COURTESY WATSON FAMILY
Keala Watson and his wife, Leona, have supported each other through good and bad times since meeting at Nanakuli High School.
Watson grows into role model
Keala embraces changes
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Keala Watson's college football career almost ended soon after it started for health reasons when he was a freshman in 2004. But the 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive tackle from Kauai and Nanakuli persevered.
In addition to standing tall in the middle of the Warriors defensive line, Watson is a force in the classroom and community. The All-WAC academic honoree carries a 3.6 GPA in a custom-made, sciences-heavy curriculum of environmental studies specific to Hawaiian issues. When he's not working out or studying, he's speaking to kids.
"We've been doing a lot of school talks. It feels like we're on tour or something, about four or five a week. It humbles you when you see yourself in some of the kids and they're looking up at you as something they can aspire to be," Watson said.
In 77 days, Hawaii opens its college football season at Florida with a largely new cast of leading men and supporting players. As we did leading up to last season's historic run to the Sugar Bowl, the Star-Bulletin will introduce and re-introduce you to some of the personnel expected to impact the Warriors' chances at success this fall. Today Dave Reardon profiles senior defensive tackle Keala Watson as our series of Sunday profiles continues.
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Transition is chaos for people who don't know how to handle it. Those with the right attitude see it as opportunity and they thrive.
Hawaii senior defensive tackle Keala Watson is on his third position coach since starting his Warriors career in 2004. But that's minor compared to all the other changes Watson has experienced bridging three distinct eras of UH football.
Four years might not seem like a long time to most, but in this story of the old man and the D, it spans three generations of Warriors, including hundreds of distinct personalities and as many highs as lows.
"I was here for the Timmy Chang era, playing with Lui Fuga and Matt Faga," Watson said, recalling his freshman year, when few in Hawaii had even heard of Colt Brennan and Greg McMackin was a friend from the past no one expected to see at UH again. "And another group, Mel Purcell and Kahai LaCount. I've seen a lot of good guys go through.
"I think it really helped me as a player. We got to pick up a few of the good things from every class that came through. Work ethic, what it takes to win. I think that's what really helped us last year when we actually won the WAC championship. If we can pass that on it's something that can start a tradition of learning and passing on the skills. That's what it takes to build a football program."
Watson spoke Friday between offseason workouts at UH. So much has changed since 2004 -- for the program and for him.
George Lumpkin was the defensive coordinator in 2004 now it's Cal Lee (following Jerry Glanville and then McMackin, who is now the head coach). Cooke Field is now Ching Field. The quarterback chain has gone from Chang to Brennan to Who Knows?
Back then, Watson was a quiet freshman, his football future in doubt due to a dangerous medical condition. Now he's a respected team leader and spokesman, a stable married man known for his faith (in his teammates and his God), his wit and IQ as well as his physical and emotional strength. And, perhaps, above all, is that key ability to adapt.
Players don't usually see coaches come and go. But in Watson's time, he said hello and good-bye to Glanville, Mouse Davis, Jeff Reinebold and Dennis McKnight.
Of those four larger-than-life personalities, Reinebold had the most impact on Watson.
"Jeff Reinebold was really good on key reads and assignments. He had us all being offensive coordinators, breaking down the other team's offense. He was knowledgeable about every play, every read, every scheme. That's why we made a lot of plays," Watson said. "I think he was outspoken because he knew what he was talking about. Everything he said was right. You could see it on film. He would bet with us, 20 pushups, where the ball was going. We'd always end up doing pushups. He knows everything about football, every position."
Now at SMU with the departed June Jones, Reinebold coached the UH defensive tackles the past two seasons -- after Vantz Singletary and prior to this year's new coach, Ikaika Malloe.
Has this revolving door of mentors confused Watson with mixed messages? No, it's merely given him more brains to pick.
"The coaching changes have helped a lot. When you have the same coach for four years, you only learn what that one coach has to offer," Watson said.
"From Singletary we learned hard-nosed football. It's something you don't see that much now because there aren't that many of those old-school, hard-nosed coaches. Toughness. Lui and Matt knew what it was."
Fuga -- who spanned a couple of eras himself as a six-year player -- was like a coach on the field, Watson said.
"He held you accountable. He was one of the best leaders I've seen come through the program. Nobody got away with anything. That's the kind of leader I would like to be," Watson said.
Malloe, the former Kamehameha star, has made a good early impression on Watson.
"Ikaika's a players' coach. He's kind of in your face, but he's right alongside you, too. He runs with us. He doesn't ask us to do anything he can't do himself. That earns your respect. That's the kind of coach we need to help push us."
Of course, even more important than what you get from your coaches is what you get from yourself. Watson's teammates have noticed how hard he works and his willingness to help them.
"He's a big-time leader for us on and off the field because of many reasons including his work ethic," senior linebacker Solomon Elimimian said. "And he gets a lot of other guys into the weight room. The main reason there's so much respect for him is because he's a great person with a great heart, always looking to do things for his teammates."
The poised and confident senior was a shell-shocked freshman, playing on an injury-depleted front four against Florida Atlantic and at Rice, just a few weeks after graduation from Nanakuli High School.
"My first game I was totally in awe. I felt like a tourist, on vacation," Watson said, recalling the first road game at cavernous Rice Stadium in Houston. "When you're thrown into situations like that when you're young it kind of forces you to pick things up faster, the speed of the game, the technique. It was good, but everything was a fast-forward learning experience so you don't get all your technique. Since then it's been a lot better. Me and Lafu (Tuioti-Mariner, now an offensive lineman) were second string because there were no other D-tackles. We were thrown in the mix and it was kind of a shock. But we got through it. I think it helped us out."
But the playing time as a true freshman didn't last long. He was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder similar to hemophilia. Watson had to stop playing football or risk bleeding to death from a tiny scratch.
"I didn't know there was such a thing. I went through a lot of tests, a blood specialist on the mainland. I saw about 20 different doctors," he said.
Finally, one came up with a treatment that would work and allow Watson to play without the additional risk.
"One of the things some of the fans don't realize is we're humans, like them," Watson said.
"We go through struggles and everyone on the team has a story to tell. Being on the team helps us cope with our problems. It's pretty hard to play football here. Two-hour practices in the morning, two-hour meetings in the afternoons. School, homework and stuff. It's a struggle, but it keeps you honest. It keeps you disciplined. It helped me get through a lot of problems I had, with the bleeding condition I have."
His wife, Leona, also keeps him grounded. The former Nanakuli volleyball player comes to every practice and sometimes works out with him.
"She understands the sacrifices I have to make to be on the team," said Keala, who met Leona at Nanakuli when his family moved to Oahu from Kauai when he was 15.
"The first thing that caught my eye was that he was spiritual," Leona said. "And he never swore. I liked that."
Their relationship has withstood many tests, including the deaths of Leona's parents just months apart while she and Keala were still in high school.
"Our faith has given us the motivation to keep going. We lean on each other, and if we can't do that we lean on our faith," she said.
McMackin calls them "great young people," and said Keala exemplifies what he loves about Hawaii people and made him want to coach here again.
"Off the field he is the kindest, gentlest person, with a great sense of humor, and very smart," McMackin said. "When he gets on the field he is a big-time aggressive hitter. He's got that same leadership ability Mike Lafaele has."
And like Lafaele, the defensive tackle who started his career on offense, Watson possesses that other important trait for success.
He's adapted to an ever-changing environment.
He's bridged the eras.