Govs football star Iapani Laloulu reunites with his Kalihi roots

·9 min read

Aug. 16—All this time, younger brother Iapani Laloulu loved few things more than simply picking up his ukulele and singing to his heart's delight.

"He loves that. We're sitting down watching TV and here comes Poncho with his ukulele or guitar, " said Lesieli Laloulu, his mother.

Now a scholar in the classroom and the music conductor at church, he also happens to be one of the top football recruits in Hawaii. The football part required some mettle. There was a moment when all of Laloulu's hopes and dreams were about to materialize—or fizzle.

Entering his junior year in 2021, all the training with rusty dumbbells in the family back yard at Kuhio Park Terrace led up to this moment. A chance to shine at a Rivals invite-only combine /camp in Atlanta. It just felt like a lot, even for a hungry giant, when he and older sister Failagi landed on a warm day down South.

"There was a point when he felt like he couldn't go. It was the first time they went that far from us, " Lesieli Laloulu said.

Lesieli and Faaope Laloulu Sr. raised their children with discipline. Traveling 4, 490 miles also involves a lot of hours to think. To doubt. Failagi Laloulu wasn't having it.

"Thank God big sis kicked him in the butt and told him to suck it up. She basically told him we came this far from Hawaii all the way to Atlanta. You better do something about it, " Lesieli said.

So, the young man known affectionately as "Poncho " did that and more. The highlight footage from the camp includes several that showcase Laloulu protecting the pocket, annihilating some of the nation's most talented edge rushers. The kid from Kalihi earned MVP honors as the top offensive lineman.

Already blessed with an offer from Oregon as an eighth grader, the elite-level competition in Georgia opened a door for more schools to enter the Iapani Laloulu universe.

"All I remember was, I was tired and I was hungry and stuff, but my sister was there to make sure that I didn't give up, " he recalled. "She was my motivation to go out there and win the whole thing."

Now a 6-foot-2, 358-pound senior with a 3.5 grade-point average, Laloulu has offers from Arizona, Cal, Florida, Hawaii, Miami, Oregon, Syracuse, Tennessee and Virginia. His top three are Arizona, Oregon and Miami.

"I haven't went out there (to Miami ), but I like coach (Alex ) Mirabal and what he did at Oregon, " he said of the Hurricanes' offensive line coach. "I like Arizona and what coach (Jedd ) Fisch is doing. He's rebuilding the culture there. I took an official visit there over the summer."

The Wildcats have indoor and outdoor facilities, Laloulu noted, but it is difficult to match the state-of-the-art accoutrements of Oregon.

"I want to go and get out there, " he said.

Through the pandemic, while most public spaces were locked down, Laloulu and older brother Faaope Jr.—a dominant lineman who now plays for Oregon—were resourceful. When workouts weren't in the yard, they were often at the "Iron Church." The Trench Dawgz started as a small group of offensive and defensive linemen who refused to take a break despite extreme circumstances.

Weekend pre-sunrise mornings were reserved for running and hand-to-hand combat on the sand at Ala Moana Beach Park. On the daily, they gathered at coach Kip Akana's home, where some space was converted into a simple, holy place to get weight training done. Defensive lineman Jackie Johnson, now at Lawrence Tech, and defensive end /linebacker Ka 'eo Akana, now at Utah, were part of that original crew.

"Poncho's a homebody. The one thing I really, really like is he's able to assess how important school is, " Trench Dawgz coach Whitley Fehoko said. "He prioritizes things he needs to do, ever since he was young. That's where I'm most proud of him as one of his mentors. The way he's going, I know he's in good hands. He has an ability to see beyond what's really going on."

After losing that sophomore season to the pandemic, Laloulu got his chance to play as the Trench Dawgz lined up for exhibition games with club teams like MBC Athletics (Kapolei ). Then came a game in Arizona against Winners Circle. The Rivals camp /combine then opened a lot of eyes.

But nothing was as surprising as his move to Saint Louis. There, Laloulu made the principal's list, hovering between 3.8 and 4.0 during his junior year. Saint Louis won the ILH title and finished second in the state to Kahuku. Then, another surprise : transferring back home to Farrington for senior year.

"I was taken aback. I was a bit surprised, " Lesieli Laloulu said. "I told him, let's just pray about it and if God brings you back to Farrington, we'll see how it goes. As a parent, you always want the best for your child. We would've loved seeing him his senior year at Saint Louis. He prayed about it and he felt it was time to go back to Farrington."

