Unleashed: True Paradise: Tahiti Transforms 11 Huskies
Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Jamora, John Timu, Deontae Cooper, Shane Brostek, Thomas Tutogi, Taz Stevenson, Tre Watson, Kaitlin Inglesby, Hooch Fagaly, and Kimberlee Souza give till they drop mentoring children and teaching adults in Tahiti. “It has changed my life.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Danny Shelton had someone on his back. Yet again.
But this time it wasn’t an opposing offensive lineman trying to ward off the Huskies’ huge, brick-wall of a defensive tackle. It wasn’t position coach Tosh Lupoi urging him on in a way only Washington’s fired-up line coach can during practice, either.
Shelton had upon his freeway-wide shoulders a Tahitian grade-schooler. The boy was wearing dark, closely cropped hair -- and a smile as big as the island he and Shelton were on.
They were dancing and singing joyously to Katy Perry’s song “Firework.” The French-speaking kids in Tahiti knew the chorus by heart -- in English.
““Boom! Boom! Boom! Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon…”
Shelton was in a large room dancing with UW football teammates Hau’oli Jamora, John Timu, Deontae Cooper, Shane Brostek, Thomas Tutogi, Taz Stevenson, and Tre Watson, plus Husky softball players Kaitlin Inglesby, Hooch Fagaly and Kimberlee Souza. Oh, and 400 glowing children. All were having a ball last month at Punavai Plain E’cole E’le’mentarie on the island of Tahiti.
“It was awesome. And really, really humbling,” Brostek told me Monday at Conibear Shellhouse, minutes before the first class meeting for these 11 enriched Huskies since they returned last week from French Polynesia.
Their trip was a study-abroad class, a once-in-a-lifetime, service-learning extension of the Pacific Islander studies they’ve had over the last year through UW’s Department of Anthropology.
“The kids there viewed us more as something different than athletes to experience something that was fun for them,” said Brostek, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound offensive lineman.
He is one of a baker’s dozen of Husky football players who are either from Hawai’i or of Pacific Islander heritage.
“They didn’t understand that we were football and softball players. They had no preconceived notions that we are these big, bad, mean football dudes,” Brostek said, smiling at the memory of the world’s newest Husky fans.
“They were just great kids.”
Brostek and his fellow Dawgs spent 10 days seeing a Tahiti to which travel agents don’t send tourists.
They experienced the struggles of a small nation better known for being paradise for its majestically blue waters and white sands, but one whose people are unsure of whether they want independence from French colonization. Jamora is still thinking of seeing a Tahitian farmer being denied the water he needed for his crops and family. The pipes instead U-turned away from the farmer’s property, diverted to support the tourists staying at Tahiti’s glimmering hotels down the way.
The Huskies saw first-hand what they had been studying for months: The damaging effects of decades of nuclear testing – almost 200 atomic explosions in all -- by the French in Tahiti, in the south Pacific on about the same latitude as Peru far to the east and as the northern tip of Australia to its west.
They saw a Tahitian culture struggling to stay alive amid school and government requirements that are almost entirely French.
They will never be the same.
“It has changed my life,” Watson said.
The former walk-on cornerback from Central Washington earned a scholarship with a prominent role on UW’s defense last year.
He earned a new outlook on life last month.
“The trip has centered me to focus in on every detail of my life, to not take anything for granted,” he said Monday, when members of the Tahiti class met to discuss with anthropology lecturer Holly Barker what they’d seen half a world away.
“Oh, man,” said Cooper, the determined running back whose Huskies debut has been delayed three years by three major knee injuries, “it was better than I could have ever imagined.”
He and the Huskies each brought home far more than the Tahitian flags each received as parting gifts.
“Too awesome,” said Inglesby, who herself is a remarkable story. “I can’t believe we’ve only been back a week.”
Barker led the trip. She sounds as proud as Steve Sarkisian would be if these Huskies had reached the Rose Bowl.
“They are such great ambassadors for the University of Washington,” said Barker, who has taught Timu in four, 400-level anthropology courses and has been his advisor for five internship credits. “Everyone on the island was throwing their “Dubs” up, wanting to be Huskies.
“Washington is definitely a known commodity in Tahiti now, without a doubt.”
“I LOVE THESE STUDENTS”
Sure, they were in paradise. But this was far from a lounging vacation.
