I’m so excited, I can’t stand it. This is a dream come true, something I’ve always wanted. —Jack Damuni
Kalani Sitake wanted Jack Damuni to fly from Maui to be in Provo for BYU’s letter of intent signing day a week ago.
Damuni, a Cougar defensive back in the early '90s post-Detmer era, made that trip happen as fast as a plane would carry him. He hovered around the football offices that day, hung out with staffers and former players and seemed as excited as a kid on Christmas. Sitake wants him to be the program’s director of personnel, replacing Justin Anderson who followed Bronco Mendenhall to the University of Virginia.
BYU has yet to announce the hire, but a newspaper in Maui chronicled Damuni’s new job at BYU over the weekend. He was a teacher and coach at Baldwin High School on that island.
But more importantly, he is an alumni of Kahuku High School near Laie on the island of Oahu, a Mormon enclave on the North Shore and a hotbed for recruiting football players.
“I’m so excited, I can’t stand it,” Damuni told me last week. “This is a dream come true, something I’ve always wanted. It is a great opportunity for my wife and family and it will change our lives. “
That day, Damuni hung out with former Seattle Seahawk Itula Mili, another Kahuku alumni and others including Spencer and Gabe Reid as Sitake’s staff orchestrated its way through signing day. His brother, Waqa, is an assistant coach atUtah State.
Damuni is a very popular figure, a known leader, a positive-minded lightning rod of a personality who is well-connected with families and friends on the North Shore as well as other islands. He is of Fijian descent and most recently worked with special education and special needs school kids.
This hire follows a Sitake trend in reestablishing a Kahuku connection. Earlier in January he hired Tevita Ofahengaue, another Kahuku alum, as director of recruiting operations. Running back coach Reno Mahe’s parents own a fruit and vegetable stand near Kahuku. Sitake’s father, Tom, attended what is now known as BYU-Hawaii when Kalani was just a kid and was a security guard on campus.
Kahuku football players were regularly recruited to Provo by longtime BYU assistant Norm Chow for two decades. Chow’s recruits included Robert and Brad Anae, Mark Atuaia and teammate and best friend Mili, among others. The Cougars had a real advantage in the late '70s and '80s because Tongans and Samoans were migrating to Laie and what was then called The Church College of Hawaii (later BYU-Hawaii). They saw BYU as a school owned by their faith and they easily became huge fans. They wanted their kids to go to BYU. Utah’s Ron McBride broke through that stranglehold in the mid-'90s and regularly matched if not surpassed BYU’s success on the North Shore.
In 2006, “USA Football” published a list of high schools that had produced the most NFL players, some 1,695 athletes on the league’s rosters. Kahuku High tied with four other schools with the most NFL players. The other high schools were Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Blanche Ely High in Pampano Beach, Florida, and Dorsey High (Los Angeles) and Long Beach Poly High, in California.
Those Kahuku alums included former Cougars Mili and Aaron Francisco (Arizona Cardinals), and former Utes Chris Kemoeatu (Pittsburgh Steelers), Ma’ake Kemoeatu (Carolina Panthers) and Jacksonville’s Chris Naeole, who played at Colorado.
Over the years, Kahuku has produced NFL players whose names are very familiar to folks. They include Uani Unga, Hau’oli Kikaha, Manti Te'o (also attended Punahou), Kona Schwenke, Harland Ah You, Junior Ah You, Tala Esera, Toniu Fonoti, Lakai Heimuli, Leonard Peters, Al Afalava, Suaesi Tuimaunei, Al Lolotai, Palauni Ma Sun, Faaesa Mailo and Ofahengaue.
The Kahuku Red Raiders mean something to football.
“When Kalani called me, I told him I’m coming. It was a no-brainer,” said Damuni. “I want to be part of history. I want to be part of what he’s doing.”
It’s been 20 years since Damuni was at BYU.
“He wants me to take care of players. Do what I do best, make sure players are happy, teaching social skills, life skills, help Tevita with recruiting where I can.”
“I grew up with Tongans and Samoans. Kalani’s father was a security guard at BYU-Hawaii back in the day in Laie. We’d hang out with him and Kalani would come along wearing his cowboy boots, cowboy hat and long hair.”
Damuni said what he’s found in Kalani’s new regime at BYU is “unbelievable” in terms of creating a feeling of family and a feeling of being welcomed, a tangible feature of his early team culture.
“The program speaks volumes about the head coach. Kalani has a big heart, he is always for the kids and I think his staff follows in his footsteps. You can feel it. All of the staff here are people I have played with or know. They are making it about the players first.
“I’ve been a big BYU fan all my life and to me, this is a homecoming. My wife and I have lived on Maui for the last 20 years and we’ve wanted to be at a place where there are more opportunities for our children. When Kalani called us, it was an answer to our prayers. I’m very honored.”
Damuni back in Provo?
It’s shoring up The Shore. Kahuku and Laie are symbolic of something else. It represents a growing Island culture in Utah and California that’s impacted all of football. Polynesians represented well in Sunday’s Super Bowl. Polynesians were represented heavily across the land on Signing Day from Westwood to Palo Alto and from Salt Lake City to Eugene. One-third of BYU’s roster is of Polynesian descent.
No wonder one of Sitake’s designs in his new job is to build a support system for those with origins to this unique culture where English is not the main language spoken in their homes.