Ma‘afala makes transition
The former Hawaii defensive lineman has been a find for Cal
BERKELEY, Calif. » Albert "Abu" Ma'afala's blood remains Polynesian, but it's thicker now.
He didn't mind the cold here on a typically chilly Northern California evening Wednesday after Cal football practice. In fact, he liked it.
"I love the weather here," he said. "When I go home I'm not used to it at all."
Ma'afala has literally acclimated. But while he took his football skills to the San Francisco Bay Area, he left his heart in Hawaii ... and Indiana.
About two weeks ago, Ma'afala, a Kamehameha graduate and former UH defensive tackle now playing at Cal, got a call from Vantz Singletary, his position coach at Hawaii.
Ma'afala had played against New Mexico State, and Singletary asked if he could put him on speaker phone so he could give the UH defensive linemen some tips on dealing with the Aggies offensive line.
"It was an unexpected phone call," Ma'afala said. "But I told him I would do whatever I could to help them win. My heart's still in Hawaii."
So is his son, 17-month-old Levi.
"That's the hardest part, being away from him. Every time I see him, he's changed a little bit," Ma'afala said.
He also misses his girlfriend, Marleina Bernardino, a pre-med student at Notre Dame.
"We had to make some choices," Ma'afala said. "But we've got good supporting families (in Hawaii). And we know that we will have two good educations that will help us, and in the long run will help (Levi)."
Ma'afala left UH for Cal after his sophomore season in 2003. He wanted to take a medical redshirt in the 2004 season for knee surgery and rehab, but, with starters Lance Samuseva and Isaac Sopoaga having completed their eligibility, UH wanted him in the defensive line rotation last year.
Bears defensive line coach Ken Delgado said Cal was taking a chance on Ma'afala since he was a part-time player, but the move has already paid off.
"We didn't have a lot of film to verify, but I had recommendations from people I trust, and I felt deeply he was worth the risk after visiting him. It's turned out to be an absolute positive."
Ma'afala sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, giving his knee time to heal.
There was talk of ill will with UH when he left, but Ma'afala said that was not true, and when he and coach June Jones parted, it was on good terms.
"Coach Jones and I were not on the same page, but he had to do what was right for the team, and I had to do what was right for myself. I didn't feel I could put out to the best of my ability if I played through the injury, and it would hurt my aspirations of making it to the NFL," said Ma'afala, who was eager to visit his former teammates and coaches when they arrived last night for tomorrow's game at San Jose State.
"A good coach does what's best for the team, and that's what he did. He put in a good word with Coach (Jeff) Tedford (Cal's head coach) and helped me at the end."
Ma'afala will always be remembered by UH fans for scoring a touchdown in his first game, when he intercepted a pass and ran it into the Eastern Illinois end zone in a 61-36 win to open the 2002 season. He spelled Samuseva, Sopoaga and Lui Fuga as a true freshman and sophomore.
Now a fourth-year junior, Ma'afala has started four of his seven games at Cal, despite battling a sprained ankle. He has 11 tackles. Delgado praised him for his versatility.
"That's an added bonus, it's real valuable when you're juggling guys around because of injuries like we've had," Delgado said. "He's in our starting rotation of three tackles, and he's able to play end for us, where we've had a lot of injuries."
Another Kamehameha graduate, Mika Kane, is getting plenty of action at defensive tackle because of those injuries.
The original plan was to redshirt him, but the 6-foot-3, 290 Kane has played in five games, making three tackles. He's listed No. 2 on the depth chart at one of the tackle spots (Ma'afala is No. 1 at the other) going into tomorrow's home game against Washington State.
"When I first came here I was rushed into things, so I had to learn fast," said Kane, who helped lead Kamehameha to the state championship last year. "Abu had the patience to go over the plays with me.
"There's a big difference at this level," he added. "Everything. Power, speed of the game."
Like Ma'afala, Kane said he misses his family.
The excitement of game day blocks out homesickness, though, Ma'afala said.
"This is a lot more of a college town, we have the whole student section behind us," Ma'afala said. "And it's our own, home stadium, there's so much tradition."
After two straight losses, the Bears are 5-2 and ranked 25th going into tomorrow's encounter with the Cougars. Ma'afala said Cal has a good share of the area sports spotlight, but not as much pressure as being the biggest thing going in the state, like Hawaii football.
"The fact that we've been a top-10 program and the program's stepping up gives us some attention," he said. "But we're not the only thing going on here -- you cross the bridge and there's SBC Park and Barry Bonds. Before, that was something I'd only see on ESPN."