Jesse Mahelona committed to Tennessee after a visit.
Mahelona worked his way from Big Island to pro football
Says he 'grew up' at Orange Coast C.C.
Last spring, Jesse Mahelona was just a couple of years older than the kids he was asked to impart wisdom upon. He was asked to make the commencement speech at Kealakehe High School even though his own professional career had yet to commence.
A Slight Breeze
Jesse Mahelona is the only college football player from a Hawaii school who is a lock to be drafted by an NFL team this weekend
Probable Round 3-5
» Jesse Mahelona, Tennessee/Kealakehe, DT
Possible Late Rounds
» Donovan Raiola, Wisconsin/Kamehameha, C
Probable NFL Free Agents or CFL
» Tony Akpan, Hawaii, DE
» Brandon Eaton, Hawaii, OL
» Kila Kamakawiwo'ole, Hawaii/Kaimuki, OLB
» Joe Lobendahn, Washington/Saint Louis, LB
» Lono Manners, Hawaii/Waianae, SS
» Vaka Manupuna, Colorado/Saint Louis, DT
» Tanuvasa Moe, Hawaii/Saint Louis, LB/LS
It begins today or tomorrow, when the Tennessee defensive tackle from Kailua-Kona on the Big Island is selected in the NFL Draft.
Principal Wil Murakami chose Mahelona to speak because he wanted the new graduates to learn about persistence. Mahelona, a member of Kealakehe's first senior class in 2001, had just been crowned a football All-American, and he'd gotten to the top the hard way.
"Jesse's message was about never giving up," Murakami said. "When he left here, he wasn't sure what he could do. What impressed us the most is how much he has matured and how articulate he has become. He's done most of it by himself, as most successful people have."
In 2004, Mahelona produced an astounding 18 1/2 tackles for loss in his first season with the Volunteers, and his first in Division I football. His achievements didn't shock those who had seen him play at Orange Coast Community College, but Mahelona surprised himself.
With rare exceptions, such as former Hawaii and NFL offensive lineman Kaulana Noa, the Big Island had produced relatively few big-time college football players. Mahelona is the leader of a wave changing that image.
"I never met Kaulana, but looked up to him. I think the athletes were always here, but they were overlooked before," Mahelona said. "The scouts are here a lot more, and more people are aware of the Big Island having top athletes."
Mahelona also dealt with coming from a fledgling high school program.
"We were new and inexperienced and went through three head coaches," he said. "But we had to grow along with the program. By my senior year we were 6-4, and were better than the record."
He originally agreed to accept a scholarship from Hawaii, but failed to meet Manoa entrance qualifications, even after taking classes at Kapiolani Community College.
But he blossomed at Orange Coast.
"I didn't think I'd be good enough to play at UH, let alone Tennessee," he said. "Coming all the way from Hawaii, you don't know. You only know what's in Hawaii. I never knew I would be this good. I grew up as a player and a person at Orange Coast."
Projections on when the 6-foot, 311-pound Mahelona will be drafted vary. Some say third round, some say fourth or fifth. NFL decision-makers either haven't come to a consensus on his potential or they're trying to keep a secret that already got out of the bag in 2004, when no one in the SEC could block him. Mahelona's numbers went down last fall, when he was continually double-teamed.
He said he won't worry about it. If today's four-pig luau spills over to tomorrow, so be it.
"One of the scouts told me don't pay attention to it. Just be prepared for the worst and hope for the best," Mahelona said. "That sounds like really good advice."
The Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons have shown the most interest, he said.
Mahelona was highly recruited coming out of Orange Coast, and committed to Oklahoma. He went on a visit to Tennessee mostly to see his brother, Steven, a former UH running back who had transferred to Division II Tusculum, 90 miles from Knoxville.
"I ended up falling in love with the place. I think going to a big program like that, you worry about getting lost in the shuffle. But it was great. The coaches were great and there's great fan support from the entire state of Tennessee," said Mahelona, who was preceded at Tennessee by Kahuku defensive end Jonathan Mapu.
"Jonathan was already on his mission. But definitely, knowing he was there influenced me," Mahelona said. "We're setting the foundation for kids who never thought they had a chance, and now they do."
And, if they follow Mahelona's example, they'll be grateful.
"Regardless of where he goes, he is going to be appreciative," Murakami said. "I really believe he values this opportunity. He doesn't see it as a right, as something that's owed to him. Jesse has the personality and character to realize he has an opportunity to achieve every kid's dream."