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Social Encore: Sapolu scores with new book
BY JERMEL-LYNN QUILLOPO / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Winter in Hawaii means getting to do what I love best during cold weather — snuggling in bed under warm covers while reading an interesting book.
My latest find? “I Gave My Heart to San Francisco,” a new memoir by retired NFL star Jesse Sapolu. I was able to catch up with the four-time Super Bowl champion during a book signing event at Barnes and Noble Ala Moana on Saturday. I met him once before while on assignment; he was such a kind man back then and hasn’t changed a bit.
Through his own words, Sapolu’s new book tells the story of his personal and professional journey to the National Football League. He said he was encouraged to share his story with the world after the death of his friend and fellow NFL player, Junior Seau, and the death of 19-year-old Fred Thompson, an athlete who was a teammate of his youngest son.
Born in Western Samoa to parents who were ministers, Sapolu’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was a young boy. In the book, he recalls the mixed emotions he felt over leaving everything he had ever known behind in Samoa, but also realizing the new opportunities that would be available in the United States. In 1971, the Sapolu family arrived in Kalihi, settling into public housing at Kuhio Park Terrace.
Sapolu said playing sports helped him adjust and make friends. He attended Farrington High School and said growing up in one of Oahu’s most troubled areas helped shape him. A desire to play college football in front of his extended family led him to the University of Hawaii, where he was a standout offensive lineman for the Rainbows and won numerous awards. He represented UH in the 1983 Hula Bowl, and soon after was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers.
During his successful 15-year career, however, Sapolu battled a dangerous health condition — a torn aortic heart valve. While on the field, Sapolu admitted that playing with that type of health condition was dangerous and that sharing his story will help teach others to be proactive when it comes to their health.
“What I did was dangerous to my life,” he said. “But because my heart condition was discovered early enough, I was able to get … treated, and it allowed me to play sports.”
Sapolu didn’t let his health condition restrict or dominate him. Instead, he said it helped strengthen his mind and encouraged him to have determination.
“My heart condition didn’t let me play a lot of sports, but it gives you an idea the strength of your mind and how it can help you achieve something that you want really bad,” he said.
His determination and perseverance led to nine NFC title game appearances, four Super Bowl rings (1984, 1988, 1989 and 1994), Pro Bowl honors (1993 and 1994) and two All-Pro selections.
SAN FRANCISCO fan Justin Uale said Sapolu’s Samoan heritage and Hawaii roots encouraged him and many of his classmates to pursue their own dreams.
“It felt like we all could have all been the next Jesse,” he said. Sapolu helped bring pride to the Samoan culture in Hawaii and “kids back then barely knew who Samoans were” at his school. When he met Sapolu one year at the Pro Bowl, the all-star greeted Uale by calling him “uso,” which means brother in Samoan.
“He always made all the Samoan kids feel extra special,” Uale said.
San Francisco native Melissa Peneyra also grew up watching the 49ers and is a die-hard fan. During Sapolu’s NFL days, there was no denying the team had a really good offensive line.
“When you think of the 49ers, you think of players like Joe Montana but realize that people like Jesse Sapolu protected them,” she said. “Joe Montana would make a pass to Jerry Rice, but when you think about it, it was people like Jesse Sapolu (who) made things like that happen.”
Uale said his most memorable moment was the 49ers’ 1994 Super Bowl win over the Chargers.
“The Niners killed San Diego,” said Uale. “Some fans like close games, but Niner fans love super blow outs.”
Uale said it was team leaders like Sapolu and Steve Young that made the 49ers great back then.
“They had an amazing coach and quarterback. They were really good on offense and defense,” said Peneyra. “You can’t just say one or two players were good. They were from top to bottom really good. … They were the dynasty of the ’80s.”
THROUGH FAME, fortune and being a Samoan chief, Sapolu said that his upbringing and Samoan culture has been his foundation and is one of the main reasons why he has been so successful.
“Being raised here in Hawaii and being Polynesian, humility is a big thing because it earns you respect within our community,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what kind of success you have because if you are not humble, no one here will respect you.”
Sapolu said he wants his book to give people around the world an idea of who he really is. He said there were moments in his life where criticism from the media and from some he thought were his friends put him in a bad position. However, the 51-year-old said the experiences taught him lessons that did not only help him become a better player, but also a better person.
“People criticize constantly,” Sapolu said. “It taught me to be more patient and more forgiving of people.”
When he joined the NFL, Sapolu learned more about the industry he was in and how the glitz and glamour also had its dark moments.
“The criticism will get to you at times but you learn how to deal with it a lot better,” he said. “You just learn that that it is part of the industry that you are in.”
Sapolu said that the being well-known is a blessing and one thing that helped him move forward in life was always being grounded to who he truly was and remembering where he came from.
“You have to make sure that when people lift you up all the time, that your feet are on the ground, because if you don’t … you can get overwhelmed by it and it can change you as a person.”
Very strong in his faith, he said when people are blessed with fame, they should absorb it and appreciate it.
“Some people have to remember that they are still a human being and this fame and fortune can end anytime,“ he said.
While reflecting on his career with the 49ers, Sapolu said it was a good place to be during his playing days.
“I played with a lot of super stars and it motivated me to make it on that team and to make a name for myself,” he said. Even though many of his teammates were individually known for their strengths and talents, everyone worked together.
“It is very easy to be on a team of superstars, floating and riding on their crests but I think what made the 49ers so special is that no one wanted to rest,” he said, “We worked with a team concept of putting the team first and foremost instead of individual fame.”
Sapolu has always believed in community service and doing things for a greater good. United Way Worldwide has had a partnership with the NFL for more than 35 years. As an NFL superstar and local boy from the islands, Jesse Sapolu graciously offered to support Aloha United Way and their fundraising efforts by donating a portion of his book sales to the organization. Aloha United Way helps fund over 300 local non-profit agencies and programs across the state.
Sapolu said he has worked with AUW for a number of years and it was fitting to choose an organization like that gives back to a community that has given him so much.
“The monies donated will help feed families, get people off the streets and into shelters, provide companionship to seniors, and much, much more,” said AUW vice-president Jody Shiroma.
I think “I Gave My Heart to San Francisco” is an easy read and a great way to learn about Sapolu’s life both on and off the field. I also agree with and personally support their passion for helping Hawaii’s less fortunate while also enriching our local communities.
However, I don’t think the book did much justice with its story of such a multi-faceted individual. All three of Sapolu’s sons played sports at the collegiate level; I would have liked to hear how their father’s accomplishments shaped their football careers. I would have also loved to hear perspectives from others who were close to him, like former teammates, coaches and maybe even his close friend, Congressman Eni Faleomavaga. While acceptable, I believe that the pagination and visuals used could have been more consistent in capturing his life on the printed page.
Still, for anyone to open up about their personal lives takes courage and strength. In addition, Sapolu is probably the most humble person I’ve ever met.
As I watched him interact with fans both young and old last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice how he made every person feel special. He put a smile on everyone’s face and was sure to thank each person for supporting not only him, but the 49ers as well.
“I want people to know my story,” he said. “Even though I had a dangerous health condition, I was allowed to live my dream and my dream has helped me accomplish a lot more things that had a positive impact on a lot of other people’s lives.”
For more information on how to get your copy of the book and about his book tour, visit jessesapolu.com.
Jermel-Lynn Quillopo is a multi-faceted, energetic individual with experience in both print and broadcast journalism. “Social Encore” aims to tell diverse stories about Hawaii’s food, events and people; share your tips with Jermel via email or follow her on Twitter.