By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
For 20 long, agonizing minutes, Honokaa junior running back Sione Epenesa lay on the soft, green grass at Wong Stadium last Saturday night. He was injured on a hard tackle in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation football game against Hilo — to what extent nobody knew at the moment.
His parents, dad Lala, also a Honokaa assistant coach, and mom Natalie Epenesa stood next to their son, waiting 10 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. The paramedics were careful in their handling of Sione, taking four minutes to load him into the van.
Sione Epenesa is fine now, no spinal cord injury and diagnosed with a neck sprain and slight concussion, his dad said. He’s expected to miss two to three weeks, and will still have to pass Honokaa trainer Kahea Schuckert’s battery of tests before he steps onto the field again.
But the experience, almost a week later, is still a vivid memory for his father Lala Epenesa, who’s a 1985 Honokaa graduate and played football and baseball at the school, like his son.
“It was unreal, kind of scary,” Lala said. “The doctor said he tweaked a nerve beyond a normal sprain. He lost feeling in his arms and legs. He’s in top-shape now. They gave him an MRI, CAT scan. That night on the field, he said, ‘Dad, I’m all right. I can go ahead.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so pal.’
“The hospital was unreal. I guess they called ahead that it was a spinal and back injury. They had a whole crew waiting. I was impressed with the crew. They were unreal.”
The hospital took precaution, constantly observing Sione, who’s listed at 5 feet 11 and 180 pounds on Honokaa’s roster. He was released early in the morning at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday.
“They kept doing tests and he slowly came back,” Lala said. “He had a slight concussion because he forgot how he got in the ambulance. It was 2:30 a.m. when they decided to release him and not keep him overnight. The tests said he was OK.”
Lala said he was also impressed with his wife’s composure on the field, a game Hilo won 43-0. Natalie works for Helco, and he’s employed by the county parks and recreation.
“She knew she had to be strong in front of him. That she couldn’t just lose it,” he said. “But I was surprised. I thought she would lose her mind.
“Initially, when I got there from what I saw, I thought he was OK. Then I was kind of freaking out myself. Our head coach (Bobby Embernate) calmed me down and our trainer Kahea. He could move one arm, but not the other. He had no feeling. The trainer said squeeze her finger. He thought he was, but it wasn’t moving.
“I’ve seen him get hit way harder. It was a freak thing. He remembered getting hit in the side of the head in the pile-up. He got tweaked that way. In the Konawaena game (45-0 loss on Sept. 6), he was hit way more hard. It was just a freak thing.”
Lala has been a volunteer coach since Sione was a freshman. He joined the staff this season. Lala coaches the running backs, and instructs his son with not only running tips, but life lessons as well.
The most impactful advice is to hit the books.
“I tell him to study hard. If his grades are down, he can’t play,” Lala said. “I like him to be humble. There’s always someone better than him out there. Last year, he struggled and got sent to summer school. That helped him plenty for this year. He’s way more focused. He missed a couple of baseball games last season. That was an eye-opener for him.
“I tell him to have patience and use his vision and stay low when he runs. He loves playing safety, too, because they give the hits. But he likes running back. He likes carrying the ball and faking guys out. He said he likes cutbacks. He’ll watch NFL games and see how guys are running. His role model is (Seattle Seahawk) Marshawn Lynch because he runs hard and tears it up as a downhill runner.”
Sione is looking to play college ball in California, where his sister Amber, a 2006 Honokaa graduate, lives. But first, he’s doing his best to provide leadership to a young, winless Dragons team — a point of pride for his father.
“This year, I’ve noticed he’s taking in the younger kids. He knows what they’re going through and he wants to make it easier for them, getting used to the plays, working hard in practice,” Lala said. “He just pushes them to be better at every practice. I guess he learned that from the prior seniors. That’s what I’ve seen. He’s taking care of the younger players.
“Everyone likes to win. But from the start, he knew it was a young team. He’s more into preparing them for next year. He’s getting them ready for next year, helping the young guys.”
Besides practical advice, Lala also presents a pretty good dry sense of humor, concerning the family’s last name. It’s spelled E-p-e-n-e-s-a.
“Oh, I’ve heard it announced worse. It’s Samoan, not Spanish,” he joked.
The good humor carries into the Epenesa household when father and son watch NFL games. Sione’s team is the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers (0-2). Dad’s team is the Super Bowl favorite Denver Broncos (2-0).
Both teams are in different AFC divisions. The Steelers are in the AFC North and the Broncos in the AFC West. They aren’t scheduled to play during the regular season.
Last year, Peyton Manning made his Denver debut a successful one in the season opener, throwing for a pair of touchdowns in a 31-19 win over Sione’s Steelers.
And who could forget the last meeting in 2011? Certainly, not Lala.
“Oh, I like that,” he said.
That AFC wild card game grew the legend of Tebow-mania. Tim Tebow, the currently unemployed quarterback, fired a wobbly 80-yard scoring pass on the first play of overtime in Denver’s 29-23 upset of Pittsburgh.
When his Broncos thump the Steelers, especially in a playoff game, it’s a good feeling for Lala, who earns household bragging rights. But a better feeling is seeing his son safe and healthy, after a harrowing experience.
Sione Epenesa will be on the field for today’s game with visiting Kealakehe (1-3 overall, 1-2 BIIF) at Honokaa (0-4, 0-3). The senior Dragon running back/safety won’t be in full uniform. But he’ll be doing what he does best: pushing his teammates.
“I think he’ll be down, not playing,” Lala Epenesa said. “But he’s a good team player. He’ll be on the sidelines, cheering on and helping the young ones. He’s already been helping us out at practice, too.”