Oct. 7, 2004
by Jonathan Price
Wanted: Football Player. Must be determined and willing to work hard. Should be dedicated to the team and willing to do whatever it takes to improve. Faint of heart need not apply.
If you're a football coach placing that ad, you'd be thrilled to see Manase Hopoi apply for the job. Not only would his 6-foot-4, 285-pound frame make a memorable first impression, but a further interview would reveal a man who has dedicated himself to success both on the football field, and in the classroom.
Be sure to check his references, too -- you might be surprised what you find out.
First of all, he'd rather not be playing football. While most kids in Sacramento, Calif. -- where Hopoi was raised -- flocked to the basketball courts and baseball diamonds, Hopoi could usually be found at the bottom of a scrum, playing rugby with other members of his family.
"I have a pretty big family and rugby is the dominant sport for us," says Hopoi. "If I had gotten a scholarship in rugby and found a good program, I probably would have taken it."
For the Hopoi kids -- of which Manase was the youngest -- rugby, and later football, was more than just a family tradition.
It was a ticket out.
"I grew up in an area where there were a lot of problems," Hopoi says. "A lot of people were doing and selling drugs and I was exposed to that at a young age. My parents kept putting me in football programs to keep me busy."
Eventually, the more popular sport began to consume more and more of Hopoi's time. As a freshman in high school, Hopoi already stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 195 pounds, physical advantages he used to total 107 tackles, including 18 for loss, and 15 sacks.
"I just did my best to get to the quarterback or running back," he recalls. "I tried to dominate and get the opponents to be afraid to run my way."
Opponents rarely challenged Hopoi, but when they did, he made them pay. Over four years at Valley High School, Hopoi averaged nearly 120 tackles, and just over nine sacks per season. Recruiters from around the nation flocked to Valley to see Hopoi, who found choosing a college to be a little more complicated than he expected.
"A lot of the schools backed away because I didn't have good grades or SAT scores, but Washington wanted me the whole time," he says. "That is the biggest reason why I chose Washington. They didn't give up on me and I wasn't about to give up on them."
The Husky coaches remained loyal to Hopoi, even when it became evident that he would not be academically eligible to compete as a freshman. Hopoi can, however, earn back that lost year of eligibility if he is on track to graduate this June, a requirement he says he is committed to match. If he does, he will not only be able to return to Washington next fall, but will be the first person in his family to earn a college degree.
"I am going to graduate this year, probably by the winter," he says. "I have to take advantage of this opportunity to go to school for free -- all I have to do is go to class, study and take the tests. I am going to come back next year unless if I get some great opportunities. For now, though, I just need to keep studying and working hard to improve my game."
Any more improvement, and Hopoi just might be applying for a new job in a couple of years -- a job in the NFL. After being named Defensive Scout of the Year during his freshman season, Hopoi became a defensive force as a sophomore, registering 17 tackles for loss, just one shy of Washington's all-time single-season top-10.
Hopoi entered the 2003 season with high expectations but, in part nagged by a spring knee injury that was slow to heal, the defensive end saw his numbers decline across the board, most noticeably in sacks -- from seven to four -- and in tackles for loss, from 17 to just 10.5.
"I don't know what happened to me," he says. "Last year I was thinking about things other than going out there and making plays. I was slacking a little bit in practice and that showed in the games. It's all mental -- if you don't have the mind for the game and you don't practice hard, then you aren't going to play hard. Now I am trying to pick it up and do better every practice. If I can pick up my intensity in practice, then I am going to have much better games."
With the loss of several star players to the NFL, including defensive tackle Terry Johnson, Hopoi was asked in 2004 to learn a new position, defensive tackle, and has since moved back to end. It's a transition he was more than willing to make, if it would help the team improve its 6-6 record of a year ago.
"Playing defensive tackle is different; it requires you to be big and know what you are doing," he says. "You have to take on two offensive linemen sometimes, and you have to know how to do a lot of different things. I think that a lot of improvement is going to come from continually practicing, if I play every practice with a game mentality."
Regardless of what position Manase Hopoi is playing by the end of the season, one thing is for sure -- he will give his all on every play. Focused and determined, there is no limit to what Hopoi can accomplish in 2004.
"I want to see myself on the All-American team at the end of this season," he says. "I am trying my best to help the team by playing like an All-American -- getting sacks, and creating tackles for a loss. I just want to make plays."
Determined? Works Hard? Committed to the team? Take that "Help Wanted" sign out of the window -- the position's already been filled.