By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
HONOLULU — Damien Packer wasn’t interested in scholarship offers from other colleges. When coaches called, he politely turned them down. He wanted to head to the University of Hawaii, even if it meant paying his own way and walking on.
It was a promise he made to himself and his inspirational best friend, his grandpa Edwin Villanueva, who passed away in 2012. That was Packer’s senior year at Keaau High and it was filled with highs and lows.
In April of 2012, he sparked the Cougars to the Big Island Interscholastic Federation track and field championship, the school’s first official league title in any sport. He was the 110-meter gold medalist, and a reliable speed merchant, adding points in the 200, 400 relay and triple jump.
A month later at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships, he was part of the 400 relay runner-up team. He finished seventh in the 100 meters. But at least he brought home a memorable silver medal, along with his three teammates.
His success carried over to other sports as well, particularly football. Packer was a two-time All-BIIF first team pick at wide receiver and defensive back. He was named the team’s defensive MVP as a senior.
He also played basketball for three years at Keaau, which captured the BIIF championship in 2003 but was later stripped of the title due to an academically ineligible player. (The BIIF ruled the championship vacant for the 2002-03 season.)
Packer was named the school’s Athlete of the Year as a senior in his 2011-12 class. But before all that glory, he dealt with agony. His “papa” died on Jan. 1, 2012, starting the New Year off on a somber note for Packer, who relied on the support of his mom, Angela Packer, and his faith.
Villanueva, 75, was born in Olaa and was from Pahala. He was a retired supervisor at the former Ka‘u Sugar Plantation and an Army veteran. Along with Angela, he part of Packer’s close-knit support system.
“He went in for emergency heart surgery. They fixed the problem, but they found another problem and went in for immediate surgery. He didn’t make it,” Packer said. “It was tough, very, very tough. My mom really helped me. Instead of his death breaking me, I used it. It made me a stronger person and I used it as my fuel, my drive.
“Growing up, it was just me and my mom. My papa was like my father figure. They were supportive. He encouraged me to never settle for anything less than your goal, and if you want your goal, go get it. We talked and he knew how bad I wanted to play Division I football. I made a promise before my papa passed away to play Division I football. I was set on coming here.”
Packer understands he could have eased his mom’s financial burden accepting a scholarship on a smaller stage somewhere else. But when he recalls his mom’s struggles and her resolve to make ends meet, it reinforces and strengthens all the values he’s learned from her and his papa.
“I grew up in a single-parent home. I’ve seen her struggle and the hard times she’s had,” he said. “She has always pushed through. I got the never-quit attitude from her. We’re religious, Christian. I turn to Him.
“She’s sacrificed a lot for me to be in this position to walk on. She’s helped me get here. She’s my biggest influence, along with my papa.”
When Packer talks about his papa, the pride in his voice shines brighter than a sunrise. When he looks in the mirror, the 6-foot, 205-pound freshman cornerback sees a reflection of his papa and mom.
“My papa taught me mental strength. That is key,” Packer said. “I’ve seen him go through a lot of surgeries, stay mentally strong and always trust in God. He was a plantation worker. He worked a hard, long life. He always stressed mental toughness. He would emphasize the mental side over the physical side, how strong the mind is.
“It’s definitely helped me for football. The playbook is huge. There’s a lot of studying. In high school, I was working out with my speed and strength. But in college, a lot of it is mental awareness, knowing all the situations, formations. I have a far way to go, but I’m making a lot of progress. The coaches are great. They really help me out with my game. I’ve got four more years. It’s only up for me from here on out.
“There are a lot of ups and downs, a lot of things that challenge me, mentally and physically from football. But I never give up. It’s an attitude I’ve adopted from them. It’s not easy and you can struggle a lot, especially as a walk-on. But I get strength from them and the Lord and I push through.”
It is abundantly clear that there is nothing more important to Packer than honoring his family, not through statistics like tackles and interceptions, but rather with mental toughness, pushing through when times get tough. His papa and mom did that all their lives. It’s his turn. It is his life’s work.
And Packer is a homegrown product. He is FBI (From the Big Island) and he wears that distinction like a treasured T-shirt. He is a proud 2012 graduate of Keaau High.
When walk-ons shoot for goals, most of the time earning a scholarship is atop the totem pole. Walk-ons have to prove themselves every day, in every drill and all the time because there are 85 scholarships, with an additional limit of only 25 per year.
All of the full-rides are handed to recruited players on a silver platter. In the recruiting world, it’s a fact of life that walk-ons are at the bottom of the totem pole. But Packer wants something else, in his mind a brass ring that’s far more significant than a scholarship.
“My family motivates me and where I come from. Puna doesn’t necessarily have a good reputation,” Packer said. “For the kids coming from there, my brothers and sisters through the school, I want to make it and give back, and show them that good things can come out of Puna, and you can come out of Keaau High.
“I want to give hope that nothing is impossible no matter where you come from. Great things come out of Keaau. It’s another big reason I came out here and didn’t want to settle for a junior college or another smaller school.
“Being a walk-on, from my point I look at the cup as half-full. It’s a blessing to even have this opportunity to be part of the team, and put on the gear with everybody else. Through hard work, the scholarship will come. I’m blessed to be part of the team, going on the field with the guys and calling myself a Hawaii football player.
“And being able to represent where I’m from, it wouldn’t be the same if I put on another jersey in another part of the country. I play for the state, the people I grew up with, my family, my community every day. I want to make them all proud.”
This is the second in a three-part series about Big Islanders about the University of Hawaii football team.