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Destined to make a difference


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POSTED: Sunday, July 05, 2009

He's been hooked since the day he tried it.

Joe Onosai—high school coach and former University of Hawaii football great—admits it freely. He's on Facebook, seemingly 24/7.

"It's addicting," says Onosai, a magnet on the popular social networking Web site. In just a few short months, the former lineman has attracted more than 1,500 followers. Pretty good for a guy who grew up without a computer in Kuhio Park Terrace.

Onosai's daily message via Facebook is no surprise to friends and fellow worshippers at Word of Life Christian Center, where he's been a pastor since 1997.

In some ways, his ascension to ministry was destined. At birth, his grandfather, Lafaele Onosai, a minister, just knew. With no ministers among his children, Lafaele had a vision of sorts.

"When he held me for the first time, he said, 'This young man is going to carry on my ministry.' That's what my mom told me before we left," Onosai says.

They left Se'etaga, American Samoa, because Onosai had health problems. His parents worried about their baby's respiratory issues and more.

"My mom said I was retarded," Onosai says with a grin.

The family got on a military flight to Hawaii, where Onosai was treated at Tripler Army Medical Hospital. They've been in Hawaii ever since.

As he grew up, there were no more questions about his mental capacity. Coaches like George Chang and Lance Carrera saw a future leader.

"He was always bigger than the other kids his own age," says Chang, who was in his mid-20s when he first saw Onosai in the mid-1970s. "He was naturally a good athlete for his age. He could do everything well, was a very nice kid. Kind of a natural leader."

At University Lab School, Onosai continued to blossom. He helped Pac-Five emerge as Interscholastic League of Honolulu and Prep Bowl champion in 1982.

What he remembers most about playing for Don Botelho, however, was off the field.

"Coach Bo was always very old school. The year we won the Prep Bowl, the bus ride home from the stadium, you wouldn't be able to tell whether we won a game or not," Onosai says. "All he wanted was for you to be humble, whether you won or lost. We weren't allowed to talk or cheer. It was who he was and who he is. We followed suit and understood Coach Bo, that we didn't want to overcelebrate.

"One of the greatest values I learned from him is, 'I've been on the other side for many years, where we always lost. I always told myself, if I ever win, I'll never make the other team feel bad.' That sticks with me to this day."

Through high school, Onosai's health improved, but he never had it easy. Bronchitis and asthma followed him, even as he grew to be a man among boys. Asthma attacks in high school scared just about everyone.

"All my Pac-Five teammates, they remember. They called the ambulance," says Onosai, who was a bruising 240-pound fullback.

When life teeters on the brink at such a young age, a teenager can only wonder why. Onosai counted his blessings and kept pushing on. He accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Hawaii, where he moved from fullback to the offensive line and developed into a player with NFL potential.

Onosai quickly became a star lineman as a Rainbow, part of the resurgence under coach Dick Tomey.

"COACH TOMEY is probably the greatest motivator who I've ever met in my life," he says. "Not only was he eloquent and articulate, he was very emotional. He knew how to get you up for a game. He also knew how to put the fear of God in you.

"If he wasn't pleased with you, he'd let you know, whether you were a player or coach."

Tomey remembers someone who needed little prodding.

"Joe was a man among boys, a very physical guy, a tough guy, but a very solid individual," Tomey said. "He became a great leader, an outstanding performer and he was a great worker. He did it all."

O-line coaches Ed Riewerts and Mike Hill did much of the molding at UH. Between daily battles with defensive star Al Noga and constant motivation from the staff—Tomey once called Onosai "a big sissy," which seems absolutely comical now—he turned into a sixth-round draft choice by the Dallas Cowboys, his favorite team.

By preseason camp, his dreams about pro football were snuffed out. An injury during practice led to an exam, where doctors found a narrowing of his spinal cord, a birth defect that made the risk of paralysis far too great.

"I hit the guy and bruised the cord severely. Thankfully, that didn't sever the cord," he said.

It took four days for the strength in his legs to return fully. It took two years of rehab work to get his upper-body strength back to normal. What hurt most, though, wasn't the end of his career.

"I felt like my whole world came crashing down. My whole motivation was to buy a house for my mom (Evotia) and dad (Falaniko)," Onosai said. "They would always assure me, the main thing is you're alive, able to function normally, but in my heart, it was a major disappointment."

It was before his senior season at UH when Onosai tapped into a higher power.

"I gave my life to the Lord. I think because of that, I feel like I got the strength to bear all the things I went through," he said.

Onosai married his high-school sweetheart, Ann, in 1986. They have three children, including UH track and field athlete Careena.

ONOSAI FUNNELED his frustration and energy into the World's Strongest Man competitions for many years. At 6-feet-4 and 375 pounds, he had a 65-inch chest and 22-inch biceps. There was no other Strongman who could power lift better.

His current players—most were still in preschool when Onosai was on the circuit—have seen the YouTube clips of their head coach. But they see more than a hulking Superman.

"He cares a lot about our families and our school, kind of like Coach Carter," says lineman Judah Parker, referencing the movie. "He's been at that peak, so I really take to heart what he says."

Onosai also led the "Men of War," an evangelizing group of ex-convicts and ex-drug dealers, former gang leaders and police officers. They brought an anti-drug message to high schools through a strongman theme—busting bricks, bending steel bars, lifting huge logs and more.

After coaching Pac-Five following Botelho's retirement in 2003, he spearheaded Word of Life's program. Last year, the Firebrands won two games in their first crack at the varsity level. The list of former Firebrands now playing college football or volleyball is expanding, and Onosai hasn't forgotten his roots. Eight Word of Life graduates came from his stomping ground, Kuhio Park Terrace.

"Kids definitely need discipline. Some of them grew up in homes where they're not taught core values," he says. "What you become is more important than what you achieve. You're able to see the kids' confidence levels increase. The light turns on."

Facebook helps Onosai keep in touch despite a busy schedule.

"I love to bring hope to people," he says.

Real results matter. Through offseason training, Word of Life's athletes get stronger and faster. Onosai is right there in the gym with his coaches and players every day, overseeing their players. He isn't as big on protein supplements as he is on a basic balanced diet. He isn't as gung-ho about overnight success as he is about steady, realistic progress, both for Word of Life and Polynesian families.

"I know our people have come a long way, but some of us still struggle with assimilation. The alcoholism. The violence," he says.

In addition to a Samoan mayor, Mufi Hannemann, there are two Samoan judges and several doctors now, he points out.

"There's been progress, but we're still struggling. There's a breakdown of the traditional Samoan family. Where before—every Samoan kid knows this—you're home by 6 o'clock and you're praying. You can hear a family singing hymns, worshipping and praying. When I was growing up, it was a sacred time to get home when that sun went down or you'd get cracks."

Today, sparing the rod is more common in administering discipline, but the point is still valid and true. Children need attention from their parents, and Pastor Joe gently reminds them.

"He's a great example," Tomey says, "of what a local boy can do when he stays home and makes a difference."

Chang, the former KPT parks and recreation director, is close to retirement now.

"Even as a kid, he took everything into consideration and listened," he says of Onosai. "I'm proudest of the kids who became good citizens."

 

Star-Bulletin sportswriter Paul Honda is the same age as Joe Onosai and saw him play many times at Aloha Stadium. Tomorrow we unveil No. 25.