Sometimes, style matters. At Saint Louis, he was a part of the O-line rotation with standout seniors, primarily in pass-blocking mode. At Farrington, it is a mix of four-wide sets and downhill blocking with smashmouth intent. In a preseason win over Waialua two weekends ago, Laloulu wheeled down the sideline on a screen play, pancaking three defenders like bowling pins as Chansen Smith scored on a 59-yard play. Laloulu was there in the end zone, hoisting Smith to the sky after the Governors' first touchdown since Poncho came home.

Returning to his roots brings a chance to play with his cousin Willis Lilly and line up next to a good friend, left tackle Kingston Jennings. Laloulu calls Lilly his younger brother. Three years ago, Lilly became part of the Laloulu household. So did Jennings, who had been shifting from one home to another before Faaope Sr. and Lesieli took him in. No one knew exactly how rough things were going for Jennings, normally a gregarious character.

"It was during the COVID year, close to Mother's Day. Me, my brother (Lilly ) and Ope were boxing with the boys, conditioning, running around the block, " Laloulu said. "Kingston went home, came back and it looked like something happened. Ope is smart. He knew something was wrong with Kingston. He told me to go check up on him. From then on, we made him a part of this family."

That is a lot of teenaged testosterone under one roof, even for sage parents.

"It's been tough, I'm not going to lie, " Lesieli Laloulu said. "The discipline part. Because I'm very disciplined when it comes to my kids, I told Kingston and Willis, that's how I show my love. You have to follow those rules."

That means no hanging out late nights. No gallivanting with strangers.

"I guess I'm sort of old-fashioned, " Lesieli Laloulu said. "If they go somewhere, we really have to know that person."

Clear-cut boundaries have allowed both Laloulu brothers, Lilly and Jennings to flourish.

"It's been a challenge, but I thank God they've been doing really well in school and really well in football, too, " she said.

Farrington coach Daniel Sanchez has seen it before, something that is embedded in the community for the greater good. It takes a village.

"There's a lot of families in Kalihi that help each other out, " he said. "I guess the Hawaiian word is hanai."

Life in the Laloulu hale isn't bad at all. Often enough, it is a haven of fine dining. Poncho's three favorite foods are his mom's fried chicken, barbecue turkey tail and steak. His No. 4 is dad's fish and noodles.

"It just goes to show we don't eat out. We do a lot of cooking in this house, " Lesieli said. "Oh gosh, Ope, when he gets ready to come home, he calls and said he wants chicken, ribs, turkey tail. He always tells Pancho, be ready, you're going to miss mom a lot. We're on our own, have to be responsible for our actions. Don't be calling home crying, I miss mom and dad."

Farrington is 1-1 in nonconference play, with a win over Waialua and a recent loss to Kapolei. The Govs host Newport Harbor of San Diego on Friday.

Having a veteran lineman with nationwide appeal doesn't hurt, but coach Sanchez appreciates the humility and work ethic of Laloulu.

"He's a tremendous pass blocker and run blocker. He definitely helps us in our running game, our traps and pools. He does his homework, his film study and asks all the right questions, " Sanchez said. "I think he's a guy that's beyond his years as far as the way he communicates with his players and coaches. He's a great motivator. It's a great job by his parents."

IAPANI "PONCHO " LALOULU—Height : 6 feet 2—Weight : 358 pounds—Sport : Football—GPA : 3.5 Favorites—Movies /series : "Remember the Titans, " "The Blind Side, " "All-American, " "Cobra Kai "—Food : Mom's fried chicken, BBQ turkey tail and steak, dad's fish and noodles—Music artists : Rod Wave, Luther Vandross, Fiji. "Jonah Savaiinaea put me on Luther."—Team : Philadelphia Eagles—Athletes : Trent Williams, Quenton Nelson. "Trent's athleticism, he's a nasty type guy, kills them right off the block. Quen, I like his technique and how he uses his body, his hands."—Class /teacher : Mr. Scott Hamasaki, fourth grade, Kalihi Waena Elementary "He had my brother and he knows I crack jokes. He was a good teacher and he came to see me in the hospital when I had an injury."—Funniest teammate : Kingston Jennings. "He talks a lot."—Smartest teammate : Julian Savaiinaea, LJ Liki. "These guys always been smart. Julian's been a 4.0 since way back."—New life skill : Communication. "I learned to talk with more people outside the ones I'm comfortable with."—Hidden talent : singing, playing guitar—Shout outs : "My Lord Jesus Christ for giving me another day of life. My mom, my father, my siblings, friends and family, cousins all around. Also a shoutout to a coach who played a father figure in my life is Whitley Fehoko and his wife, Mau, and also coach Kip Akana and his family."