By Alan Siegel
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 12:01 AM
Navy football Coach Ken Niumatalolo is proud that his office in Annapolis is dotted with family photos. "My most important role is being a husband and a father," he said from his desk last month. "That's way more important than being a coach."
"It's kind of funny," said Ken, whose Midshipmen are bowl-eligible for the third time in his three-season tenure, "because I'll see him hit somebody, then I'll see him help him up, and part of me's like, 'Don't help him up. This is football.' But that's just who he is."
Va'a smiled at that.
"Sometimes you just feel that respect for the other player," said Va'a, who will help lead Broadneck (8-2) into a first-round game at Old Mill (9-1) in the Maryland 4A East playoffs on Friday at 7 p.m. "But on the next play, you still try and crush him."
Spend a few minutes with Ken and Va'a and it becomes clear: Father and son are a lot alike. Both are thoughtful and earnest - neither curses, though "once in a while maybe the 'D' word," Va'a said - yet aggressive if the situation calls for it. Both are deeply committed to their Mormon faith and Polynesian heritage. And both have displayed an uncommon aptitude for football.
Take, for example, the play Va'a made against Annapolis on Oct. 8. Facing a fourth and two, the Panthers called a toss to Keith Collins. The speedy running back appeared headed for a first down when Broadneck linebacker Nick Ochoa noticed Va'a closing fast. "He just shot out," Ochoa said, and stopped Collins a yard short of the first down.
Said Broadneck defensive coordinator Rob Harris: "It was pretty sweet."Family matters
Even in jeans and a baggy Navy sweatshirt, Va'a is physically imposing. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound teenager, who wears size 12 Nikes and squats 405 pounds, hasn't totally filled out. Harris likes to say that "some kids have their man look to them." Va'a isn't there yet, Harris said.
"I've pretty much put on 20 pounds each year, probably from my Polynesian genes," said Va'a, who made the varsity squad as a 175-pound freshman. His father, a three-year letterman at quarterback for Hawaii in the late 1980s, used to be able to out-lift Va'a. "He's a big dude, so when we used to do power cleans, he just used his upper body to lift what I was lifting, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' But then he stopped because he was going to throw out his back."
"In his legs and stuff, he's way stronger than me," said Ken, who's also 6-2. "It's hard for me to admit that."
Ken and Va'a are far from the only athletic members of the Niumatalolo family. Va'a's mother Barbara, who's 5-10, is a former swimmer. Ali'i, 12, is in seventh grade. He plays football and has hands the size of Va'a's. "He's going to be a monster," Va'a said. "He's 170, 180 with size 12 shoes." And Alexcia, 21, is a starting defender on Maryland's women's lacrosse team.
Va'a hopes to follow his older sister into the world of college athletics. Idaho State (which has already offered a scholarship) and Wyoming have shown the most interest, and Boise State, Utah State, Utah and BYU are also in the picture, but haven't offered.
"I've always been honest with my son," said Ken, who has fielded questions from other coaches about whether Va'a was only interested in attending Navy. "And I've always told him that I'm not going to tell [him] that all these ACC schools are looking at you if they're not. . . . I think a lot of [coaches] assumed he was going to come here. I mean, this is an option, but he's open-minded. It's going to be his choice."Father, son and football
Va'a plays one sport: football. When asked what drew him to the game, he answered simply. "Hitting," said Va'a, who moved from his native Hawaii to Maryland when his dad joined the Navy staff 15 years ago. "I guess it's in my blood."
His aggressive nature wasn't always apparent. When Va'a was about 10, a finger injury caused him to temporarily leave a Pop Warner game. Ken remembers telling him, "Either you get back in the game or I'm gonna make you be in the band or something."
"You know, my wife hates that example," Ken said, "because she's like, 'What's wrong with music? It'd be great if he played in the band.' "
(Barbara said she used to tell Ken that "if he wants to be put in a tutu and be a ballerina, you will be happy with it.")
Va'a went back in, and a few minutes later, apparently suffered a concussion. As a precaution, an ambulance was called. When the paramedics arrived, they asked Va'a how he was feeling. "Well," he said, "I got hurt earlier but my dad said if I come out again then I'm gonna have to quit."
"And I can see the people just look at me, 'Jeez what kind of dad are you?' " Ken said. "That was kind of eye-opening for me because I could tell when my son was younger I kind of lived through him for football."
Ken said he's "chilled out on that part" since then.
"Even though he says it's hard for him to control his emotions," said Va'a, who like Ken before him, will take time off from college - and football - to serve a Mormon mission, "he's actually pretty level-headed."
Ken's self-assessment was a bit harsher than that.
"On the field, I was always an animated person." Ken said, before complimenting Va'a. "He's a little more cerebral, a little more even-keeled. He's tackled running backs, and I've seen him lift them up. My son's a way better person than I am."