By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Feke Sopoaga-Kioa is 6 feet, 2 inches and 311 pounds. When he walks around the Kealakehe campus, his size is a pretty good clue that he’s a football player. But the clincher is the first part of his last name.
Any diehard University of Hawaii football fan would fondly remember the name Isaac Sopoaga, the run-stuffing defensive tackle, a former member of the San Francisco 49ers (2004-12) and current employee of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Sopoaga and Sopoaga-Kioa’s mom, Sharrise Faleofa, are first cousins. Sopoaga-Kioa, a senior Waverider offensive left tackle, said he’s asked “all the time” if he’s related to the Sopoaga, who was drafted in the fourth round in 2004.
Sopoaga-Kioa is also related to Rey Maualuga, the former All-American linebacker at USC and member of the Cincinnati Bengals, who drafted him in the second round in 2009. Faleofa and Maualuga are cousins.
She works for Kona Trans, a shipping company. Sopoaga-Kioa’s dad is Lava Kioa, who works in construction and at the Kona International Airport. He’s 100 percent Tongan, giving his son a unique tripleheader Polynesian blend.
Sopoaga-Kioa is Tongan, Samoan and Hawaiian. He can understand Tongan and a little Samoan. He follows the custom of wearing a lava lava to his Mormon church.
“People always ask if I’m Samoan or Tongan,” Sopoaga-Kioa said. “It’s great when I tell them I’m both and they trip out when I tell them I’m all three, Hawaiian, too.
“I get the height from my mom’s side of the family. They’re all tall. It’s just being Polynesian. I eat mac salad. That’ll get you big right there.”
He has a good sense of humor. He’s also musically inclined, learning to play the ukulele, guitar and piano by ear. When it’s time to kick back, Sopoaga-Kioa displays his singing chops, too.
But he makes his name with his work on the gridiron. Last season’s All-BIIF Division I first-team pick has enough talent to warrant him as one of the island’s top collegiate prospects. UH has shown the strongest interest in Sopoaga-Kioa, who has a 3.0 grade point average and calls BYU his “dream school.”
The shadow of football always follows him on the field. His grandfather, Paul Sopoaga, is Kealakehe’s offensive line volunteer coach, providing his grandson technical tips and tough love. Actually, it’s not just one grandson, but two. Isaac Sopoaga-Kioa, a 6-1, 260-pound sophomore, plays on both sides of the line.
The younger Sopoaga-Kioa wasn’t named after his NFL cousin. He was named after Isaac, described in the Hebrew Bible as the only son Abraham had with his wife, Sarah.
The family connection doesn’t stop there. Kealakehe (2-3 overall, 2-2 BIIF) visits Hilo (5-1, 4-0) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Wong Stadium. Isi Holani, the Vikings senior defensive terror, is a cousin. The two senior friendly rivals also compete in BIIF track and field, in the shot put and discus.
Fire and fun
Seventh-year Kealakehe coach Sam Papalii has seen a lot of talented linemen during his tenure, including his own in Levi Legay (2007 Kealakehe graduate), who received a UH scholarship; and others such Max Unger (2004 Hawaii Prep), the Seattle Seahawks center; and Daniel Te‘o-Nesheim (2005 HPA), a defensive end for the Eagles (2010) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2011-present).
Papalii always admired Te‘o-Nesheim’s passion and intensity to play until the whistle, often drive-blocking a defender 10 yards down the field when at offensive line or going full blast on defense. He observes that same quality in Sopoaga-Kioa, a gentle giant off the field, but a beast on it.
“Feke’s got to be one of the best at Kealakehe. He’s very aggressive, has toughness and is a powerful individual,” Papalii said. “I know UH is on him pretty solid. He’d make a hell of a guard. He’s got a good body type as a guard or center for Division I. He likes to finish his blocks, sustain plays and play to the whistle. He stays after it, like Daniel.
“Feke’s got great genes in the family. He’s a great kid. He’s talented, can sing, plays the ukulele. I enjoy coaching him and being around him. He’s got a pleasant personality, a nice smile, and he’s really likable. But you get him on the field, and he’ll get after you.”
That’s a mindset Sopoaga-Kioa constantly carries, even in practice. There’s no such thing as take it easy, even against teammates. And his competitive fire burns brighter when someone brings it, too.
He enjoys going against Kealakehe’s other bulls during one-on-one, smash-mouth drills: Winton Palik (5-6, 260), Travis Lualemaga (6-1, 317) and Tavita “Tui” Eli (6-5, 285), the latter two also Division I collegiate prospects.
“When I look at Travis, Tui and Winton, it’s ‘I’m going to hit you and put you on the floor.’ They’ll do the same,” Sopoaga-Kioa said. “It does help me a lot. I think I’m pretty good one-on-one with drive-blocking, getting low and I love pulling with Tui (the left guard) on running plays.”
Because of their age gap, Sopoaga-Kioa doesn’t talk much with his cousin on the Eagles. But when he attended a family party, his other NFL cousin gave him simple advice. Maualuga didn’t offer any tips to be a better football player, but something more important.
“It was at my mom’s birthday party, and he told me to work hard,” Sopoaga-Kioa said. “He said, ‘Never let football get in the way of academics.’ He always stressed to do my homework. It’s the same thing from my parents.”
He was born in San Mateo, Calif., played a little bit of Pop Warner at the nearby town of Eureka, and moved to the Big Island in 2008, when he was in seventh grade. He started to get serious about football his freshman year at Kealakehe.
Sopoaga-Kioa’s senior season got off to a rough start. He dislocated a knee cap before the BIIF season-opener, fearing for a split-second an end to his bright football future. He points out that his knee is fine, and he’s always improving under his grandpa/offensive line coach’s tutelage.
Paul Sopoaga was born in Samoa, moved to the Big Island, and worked his way into a management position, first at hotels and now for affordable housing. His grandson admires the perseverance and calls him his role model.
“He grew up in Samoa, and was not treated well, and looked down upon,” Sopoaga-Kioa said. “He came to the states, didn’t want to be looked down upon anymore, and became a manager of housekeeping. He was always the manager of something and running everything. He’s still that way today.
“He sticks with me and my brother, always telling us to stay low, always go 100 percent, even in practice and don’t take it easy on anybody. He tells us to use our hands, punch, and use our legs and hips, all that good stuff.”
Then the Waverider senior talked about the best part of having Paul Sopoaga not only as a football coach, but also as a family member.
“After games, my grandfather will shake my hand and tell me, ‘Great job.’ That’s the thing I’m proudest of,” Sopoaga-Kioa said. “It shows me that he cares. He yells at me and it’s tough love. But when he puts his hands on my shoulder and helmet, it reassures me that everything he does is for the betterment of me.”
Editor's note: A BIIF Spotlight feature on Kealakehe's Tavita "Tui" Eli will run in Saturday's edition.