Pio Sagapolutele left a legacy on the islands


POSTED: Tuesday, June 09, 2009

When the gangly kid from Kalihi arrived at Maryknoll, he definitely possessed the appearance of a basketball player. Pio Sagapolutele was 6-feet-5 and 185 pounds.

“;He wasn't a football player,”; said Tony Sellitto, who was his hoops coach at Maryknoll. “;But he sure became one.”;

Sagapolutele, 39, died last weekend, victim of a brain aneurysm. He leaves behind a wife and four children.

His legacy also includes a seven-year career as an NFL player, including a start in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 as a defensive tackle for the New England Patriots.

I remember him as an intimidating force on the basketball court. When first seeing him stride his huge strides onto the court, I wondered how anyone could make a layup with those long arms guarding the basket. He looked like a giant spider.

My friend and colleague Dennis Anderson predicted greatness early on. He saw him in a summer league game in 1984, before Pio entered Maryknoll.

“;There was a loose ball and an opposing player went to the floor to get it. Pio bent over and picked up the ball and the other player, and got a held-ball call,”; Dennis said. “;I knew right then that Pio was going to be a power to be reckoned with.”;

Despite his initial lack of girth and little or no mean streak, he developed into a very good high school football player, one of the defensive stars leading Pac-Five to a Prep Bowl championship in 1985.

He got his prep football education the hard way, in the trenches from more experienced teammates and opponents.

“;Pio never cowered or complained,”; Anderson said. “;He just took the punishment and learned.”;

He was already setting the tone for the kind of player and person he'd be known as in the pros — low maintenance, a quiet but friendly gentleman who did his job the best he could and went home.

If he ever lost his cool, Sellitto didn't notice.

“;I never heard him raise his voice, not once,”; he said. “;I heard him mutter some things under his breath when I yelled at him, but never saw him get really upset.”;

So Bill Parcells never got under his skin (if you can handle Sellitto, you can handle anyone). If Parcells or Bill Belichick or one of his other NFL coaches yelled at Pio for making a mistake, he'd just grin and try to do better the next time.

That's why Belichick — who drafted him to the Browns in 1991 in the fourth round out of San Diego State — came looking for Pio again when Belichick was Parcells' assistant head coach for the Patriots in 1997.

His versatility was a plus, too. As a pro, the 297-pound Sagapolutele was big and strong enough to play defensive tackle, athletic and long enough to play end.

I always thought he could have had a longer NFL tenure as an offensive tackle.

Maybe he wouldn't have absorbed as many injuries. The accumulation of them over the years ended his career just a year after the Super Bowl appearance. After five seasons with the Browns, he had the one with the Patriots, then one with the Saints.

Pio, who lived in Arizona with his family his last few months, held football camps after his career ended. But his wife, Yvonne, said that had become rare because of his lingering injuries.

We don't know if football had anything to do with the death of Pio Sagapolutele at 39. We do know NFL players, especially linemen, seem to die a lot younger than the general population.


Reach Star-Bulletin sports columnist Dave Reardon at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), his “;Quick Reads”; blog at starbulletin.com and twitter.com/davereardon.