When secondary coach Greg Brown was hired and showed up to work in Boulder early this year, he found himself assigned to the same office he had back in the early 1990s when he coached the secondary for the Buffaloes before. When he sat down at his old desk the first time, he realized he had the same telephone number.
When his office door opened and Brown saw his former player Donnell Leomiti standing there — a big grin on his face — for a moment, Brown thought he had traveled back in time. Same office, same phone number, same safety.
But it was January 2006, and unbeknownst to Brown when he took the CU assistant football coach job, his old player, Leomiti, was his new defensive technical intern.
“I couldn’t have been more thrilled to find out he’d gotten into coaching,” Brown says. “He makes an ideal coach. He’s smart, he’s loyal beyond belief. What a great break it was for me to come here and find out he was coaching here.”
When Leomiti first came to Boulder as a player in 1992, it was the longest journey anyone had ever taken to be able to wear the black and gold. While Leomiti grew up in Carson, Calif., he came to CU from American Samoa, where his family had moved when Leomiti was 13. Leomiti was the first player to come to Colorado from the tiny chain of six Polynesian islands located in the South Pacific, a four-hour plane ride beyond Hawaii.
Like most Polynesian players who’ve suited up for the Buffaloes over the years — from Brian Cabral and Tiloi Lolitai to Oakland Salavea and Sal Aunese to Chris Naeole, Sulu Petaia and Vaka Manupuna — Leomiti found success both on and off the football field.
When Leomiti was 13, his grandfather became matai, or chief, of the extended Leomiti clan, and moved Donnell and his family living in the Long Beach area back to Samoa.
It was a culture shock for the young teen. After living in the fast SoCal culture, he found himself on an island with one road that wound from one end to the other. Rather than a city, Donnell was living in a village. But he found something to do in Samoa that he knew all about in California – sports.
Leomiti excelled on the football field. Though NCAA Division I football programs rarely, if ever, made it all the way to Samoa to recruit players in the early 1990s, Leomiti had a connection to the mainland. Former Colorado Buffalo Oakland Salavea had grown up in a Samoan family in Oceanside, Calif., then moved to Samoa to coach football after he graduated from Colorado in 1990. Salavea called Coach Bill McCartney and told him about Leomiti, and a tape of Leomiti’s football highlights soon followed. McCartney had a scholarship available and gave it to Leomiti, who signed with the Buffs before he’d ever been to Colorado.
Leomiti played as a true freshman in 1992 as a wide receiver then moved to safety the following season. Brown remembers Leomiti as a player.
“He was hard-nosed, tough, smart,” Brown says. “He studied the game, and he just had a real feel for it.
“He brought an attitude with him. Everybody enjoyed being around Donnell.”
Toughness is a character trait Leomiti says most Polynesian players bring with them to the football field.
“That’s in our warrior mentality,” Leomiti says. “That just comes from our culture. You go on the island now, there’s guys playing football and tackling each other with no pads. We learn that from a young age.”
Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins knows about the Polynesian toughness. Back before college coaches attending high school all-star games was outlawed by the NCAA, Hawkins had been a regular at the annual California and California-Florida all-star games. But watching a high school all-star game in Hawaii in the late 1990s really opened his eyes.
“The Hawaii game — that might have been the most physical football game I’ve ever seen,” Hawkins says.
Leomiti says the playing field is a place for Polynesians to let loose.
“Respect is a big thing in our culture,” he says. “You’re taught to respect people and listen to them and understand where you fit. Mostly, your elders. Understand where you are in the whole scheme of things.
“On the field, it’s like we’re allowed to let it all out, let all our aggression and everything that’s in there out.”
“There’s something about those kids,” says Cabral, the longtime Colorado linebackers coach. “They’re passionate about the game. They’re hardworking guys, hard playing guys. They love physical contact. Their nature is very physical, but at the same time, off the field their nature is very jovial. Easy going, hang loose. The Polynesian kids have always been the most popular kids on the team.”
Photo courtesy CU SID
Cabral, of course, is an entire chapter in the book about Polynesian players who’ve found success at Colorado and beyond. In fact, his story winds through just about every chapter. The first time Cabral saw snow was on his recruiting trip to Boulder in 1973. He fell in love with Boulder and the university, went on to star as a linebacker for the Buffaloes, and later the Chicago Bears, where he was special teams captain for the 1985 Super Bowl winners.
Cabral returned to CU to coach in 1989, and has been here ever since, earning a reputation as one of the best college linebacker coaches in the country over the past 17 years.
Cabral carries a strong reputation among the Polynesian community, as well. He’s been instrumental in recruiting over a dozen Polynesian or Hawaiian players to CU over the years. When Cabral traveled to Kaaawa, Hawaii, to recruit current Buffalo freshman B.J. Beatty, he sat in the same living room as when he recruited Beatty’s uncle, CU All-American Chris Naeole, 13 years earlier.
“I knew about Cabral growing up, and his legacy of coaching great linebackers,” Beatty says. “He definitely has a big reputation in Hawaii right now. He’s definitely trying to get the pipeline going.”
Beatty is one of six players on the current CU roster who are either from Hawaii or are of Polynesian descent. He and fellow linebacker Mike Sipili both signed with CU last February from the island state.
Like any player from Hawaii, the two freshmen are going through a transition in Boulder. The transition is part cultural: There were a total of five Caucasian students at Kahuku, Beatty’s high school. And part environmental: Neither player had ever seen snow before, nor practiced football in 30-degree weather.
