The Lessons of Football

Kaua‘i Pop Warner turns 50 as a new season kicks off for a new generation of young players

Their wisdom-filled lessons rival those of national coaching legends, but they’ve been taught right here on Kaua‘i over the past half century. As this week marks Kaua‘i Pop Warner Football League’s 50th birthday, former coaches and officiants such as Rick Ueoka and “Stupe” Shimogawa are remembering the good ol’ days.

“Football is the greatest sport any boy can play,” says Ueoka, the former coach of the Hanapepe 13-15 KPWFL. No stranger to the game, Ueoka is a University of Hawaii Circle of Honor inductee and was part of the 1955 team that defeated Nebraska 6-0.

A humble man, he doesn’t want to talk about that game, about himself or even his own children, Kelly and Miki, who also have achieved high levels of athletic success. What he does want to talk about, however, are the KPWFL kids, and the honor of football.

“It’s hard work,” he says. “It teaches you discipline, guts and fortitude. What you dish out, you learn to take. And everything is done with rules — and you can be vicious under the rules.”

Shimogawa, who officiated KPWFL games for 40 years, (after coaching Koloa for one year), says he loves the values and inclusiveness of the game.

“It teaches teamwork,” he says with a smile. “You have to be a team.”

Ueoka, who took Hanapepe to states seven times, agrees.

“Without a team, you can’t win,” he says. “It takes the whole team to win. It’s gotta be 11 players.”

There’s another element that needs to be there, too, Ueoka says: discipline.

“The kids today lack discipline, and you can’t win football games without it,” he says.

It also takes love, director of Parks and Recreation Lenny Rapozo Jr. says, adding that everyone involved in KPWFL “loves those kids” as much as the sport itself.

Rapozo got his start with KPWFL at the age of 7 playing in the pee-wee division. It’s also when his father, Leonard “Leo” Rapozo, got a taste for the league. Starting off as a KPWFL board member for Lihu‘e, he later became league president and officiated for 31 years before suffering a stroke in 2006. Up until his death in 2009, he wanted to hear about the goings-on of the games, says Rapozo Jr., who has been officiating games since 1987.

“He was my best friend,” he says. “I’d go to his house and he’d be waiting up for me. He’d just want to talk about the kids, because he knew all of them, and how the game was, what the calls were, what the plays were. He loved Pop Warner so much. It was his love. He loved watching the kids grow up.”

Ueoka, who calls football something that helped him “grow up” as a kid, says it changed his life, and it’s his hope that it will continue to change the lives of Kaua‘i youths.

“If the child wants to play, I think the parents should let him play,” he says. “If you don’t want to play and you’d rather go surfing, golf, do it. But once you play football, you will grow up real fast.”

Since Pop Warner is in need of support — having recently lost its older division — Ueoka wants to shed light on how valuable an outlet it can be for youths.

When Ueoka coached, there wasn’t a junior varsity division in the high schools, and that made Pop Warner all the more important for giving youths a chance to play.

“As a coach, my feeling was this: Some weren’t going to get to play at the high school level, and a lot weren’t going to make a college team or go pro. So playing Pop Warner is the only time they experience football,” he says. “My philosophy was teach them the game. Winning is good, but at least you get to play. And if you don’t get to play, you can’t win.”

Of course, it also gives youths a sense of camaraderie in a wholesome atmosphere.

“Youth sports on Kaua‘i has become a second family for many young athletes,” Teddy Arroya, KPWFL commissioner, says. “It helps build their character, self-esteem and provides a positive outlook that will last them a lifetime.”

Arroyo, whose wife Pam is KPWFL president, says youth football not only teaches the fundamentals of the game, but also teaches sportsmanship and how to become a positive role model — both on and off the field.

“Youth sports provides a safe environment for most youths here on Kaua’i,” he says.

Perhaps that’s why KPWFL has produced national football champions and scholars over the past half-century. Jordan Dizon participated in KPWFL’s program before becoming an All-American linebacker at the University of Colorado before being drafted in the second round by the Detroit Lions.

Even though it is all about the kids, however, none of it could be possible without the volunteer adults, Teddy Arroyo says, lauding a long list of people who have helped over the years, including Harold Naumu, who not only was one of the founders of Kaua‘i Pop Warner Football League, but also one of the founders of the Wescon Region. Naumu died two weeks ago.

“There’s a saying that has left a lasting imprint on my mind,” Arroyo says. “‘Managers manage for tomorrow and leaders lead for the future.’ We strive to instill our youth to be leaders wherever their life may lead them for they are the future.”

Pam Arroyo (who also is the mother of three boys who played for Lihu‘e Pop Warner, including Kaulana Wa‘alani-Arroyo, who now plays football at Fort Lewis College in Colorado) says it’s important for the community to support the program, and it’s fun for the whole family.

“Pop Warner is an awesome program emphasizing not only the physical aspect of football and cheer but also academics,” she says. “It’s truly rewarding to see (youths) smiling and enjoying themselves cheering and playing football.”

It’s also something that stays with them for life, Ueoka adds: “I value now, still, the kids who come up to me and say, ‘Coach, I appreciate what I went through with you.’ I have had that told me several times. That, to me, is the biggest reward.”

As KPWFL turns 50 this week, Kaua‘i will be having a float parade in its honor Sept. 1. The parade will begin at 9 a.m. at the Historic County Building and continue to Vidinha Stadium. First kickoff game will be at 11:30 a.m.