As much as Jesse Sapolu is an ambassador for San Francisco 49ers football, he remains the face of football tradition in Hawaii. Sapolu, who grew up in Laie, played four stand-out years at UH from 1979 to 1982, and then went on to have an extraordinarily successful 13-season career with the 49ers, winning four championships and being selected to the Pro Bowl twice.
Sapolu, who remains very active in the football community, is currently working with his foundation (The Jesse Sapolu Foundation) and coaches Greg McMackin and June Jones to help bring football to Western Samoa, where he was born.
“Western Samoa has some of the premier rugby players worldwide, but we haven’t even touched those athletes as far as American football is concerned,” says Sapolu, who was featured on the cover of MidWeek in 2005. “We have been organizing this for years, and now we are going to go over with equipment and the ability to start a few teams for the kids there.”
Sapolu noted that although there are a lot of athletes from Polynesian countries in the NFL, most of them are linemen, and the array of athletic talent in Samoa is far greater than just those positions.
“A lot of rugby players are like defensive backs and receivers. In the independent state of Samoa, there are plenty of Troy Polamalus who have been untouched,” he says.
Sapolu also continues to work as the alumni community relations coordinator for the 49ers, helping raise awareness for player foundation events or fundraisers. And like many 49er fans, at the end of this season Sapolu sensed a need for a new direction for the team and was pulling for the signing of new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
“For Jim to do what he did at Stanford is remarkable,” he says. “Another positive is he played in the NFL for 15 seasons. If you go back and look at the way Mike Ditka used to yell at him, you can tell that toughened him up, gave him an edge, and I like that.”
Sapolu made a name for himself in the trenches, and now passes that knowledge on to high school athletes eager to elevate their game. On Saturdays from March through July, Sapolu’s Men in the Trenches camp will teach the intricate techniques and skills high school linemen need to help them be recognized on a national level.
His three boys have gone on to play football on the collegiate level, including London, who is currently a junior on the UH Warriors team.
As for the Pro Bowl, Sapolu identifies the game and its history with Hawaii. “If you just look at the videos or photos, they show the beaches, the team competitions, the families, friends and fans of those players who come here to enjoy themselves and the atmosphere.”
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