't figure out why anyone would want his autograph. Island football fans still ask, "Who are you?"
Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, the Steelers reserve running back who played with Kreutz at St. Louis School, said none of the local NFL players minds when he has to explain who he is and for whom he plays.
"In Pittsburgh, they all know who you are because they see you on TV and other places all season," said Fuamatu-Ma'afala. "But in Hawaii, a lot of people don't know you. That's why it's good to come home because it keeps you grounded."
The league brought in only four locally produced NFL players last week as part of the festivities that led up to Sunday's 50th Pro Bowl. Last year the league brought in twice that number.
Von Oelhoffen, Kreutz, Fuamatu-Ma'afala and eight-year veteran offensive tackle Siupeli Malamala represent fewer than half the Hawaii players who played with NFL teams last season. Malamala, a Tongan-born 1987 graduate of Kalaheo High, has toiled eight years as an offensive tackle in the NFL, mostly for the New York Jets. But this is the first time he has been back in town to meet Hawaii fans in an organized setting.
Dedicated parentsMalamala lives in New York, where he finished the season with the Jets after a brief stay in Oakland. One can forgive Malamala if he seems a bit distracted on this visit.
His daughter, Dylan, who turned 3 years old Dec. 17, has cystic fibrosis. Malamala and his New York-born wife, Suzzane Bardakas, spend much of their time these days on the Dylan Malamala Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
"You never realize how expensive the medicine, machines and everything else are," said Malamala. "The NFL covers it 100 percent for us. But we're using this foundation to help other people not as fortunate as us. People who live from paycheck to paycheck can't afford to buy the machine."
Dylan spent the week here with her parents. Malamala lives in hope for his little girl.
"I think in the next 10 years there will be a cure, and people with cystic fibrosis live to an average age of 31," he said.
Malamala is a free agent now, awaiting a call from his agent.
Kreutz, a 1998 third-round draft pick of the Bears, took over last season as their starting center and emerged as one of the NFL's most promising players at that position.
The highlight of the season was being voted a second-team alternate to the NFC Pro Bowl team. He was moved up to first-team alternate due to an injury.
"I was shocked," Kreutz said. "Coach (Dick) Jauron told the team so it was kind of a big deal."
Tampa Bay inside linebacker Warren Sapp wasn't surprised.
"Outside of (Pro Bowlers) Jeff Christy (Vikings) and Tony Mayberry (Buccaneers), he's the best," Sapp said. "He knows exactly where he's supposed to be, he's tough as nails and I knew I had to buckle up and bring my 'A Game' because he's a fine, fine player. He got my vote for Pro Bowl."
Won't back downPlayers and coaches have compared Kreutz with Mark Stepnoski and Jay Hilgenberg.
Kreutz also proved he won't back down to any veteran. He was ejected and fined $5,000 for punching defensive end Kenard Lang in an Oct. 31 game at Washington.
"He and my linemate, Blake Brockermeyer, got into it and so I jumped on Lang," he said.
Kreutz said he figured others would try to make him lose his cool, and sure enough, before a Nov. 14 game with Minnesota, Vikings nose tackle Joe Phillips promised to do just that.
"Phillips came right out in the newspaper and said he would try to get me going to get me thrown out," Kreutz said.
But Kreutz kept his poise.
"I told the newspapers that if a situation like that comes up again, I will probably get thrown out again because I think it's right to stand up for your teammates," he said.
His line coach, Bob Wylie, said the people of Chicago have taken Kreutz to their hearts.
"They love him," said Wylie, "and he could be a Pro Bowler as soon as next year."
Kreutz said that, back in Chicago, he tries to live as much like an island boy as he can. He wears surf shorts every day "until it gets cold."
Lower profileFuamatu-Ma'afala suffered the misfortune of a freak ankle injury in training camp and then wound up playing special teams all season.
But Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who had said as a rookie in 1998 that he was willing to do anything in the NFL, played well in his role on punt and kickoff teams.
"But if you haven't been tackling all your life, it can be hard," he said.
"You have to learn to wrap up your guy. If you just hit 'em, they keep going because they have good balance. The best one I faced was Tamarick Vanover of Kansas City. At 220 pounds, he was pretty big for a returner."
Like Kreutz, von Oelhoffen and Malamala, Fuamatu-Ma'afala avoids flamboyance.
"No jewelry for me," he said. "My mom would kill me. I just wear a thin necklace my mom gave me."
Von Oelhoffen, who is married to former Wahine basketball player Tondi Redden, is a free agent, but he expects to sign again with the Bengals.
"This is awesome that the NFL brings us back here," said von Oelhoffen.
He said he'd just come back from a two-day stay on Molokai and planned to go back there after the Pro Bowl.
"Hey, how's the Molokai High baseball team doing this season?" von Oelhoffen asked as he continued signing autographs.
Molokai won the state baseball title last May.