Big Man, Big Heart

He spent much of his youth in hospitals and kept his heart condition a secret for years, but now it’s Jesse Sapolu’s big heart that keeps him involved with kids’ causes

Bill Mossman
Friday - December 02, 2005
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Jesse Sapolu won four Super Bowl rings during his 15 years with the 49ers
Jesse Sapolu won four Super
Bowl rings during his 15 years
with the 49ers

You have to love the optimism of former San Francisco 49er offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu these days. Despite the fact that the current collection of 49ers has been stinking up NFL stadiums across America worse than rotting fish on a wharf with their inept play - and would thus be better off being banished to “The Rock” in the middle of San Francisco Bay - you won’t hear a peep of negativity coming from Sapolu.

For one thing, as the team’s alumni community relations’ coordinator and as the man partly responsible for attracting potential corporate sponsors to purchasing luxury suites at Monster Park, Sapolu just can’t afford to view the team’s future as utterly hopeless - even though the 49ers have only managed a ghastly four wins in their last 25 regular-season games.

But for another, Sapolu is just not the type to get discouraged under gray skies. With him, there’s always a ray of sunshine, and thus, a measure of hope. It’s something he learned while anchoring the Oline to one of the game’s greatest dynasties. Sure, winning four Super Bowl rings, 12 division titles, and laying claim to never being on a team that won fewer than 10 games in each of his 15 illustrious seasons creates the impression that success always came easy. But the true measure of greatness, according to the former Kalihi resident and University of Hawaii alumnus, is in overcoming adversity and rising like Phoenix from the ashes.

Nearly seven years after calling it a career in the NFL, the hope and heart of a champion still beats strongly within the walls of Sapolu’s robust chest.

“It’s realistic for us to turn this whole thing around because we live in the age of free agency,” explains the man who shifted between center and guard during his playing days. “For example, the Rams of several seasons ago went from a 4 and 12 record to winning it all the next year.

“When I played, the biggest thing we had was the belief inside our heads that we would be able to overcome anything,” continues Sapolu, who currently resides in Orange County, Calif., with wife Lisa and commutes weekly to his office in San Jose. “And that’s what it’s going to take from the current group of players. They’re going to have to be mentally strong and they’re going to have to find a way to carry the legacy that we laid back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

MidWeek caught up with Sapolu earlier this month after he made one of his semi-annual stopovers in the Islands - in part because he wanted to visit his daughter, Lila, a volleyball player at Chaminade University, but mainly because Burger King Hawaii honored him as its newest University of Hawaii Athletic Legend during a Nov. 11 ceremony at its University Avenue restaurant. The football legend then shared his award with the Make-A-Wish Foundation by hosting a special luncheon for several of the organization’s children, with the restaurant chain donating 15 percent of the day’s proceeds from its Oahu establishments to Make-A-Wish in Sapolu’s name.

“To me, it’s a great honor to be recognized by Burger King,” says the 44-year-old Sapolu, who capped his short stay in Hawaii by attending his alma mater’s game against Utah State, signing autographs during the contest and even appearing as a half-time guest on KKEA (Sports Radio 1420 AM) with Don Robbs and Robert Kekaula. “I guess they believe I helped make a difference.

“My own foundation (The Jesse Sapolu Foundation) first donated about $10,000 to Make-A-Wish about six years ago. Since then, I would do certain fundraisers, like the golf tournament I hosted out at Luana Hills for about three years, and I would either donate the proceeds to Shriners Hospital or to Make-A-Wish.

“This year, it was Make-A-Wish’s turn.”

Sapolu says he first got involved with the 25-year-old organization during his last few years in the league, after meeting a special youngster from the Bay Area with a life-threatening medical condition.

“I realized then the kind of influence the game has on other people’s lives,” he says. “So I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Make-A-Wish.”

AH, the heart. Ask friends and family about Sapolu and they’ll say it’s the size of his heart - both figuratively and literally - that makes him who he is.

When he was about 5 and living in Samoa, Manase Jesse Sapolu came down with rheumatic fever, an infection that damaged the aortic valve of his heart. “I remember my joints were all swollen and I could-n’t walk,” he explains. “My dad would carry me onto the bus and take me to see a masseuse, not knowing that what I really needed was medication.”

It wasn’t until the family moved to Hawaii in 1971 that the youngster was finally diagnosed with aortic regurgitation - a condition that left him with a faulty heart valve that wouldn’t close properly, forcing his left ventricle to work even harder to maintain proper blood flow.

What followed was years of living in and out of hospitals - replete with monthly checkups and annual electrocardiogram (EKG) tests. Grateful for the medical attention he was receiving at last, Sapolu was nevertheless disappointed when doctors banned him from all physical activities during his final three years in elementary school and his first year at Dole Intermediate.

Through constant petitioning by family members, however, the doctors eventually relented and allowed the youngster to participate in limited physical activities.

“But all contact sports were ruled out,” Sapolu clarifies.

As fate would have it, two Damien coaches happened to witness the large teenager in P.E. class one day, and smitten by the most dreaded word in all of sports - “potential” - promptly asked the then eighth-grader if they could have a word with his parents. When Sapolu asked why, they informed him they were prepared to grant him a full scholarship to become a Monarch.

The family gladly accepted the offer, but only after begging doctors to modify their hard-line stance between young Jesse and contact sports.

“The doctors were afraid of my heart getting bigger and what that could mean for me,” Sapolu remembers. “But with me and my mom crying, they finally said I could play. But they also said that I would now need a checkup every three weeks. And as long as my heart wasn’t getting

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