Some battles go beyond the surface at UNLV


POSTED: Wednesday, September 16, 2009

LAS VEGAS » The UNLV football team is 1-1 this season as it preps to host Hawaii on Saturday.

Offensive line coach Keith Uperesa, however, remains undefeated. Prostate cancer, diabetes, and then cancer again, this time in his thyroid. All of them took big leads, but none could beat him. You see his huge smile, and it makes you forget momentarily about the even longer surgery scar spanning his neck.


WHEN I talked with him nearly three months ago, before his radiation treatment, Uperesa sounded strong and ready for a fight. Physically, though, the cancers and diabetes had taken their toll on the former Punahou standout. Add the decades of endless football coach work hours and a less-than-ideal diet, and he was very tired.

But he's winning the fight.

Yesterday, after practice at UNLV, Uperesa looked and sounded great. He's lost nearly 40 pounds. The battle's not over and fatigue still gets him now and then, but he's way ahead. The radiation treatment went well, and he returned to work quickly, the third week of July.

“;Some blood tests over the next few months,”; he says. “;The prognosis is good.”;

Just three months ago, UNLV head coach Mike Sanford wasn't concerned about losing his offensive line coach. He was worried about his friend losing his life.

“;He's been through a lot, but he's doing better,”; Sanford said yesterday.




AND UPERESA is there every day for practice. He doesn't put in the insane hours like before (not to say that he won't in the future). And he has help; his wife, Kaipo, joins him each day, driving him in a cart from his office to the field and to the various drill locations so Keith can conserve his energy for the actual coaching.

Uperesa is the reason former Baldwin standout Sean Tesoro is at UNLV. And Uperesa is the reason Tesoro never slacks off.

“;If I think practice is bad, I think about what he's going through and it pushes me harder,”; says Tesoro, who starts at left guard as a freshman.

“;He's just a good guy and I felt like I had to be here and be coached by him,”; he says when asked about being recruited by Uperesa.




FOR THE five players from Hawaii on the UNLV roster, there's no talk about missing local food. This is Las Vegas; you've got everything Hawaii does except for tradewinds and the ocean. But the man who recruited them must mostly do without.

“;Two months without seafood. That was tough. ... Rice, I couldn't even eat brown rice for three weeks.”;

Kaipo says Keith can be very stubborn, but she gets the last word on food. The other day they had short ribs, one of his favorites. But only a small portion.

“;I only allow one serving, and he used to be a three-serving guy. Now I fix the plate,”; she says.

It seems ludicrous to even consider the possibility of two forms of cancer and diabetes as blessings.

But Keith Uperesa is well on his way to 3-0.

“;It's been tough, the toughest part is getting my strength back. I have to pace myself,”; he says.

And, “;It's helped change my habits.”;