Asian Reporter, V31, #3 (March 1, 2021), page 8.
Lives Lost: Hawai‘i football coach who prepped
kids for life
By Audrey McAvoy
The Associated Press
HONOLULU — Honolulu football coach Willie Talamoa bought his
players cleats, drove them to practice, and often stayed late to
talk with those having trouble in school.
For Talamoa, his actions weren’t just about football. They
were about helping the young people in the hardscrabble
neighborhood of Kalihi where he grew up get the attention they
"His philosophy was, the more kids that are at practice with
us, the less kids that are out on the streets of Kalihi," said
fellow coach Kinohi Aki, who grew up with Talamoa in Kalihi’s
public housing developments.
The community remembers the 36-year-old, who passed away last
year due to COVID-19, as a mentor and father figure who
volunteered countless hours to give young people the
opportunities he didn’t have.
Talamoa played football at McKinley High School in central
Honolulu, then at Dixie State in Utah where he was recruited as
a defensive lineman. His interest in coaching grew after he
injured his knee in college and had to stop playing.
He worked as a security guard after returning to Hawai‘i and
started coaching the Kalihi Disciples, a team with 8th and 9th
graders that’s part of a church league, around a decade ago. In
2015, he became an assistant coach at Farrington High.
Most recently, he coached seven-on-seven Pylon football — a
form of touch football played on a smaller field — taking his
team to Las Vegas to compete in February 2020.
Aki said Talamoa offered kids an alternative — sometimes the
only one they had.
When he saw teens and pre-teens hanging around, he would ask
them what they were doing and where they were going. After
hearing responses like "Ah, nothing" and "Oh, cruise," he’d
invite them to join his workouts.
"Next thing you know, the kid’s asking to try out for the
football team," Aki said.
Randall Okimoto, head coach at Farrington for 16 years until
2018, including several with Talamoa as an assistant coach, said
it’s not easy for coaches to establish strong relationships with
players in Kalihi.
Many are experiencing hardships outside school, in some cases
because they come from single-parent homes or their family is
struggling with money, he said.
"It’s just tough. So our kids will put up a defense mechanism
where they’re not going to let you in," said Okimoto, who also
grew up in the neighborhood.
Talamoa began coaching many players in youth leagues, giving
him a head start on those relationships. He repeatedly showed
players he cared. Along with cleats, he bought them mouthpieces,
gloves, towels, socks, and other equipment.
He paid dues on their behalf, enabling them to play sports.
Sometimes he used his own money, sometimes money from
Talamoa was "training me and coaching me to become a better
player and person in life," said Raymond Millare, an 18-year-old
senior at Farrington and one of the eight to 10 players Talamoa
would routinely pack into his SUV to take to practices.
If Millare was slacking in school, Talamoa prodded him to do
better. He reminded Millare to help at home and love his parents
"I can just remember him at the stoplight at my house,
listening to his music," Millare said. "I can hear him honking
his horn and that’s a sign for me to know, ‘Oh, coach Willie is
here. It’s time to get to work.’"
Knowing how much players trusted Talamoa, some parents asked
him to talk to their children when they struggled in school.
"The first thing Willie would say is ‘I got ’em. I got this.’"
said Aki. Then, he’d talk with the child well after practice
Talamoa’s mother is Native Hawaiian and his father Samoan.
Samoans and other Pacific Islanders, not including Native
Hawaiians, account for just 4% of the state’s population but 27%
of those who have tested positive for COVID-19.
That’s a larger share than any other demographic. Officials
say one reason for the disparity is the fact that many Pacific
Islanders work in jobs that require them to be in the community,
like the food service industry.
Other risk factors include large, multigenerational families
living in tight quarters and inadequate educational outreach to
Pacific Islanders regarding the virus.
The city of Honolulu has lately developed options for
patients to isolate at hotels away from their families if
needed. It has also launched education campaigns in Samoan,
Tongan, and other Pacific Island languages.
Talamoa’s girlfriend, Leilani Legatasia, said she believes
Talamoa caught the virus at a men’s homeless shelter where he
had been working as a guest services assistant. The shelter was
dealing with a coronavirus outbreak when he got sick.
After testing positive last summer on August 13, Talamoa
immediately checked into a hotel the shelter was using to house
infected staff. Talamoa’s cousin, Kainoa Talamoa-Elderts, said
he didn’t want to pass it on to Legatasia and their 10-year-old
After his death, reminders of Talamoa’s commitment to
Kalihi’s children arrived in the mail — cleats he ordered for
his players from eBay, Legatasia said.
Lives Lost is part of an ongoing series of stories
remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the