These Huskies trained for their sports at dawn, running on the tranquil, idyllic beach to stay in shape with the start of fall football camp now a month away. After a quick breakfast heavy on local fruits they worked with the kids at schools all day, teaching them everything from basketball layups to English phrases. At night they conducted what are believed to be the first sports clinics put on by American athletes in Tahiti. The Huskies went to three different sites on the island, teaching 20-through-50 year-old men football on a field lined for soccer, and Tahitian girls and mothers softball on patches of turf without an infield in sight.
“You’ve got to SPRINT through there!” Cooper bellowed good-naturedly on a video recording, taken while a 20-something man ran tentatively through a high-stepping, ball-carrying drill.
“Ball. Glove,” Fagaly, the All-Pac-12 infielder, said slowly to young and older women in another video the group brought home.
Her explanations and Inglesby’s powerful pitching wowed the curious Tahitians, who have no competitive sports system for females.
“I was so proud of the students,” Barker said. “They gave until they couldn't give anymore. With every group of school kids they would run and work until they were soaking wet with sweat, and often collapse on the floor after a group left. When the next group arrived minutes later, our students would rally and feed off the energy of the kids to once again create an exciting learning environment for the kids. The kids responded with pictures and cards, songs, dances, and hugs.
“All our students gave so much of themselves. They gave their knowledge of their sports, but they also showcased their compassion and caring for other people and their concern for the well-being of others. I was immensely proud of this group. Obviously they are great students -- a requirement for the trip -- and athletes, but more importantly they are phenomenal human beings.
“I love these students.”
That love was mutual.
The Huskies stayed in the town of Puna’auia on the island’s west coast with Andrew and Andrea Lependu. They shared their beachfront home and their five children who ranged from eight to 14 years old. They came to adore the Dawgs. One son, whom the players called “T-bone” because they couldn’t pronounce his Tahitian name, clung to Shelton like a sweaty practice jersey. T-bone sat next to Shelton on every van ride to an event. He woke with Shelton before 6 each morning to run the beach with him.
The family, which also hosted two interpreters for the Huskies, played board games with the players in the evenings. They taught them the “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” song in Tahitian. There were no televisions, no electronics. The Huskies’ cell phones didn’t work in Tahiti, anyway.
The visitors learned the hard way that an island without cows drinks its milk warm, out of imported boxes. Eventually the Americans adapted by putting their milk boxes in the family freezer. They ate rice and fish – a lot of ahi – plus succulent pineapples and taro, the island’s answer to potatoes. They bunked open-bay style upstairs in cozy, communal setups. The women got the rooms with doors, for some privacy.
Outside the Lependus’ home the Huskies saw how the requirements of French language in schools, where Tahitian is taught maybe only a couple hours a week, is eroding the island’s native culture. Yet they also saw immense Tahitian pride. On one of their first nights there they attended a football game. Tahitians who had grown up on rugby and soccer didn’t exactly know the rules – “they did a lot of illegal motions,” Brostek noted -- but they gave an intense, almost heroic effort on each clunky play.
One of the five football teams there was Manu Ura, which had players 35 and even 54 years old. It created a native haka in the Huskies’ honor. Don’t be surprised if you see a reprise of it inside a circle of Dawgs on the field during a pregame or three this fall.
The Huskies met a crew of Tahitians that has canoed from home to Hawai’i. That’s rowing a distance of more than 2,600 miles; think Seattle to Atlanta. Over wild, open ocean. One way.
That crew is now planning a canoe trip around the world.
“In the camps, in the games, in the schools, they always brought passion,” Shelton said. “The Tahitians brought it EVERY day.”
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT THAT IS “SUSTAINABLE”
The class that got the Huskies to Tahiti also involves the Seattle-area Taro Roots Foundation, which Ink Aleaga began six years ago. A senior counselor in the UW’s acclaimed Student-Athlete Athletic Services department, Aleaga established Taro Roots to promote and encourage Pacific Islander and non-Pacific Islander youngsters to pursue higher education through its academic and athletic seminars.
The 11 players who were in Tahiti will present field journals of their trip at the latest Taro Roots seminar next week in West Seattle.
Taro Roots has spawned a renewed initiative within Husky athletics to involve its student-athletes extensively in Seattle-area public grade schools.
“Our biggest thing was we wanted to keep our student-athletes’ involvement in schools sustainable. We wanted involvement that lasts beyond a month or a visit,” said Liberty Bracken, an academic advisor in UW’s SAAS who is also Taro Roots’ director of operations. She was on the trip to Tahiti.
