By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Throw an obstacle — even if it’s a slow-moving oak tree nearly a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier — in front of Jeff Cabanting-Rafael and he’ll find a way around it.
That’s been the life story of the Concordia University freshman nose guard, all of 5 feet, 7 inches and 230 pounds, who has worked his way onto the field after graduating from Waiakea four months ago.
Through two games, he has one assisted tackle for the Cougars (2-0), who shared the Northern Athletics Conference title last season with Benedictine University. Concordia hosts Hope College (1-1) on Saturday. The conference matchup against Benedictine will be Oct. 27 on the road.
Cabanting-Rafael played on the defensive line at Waiakea, starting as a senior and shuttling in and out of lineup as a junior batting knee injuries during a Big Island Interscholastic Federation career that tested his resolve.
“If people tell you all the time, ‘You’re too small,’ a lot of guys might give up,” he said. “But they’re not willing to work hard. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way.”
He was looking to play linebacker at Concordia, but figured he would have a better shot at moving up the depth chart at nose guard, a job that holds the responsibility of maintaining gap control, taking on big bodies and making tackles.
So what if the average offensive lineman presents a disproportionate size matchup?
“I’ve noticed that the offensive linemen are slow, but strong. I know I can beat them with my quickness,” Cabanting-Rafael said. “My coach’s (Lonnie Pries) philosophy is beat the offensive line off the ball and smash into the quarterback. That’s everything that I do. I utilize my small size to get under the offensive line, and beat them off the line of scrimmage.
“The key at his level is you have to know your plays. A lot of it is the mental aspect. You have to know your assignments and your teammates’ assignments. That’s the biggest change from high school. We do so much film time.”
At Waiakea, film study was once a week. At Concordia, it’s every day for at least three hours, not to mention time spent studying a 30-page scouting report, including information on the other team’s best formations, two-deep chart and percentage plays on certain downs and distances.
The daily routine of the student-athlete is a full-time job that always goes into overtime. There are classes for the exercise science major, who finished with a 3.3 grade-point average at Waiakea, and the grind of practice, more film study and homework before the comfort of a good night’s sleep.
“Some days my body feels great. I could practice all day,” Cabanting-Rafael said. “Some days my body feels like it’s going to break. But the athletic training staff is great. I’ll go in the ice tub and feel refreshed, and go full blast all over again.”
When he was younger, Cabanting-Rafael watched his dad, Richard Okamura, work his job as a carpenter and log in long hours without complaint, while taking care of his mom, Crissa Rafael-Okamura, and his three other siblings.
Cabanting-Rafael calls himself the shortest nose guard on the collegiate level at any division. He may be right or maybe there’s someone out there a centimeter shorter. But one thing is certain: He’s followed in his dad’s footsteps.
“My biggest role model is my dad. He didn’t give me advice. He just led by example. He was always a hard worker,” Cabanting-Rafael said. “When times were tough, he never showed he was weary. He pushed through it all and found a way to support the family. Watching him go through all that, I feel like I could take on the world.
“I’m 18 years old, young and only have to worry about myself. He had to do it for all of us. I want to do well to make my family and community proud. My biggest goal is I want Big Island kids to leave the island and not get stuck down at the beach. Getting out into the world is so different. You learn so much. I’ve dropped some names for our recruiting coordinator. I’m hoping we get some Hawaii boys out here.”
For now, Cabanting-Rafael is the only Concordia student-athlete from Hawaii. His school is roughly 4,200 miles from home. In 2009, there was a women’s soccer player from Oahu.
Concord’s tuition, plus on-campus housing, runs in the neighborhood of $36,000 per year at the Division III school in River Forest, Ill., about 25 minutes away from Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears.
Division III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships. But academic grants and financial aid have footed much of Cabanting-Rafael collegiate bill. He’s a good example of a BIIF athlete playing sports in college on a scholarship based on academics.
“Everything I did in high school and I know this is a cliche but nothing replaces hard work,” he said. “I tried my best to get good grades in school. A lot of it is covered by financial aid. Almost everything is paid off. I’m paying $200 for the whole year. I buckled down in high school and it finally paid off.”
He had recruiting help from Thane Milhoan’s sportzvidz.com website, and found a comfortable fit at Concordia, while educating a few teammates.
“It’s pretty awesome being here, but there’s nothing like home,” he said. “It’s a cultural shock realizing how much people don’t know about life in Hawaii. Some don’t know we’re part of the nation. One teammate said, ‘We’ve got a guy from another country. He’s from Hawaii.’ I told him we’re the 50th state. He was kind of embarrassed.
“The biggest thing I tell them is it’s a lot more laid-back in Hawaii. People are always in a rush. People are always walking fast. I tell them it’s sunny year-round in Hawaii with no terrible winters. It’s been 85 degrees and it’s pretty nice when the wind comes through at practice.”
Chicago is just eight miles away from campus. The Windy City’s winter weather hasn’t made an appearance yet. Cabanting-Rafael is ready for that and any other challenge that comes his way.
“I believe I’m the smallest nose guard on the college level,” he said. “I want the guys from the Big Island to understand that you have to believe in yourself and keep pushing toward that goal. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s how hard you work.”
To submit a collegiate athlete with Big Island ties for publication, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
College: Concordia U. (Chicago)
Major: Exercise science
BIIF: Waiakea, 2012
Motto: ‘Nothing replaces hard work.’