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Not even cancer can put Uperesa on defensive


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POSTED: Sunday, June 28, 2009

He sounds strong.

But how does he feel?

And how do you ask that question of a man who fended off prostate cancer, only to get hit by diabetes and then, just a few weeks later, another form of cancer—this time in his throat, his thyroid?

In the end, you just do it. How are you feeling?

“;How am I feeling?”;

A fluffy conversation icebreaker on most occasions now bears the weight of total relevance.

Keith Uperesa pauses before speaking again. Not an awkward pause, but a thoughtful one.

“;If you ask each day, it's different each day. Mostly up and down.”;

The former Punahou and NFL football player sounds strong and optimistic. He speaks clearly and confidently, just as he did four years ago when I sat with him in his office at UNLV, where he coaches the offensive line.

This time it's his health we discuss, not how the Rebels look, not how he balances his religious beliefs with raising a family in Vegas.

“;It's a very aggressive form,”; he says. “;A cyst and two nodes. After biopsies and an MRI, it was determined I needed surgery.”;

It went 7 1/2 hours.

“;It turned out well. They didn't have to crack my chest open. That would've constituted waking up with a tracheotomy tube.”;

The next step is rehab, including radiation treatment, starting next week.

IF THERE'S fear, I can't hear it. Frustration, though, abounds. Uperesa is supposed to be here today, getting ready for the first All-Poly football camp in Hawaii that starts tomorrow. This is his baby, nine years and going strong on the mainland—now, finally here in Hawaii, his home.

“;My doctor told me, flat-out. No travel for three months. I'm going to miss being at the camp, but more so not being there with the family, for my nephew Dane's wedding. There's enough coaches for the camp, but family, that's a whole different matter.”;

UPERESA WANTS his friends in Hawaii and elsewhere to know that they shouldn't believe everything they read on the Internet, that he is too busy fighting and living to even think about dying.

“;This is very treatable. It's just another thing you have to go through,”; he says. “;There's a lot of fatigue, but I've started physical therapy and I'm trying to get in shape.

“;I'm in a good place now. It's just a matter of following doctor's orders, and I've got a lot of support around me.”;

We eventually get around to one of our favorite topics—the dearth of Polynesian head coaches.

“;Kenny (Niumatalolo) broke through, and it's the best it's been, but Polynesians are still the minority of minorities,”; says Uperesa, who with other Polys has started a coaches association. “;We need to work with our younger coaches. We have some old-timers now, and we have to work together, especially considering the large number of players involved.”;

This sounds like a guy who plans on being around. And yes, he hasn't given up on being a head coach himself someday.

At 53, he should be at his peak. Instead, he deals with an all-out blitz against his health that he refuses to let consume him.

Keith Uperesa still has a long fight ahead of him.

But he sounds strong.