Huskies teams have for years been involved in community outreach programs. Football players spend each May in their team’s “Blitz the Sound” campaign visiting kids at area elementary, middle and special-needs schools, plus patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
This spring Tutogi became something of a cult hero for all the work and mentorship he provided at Bryant Elementary just north of UW’s campus.
Shelton, whom SAAS director Kim Durand feels Shelton could become Washington’s first first-team academic All-American in football since Ed Cunningham in 1991, spent his past academic year working with hearing-impaired children. That was to capitalize on the classes in American Sign Language he has taken at UW.
Keith Price became so ingrained in Green Lake Elementary as an intern he trekked last month onto a ferry from downtown Seattle and hiked through the woods to surprise its fourth graders at their four-day science camp on Bainbridge Island.
Price was going to be the 12th Husky to travel to Tahiti last month. But the redshirt senior instead graduated on time with his fourth-year class. His mother, grandmother and extended family -- the same pack that follows its quarterback to every Husky game wearing KP17 T-shirts --flew from Compton, Calif., to see him walk in UW’s commencement ceremonies at CenturyLink Field.
(Price will be taking a full academic load of 12 credits this fall as the Huskies’ fifth-year senior quarterback. His credits could count toward an eventual graduate degree, if he chooses.)
The Tahiti course mushroomed almost overnight in April. UW’s academic services team was looking to build upon the Pacific Islander studies the Huskies had in recent academic quarters through Barker’s anthropology classes. That included Timu and Jamora becoming featured speakers in UW’s annual undergraduate research symposium in May.
Football players take courses during UW’s summer quarter that ran from mid-June up to the start of fall practice the first week of August. Non-resident fees for a student to enroll in summer quarter total $4,535, and the athletic department must approve the financial aid for scholarship players to take summer classes.
Bracken noticed an opportunity for study abroad through UW’s International Programs and Exchanges (IPE) department that would cost less per student, even with airfare, food, lodging with a host family and a professor’s stipend. Study abroad is also worth more credits than a traditional summer course on campus. Furthermore, IPE trips are tuition-exempt.
Since the football and softball players had already been approved for summer financial aid, the Tahiti trip actually saved the athletic department in academic costs – and enriched the 11 Huskies so much more than the single, additional academic credit suggests.
UW students had traveled to Tahiti to study before; Barker had been on one such trip a few years ago. But Bracken’s proposal was attractive to both the athletic department and university because it was for students who rarely have the chance to study abroad within the UW’s 10-week academic terms. Student-athletes are usually too immersed in studying, training, competing and practicing to spend an entire quarter or even a month out of the country.
Bracken proposed a 10-day trip at an optimal time for football and softball players: Immediately after final exams of spring quarter, just after Inglesby, Fagaly and Souza returned from Washington’s play in last month’s Women’s College World Series.
“It was SO worth everything,” Bracken said of her frantic coordinating for the trip. “It was life changing. It was very transformative – for all of us.”
INSPIRATION WITHIN BLACK PEARLS
Before they returned home, the Huskies got free time to go the markets in town. Most bought black pearls, a popular Tahitian souvenir.
Stevenson, a safety from Hawai’i, has his black pearl on a necklace. He intends to show it off constantly, as a reminder of the bonds the Huskies made with the Tahitians – and with themselves.
“I plan on wearing that every day throughout the season, to remember this trip and what it did for all of us,” he said.
“It was a very humbling experience, a wonderfully humbling experience. It makes us appreciate what we have. I have nothing to complain about any more.”
When it was over last week, when about 100 of those kids from Punavai Plain E’cole E’le’mentarie joined the Lependu family to see off the Huskies at the airport, the Dawgs shed tears. Inglesby admits she was outright “sobbing.” Some of the football guys kept their sunglasses on to hide their eyes.
There is no need to hide their feelings on what 10 days in Tahiti have done for them. The 11 Huskies are making a documentary of their trip as a capstone project to this summer course like none other.
“Those guys were playing football purely for the love of the football. They all have 9-to-5 jobs. They are grown men,” Jamora said of those Tahitians in the clinics.
“Football to me was life. You had to live it. It was our one avenue to succeed in life. Well, this trip helped me open up my mind. I could go back to Tahiti. I could be an educator anywhere, teaching kids.
“I’m not so dependent on athletics anymore.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of teh U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 200.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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