Sept. 23, 2005
By Mike Bruscas
Some reputations just stick. Ask around a certain Sacramento neighborhood about Manase Hopoi and two answers are bound to follow.
"I first started playing pee-wee football when I was eight with the South Sacramento Vikings," Hopoi says. "The first thing they noticed when I went out there was that I was a hard hitter and a good tackler. So I guess that put a label on me.
"Everybody knew me as 'Manase Hopoi, who can hit and tackle.'"
That reputation precedes Hopoi to this day. It has the simple clarity of a children's book: See Manase hit. See Manase tackle. Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart of USC has seen it all too well, having been dragged down by Hopoi three times in one game last season.
But where Hopoi's talents for contact draw the crowd's cheers, it is off the field where he has earned a more important distinction, as the first in his family to earn a college degree.
Natives of the Kingdom of Tonga, a chain of 169 islands east of Fiji in the Pacific Ocean, Hopoi's parents Mele and Toetou moved to the United States in the late 1970s seeking better educational opportunities for their children. Hopoi has yet to visit his native land, but plans to go someday.
"I was supposed to go after high school but I didn't go because my dad said I wouldn't want to come back. He said it's paradise," Hopoi says. "They don't have all the opportunities we have in America, but he says it's fun, and there are a lot of good things out there."
As the youngest of Mele and Toetou's four children, Manase was able to conduct all of his schooling in the U.S. However, while the schools were better than what Tonga could provide, the family was also confronted with the realities of crime in America. Gang violence, drugs and alcohol were threats that could not be ignored, and youth sports were a way to keep involved in the right activities.
"Growing up I played a lot of street sports," Hopoi says. "A lot of football, rugby, basketball ... if it had to do with something physical and mental, I loved it and I wanted to get after it. That kept me out of trouble a lot of the time."
That's right, Hopoi mentions rugby in the same breath as football and basketball. Rugby is the sport of choice in Tonga, and at the age of five, when most American kids are still a few years away from playing four-square, Hopoi was in the middle of family scrums.
"I got to play some of the physical parts of football without pads before I got to play with pads," Hopoi says.
With the pads on, Hopoi starred at Valley High School, where former Huskies assistant Steve Axman pursued him most persistently. Hopoi's college future was clouded by the fact that his SAT scores did not meet the standard, but Washington stuck with him, signing Hopoi as a partial qualifier. Hopoi had to sit out his freshman year, but could earn back that year of eligibility if he was on track to graduate in four years. He met that requirement this spring, and has embraced the challenge of university life.
"I just tried to keep my head in the books and make all the right decisions and take advantage of all the opportunities, all the tutoring and all the extra help I can to graduate," Hopoi says.
The fact that Hopoi was successful in his studies is the reason he and Husky fans are rewarded with another year of big hits and tackles in Husky Stadium. An American Ethnic Studies major, Hopoi gives much of the credit for his success to his long-time girlfriend, Natalie Merriweather.
"My girlfriend's been my number one supporter. She's been to all of my home games, and she tries to be to all of my away games. She's just the greatest girl in the world," Hopoi says. "I met her in high school my senior year. She's always helped me when I needed help in homework or any aspect of life. She's always been there for me."
In Hopoi's case, earning his college degree is not about personal prestige, but about setting a precedent for his family's future generations. Just as his parents did for him by uprooting and moving to America, Hopoi is leaving footprints for others to follow. He appreciates every chance he's received, and hopes to pass on that same attitude.
"I want to set the standard for my nieces and nephews, and for my kids and for other kids in other generations," he says. "I want them to look up to me and try to get more than what I've accomplished -- earn a masters', go to law school, get a medical degree -- there's a lot of great opportunities out there. With God and your family behind you, anything is possible."
As the Pac-10 leader in tackles-for-loss in 2004, Hopoi returned for his senior season with the expectation that he will be Washington's primary attacker on the defensive side of the ball. If he can replicate the 22 tackles-for-loss he produced last season, Hopoi will match the UW career record set by Jason Chorak from 1994-97.
Already on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, honoring the nation's best lineman, a shot at the NFL seems likely. Hopoi, though, won't talk about the NFL -- his motivation, he says, is to hold off the challenges of Washington's talented backup linemen, and do what he can to help the Huskies win games.
Hopoi can hit, and Hopoi can tackle -- but it's his humility and determination to succeed that will take him as far as he wants to go.