Cabral is routinely dressed in shorts during football practice, even as the season wears into November. It’s not uncommon to come upon junior Jordon Dizon, from Waimea, wearing sandals even when there’s snow on the ground.
Both Beatty and Sipili got their first real taste of cold weather in late October.
“It’s an adjustment,” Beatty admits. “But snow is just awesome. It was a nice sight to see. Something you only see on TV (in Hawaii).”
Care packages from home filled with raw fish, Portuguese sausages, Spam (a popular food on the island) and a rice cooker have helped Beatty from getting too homesick. He and some Hawaiian pals at school have also become regulars at 8 Island, a Hawaiian barbecue joint in Boulder. Every Monday, the team day off, Sipili heads to Aurora with some friends to eat chicken katsu, short ribs or loco moco at L&L, another Hawaiian-styled eatery.
Sipili, who was born in Samoa and moved to Hawaii in the eighth grade, brought a Samoan chant to the Buffs this year. They perform the "faumu" as a pre-game warm-up.
“It’s something that we can focus with together,” Sipili says.
Though it’s been an adjustment for the soft-spoken Sipili, he says, “I love Boulder. I’m just trying to fit in with the altitude and the weather and with school.
“I feel comfortable here. There’s people that care about us.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Leomiti says Cabral’s presence deserves credit for that. Plus, family is extremely important in Polynesian culture, and players respond well to the family atmosphere at CU.
“It started with Coach Mac,” Leomiti says. “When you came here you were part of the family. Mac made it big and Coach Hawkins is continuing it.”
Family is a big reason why the Polynesian players at CU have been successful on and off the field, Cabral says. Naeole, Manupuna and Vili Maumau were each deemed academic risks when they were accepted at CU as student-athletes. All three left Boulder with university diplomas. Manupuna was the first in his family to graduate from college.
“They’re very proud of their family and they want to honor their families by getting their degrees,” Cabral says.
That’s something Cabral stresses when he recruits Polynesian players.
“It’s important for these Polynesian kids to experience life outside their culture,” he says. “There’s a whole lot more world out there than what’s on their island. There’ s a whole different culture outside of theirs. They need to learn it, they need to understand it and they need to respect it. They can always go home and continue in their culture.
“Those are the guys, I guess because I understand it and I’m part of their culture, I want to see succeed. Most importantly, I want to see them get a degree. I want to see them have great football experiences. I want them to experience what I experienced, and to get out of it what I got out of it.”
What Leomiti got out of it was some great memories as a Buffalo (Colorado won 38 games in his four years), a college degree and what appears to be a burgeoning coaching career. After he failed to stick during a free agent tryout with the San Francisco 49ers in 1996, Leomiti found work as an assistant high school football coach and counselor. From 2001 through the 2004 season, Leomiti coached at Boulder High, then Gary Barnett hired him as a defensive technical intern at CU prior to the 2005 season.
It’s a paid, year-to-year position. One of his primary duties is to break down opponents’ tape and analyze their offensive tendencies for the Colorado defensive backs. Married, with two children, Leomiti wants to eventually land an assistant coaching job. His boss, Coach Brown, thinks he’s ready.
“Somebody needs to give him a job,” Brown says. “He’s a great coach.”
Colorado Buffaloes from Hawaii/Samoa
Brian Cabral, LB, 1975-77, Honolulu (St. Louis), Hawaii
Gary Campbell, LB, 1972, 74-75, Honolulu (St. Louis), Hawaii
Jonah Chun, ILB, 1998, Honolulu (Ponahou), Hawaii
Charlie Fernandez, OG, 1974, Honolulu (Ponahou), Hawaii
Sam Harris, DE, 1964-66, Kailua (Kamehameha), Hawaii
Donnell Leomiti, SS, 1993-95, Pavaiai (Leone), American Samoa
Tiloi Lolotai, DT, 1974-76, Honolulu (Iolani), Hawaii
Scott Mahoney, OT, 1969-71, Honolulu (Kailua), Hawaii
Vaka Manupuna, DT, 2002-03, Kaneohe (St. Louis), Hawaii
Viliami Maumau, DT, 1994-97, Honolulu (St. Louis), Hawaii
Chris Naeole, OG, 1993-96, Kaaawa (Kahuku), Hawaii
Sulu Petaia, FB, 1995, Leone, American Samoa
Wes Pratt, ILB, 1997, Kaneohe (Punahou), Hawaii
Allan Rogers, E, 1941, Honolulu, Hawaii
George Smith, DT, 1982-84, Waimanalo (Kialuka), Hawaii
Sam Taulealea, DT, 1999-00, Aiea (St. Louis), Hawaii
Heaton Wrenn, NT, 1975, Honolulu (Punahou), Hawaii
Other Former Buffaloes of Polynesian Descent
Sal Aunese, QB, 1987-88, Oceanside, Calif.
Junior Ili, OG, 1981, 83-85, LaPuente (Nogales), Calif.
Ron Liufau, OL, 1975, Haxtun, Colo.
Oakland Salavea, DT, 1988-89, Oceanside, Calif.
Currently on Roster
B.J. Beatty, OLB, Kaaawa (Kahuku), Hawaii
R.J. Brown, ILB, Honolulu (Punahou), Hawaii
Jordon Dizon, LB, Kauai (Waimea), Hawaii
Erick Faatagi, OL, Carson (Dorsey), Calif.
Justin Nonu, ILB, Vista (Oceanside), Calif.
Michael Sipili, ILB, Honolulu (Damien Memorial), Hawaii