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Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Bob Condotta
Manase Hopoi could have seen only the obstacles, the justifications, the easy ways out.
He came from a background in which education appears such an unachievable dream that it is often written off as unimportant.
He is a football player at the University of Washington, a player with an NFL future, excuse enough for some who have come before him to view academics as more nuisance than priority.
He was labeled a "partial qualifier" by the NCAA, deemed not as ready for college as the rest of his teammates.
But Hopoi instead saw opportunity.
"He's appreciating what he's got and getting the most out of it," said UW defensive line coach Randy Hart.
And in the process, Hopoi a two-year starter on the Huskies' defensive line is becoming as much academic as athletic success story.
Despite coming to UW as a partial qualifier he had the needed high-school credits but not the necessary SAT score he is on track to graduate this year, either at the end of the fall or winter quarter.
And he's doing it with a flourish, having achieved a 3.0 grade-point average or better in his past four quarters, making the dean's list last winter with a GPA better than 3.5.
Asked what he's prouder of his football career at UW or his academic work Hopoi says emphatically, "Getting a degree. It kind of sets a bar for the next generation in my family, that they will have to go to a university instead of me being the only one in my generation to do it."
Hopoi's story is typical of so many who play college football, and it illustrates both the challenges that confront universities that walk the line between big-time athletics and high-class academics, and the rewards that can come when it all works.
Hopoi grew up in Sacramento, Calif., the son of parents who immigrated from Tonga just a few years before he was born in 1983.
"They brought us here to have a better life," says Hopoi, the second youngest of five children in his family.
His parents also tried to keep their kids on the straight and narrow. When they saw Hopoi getting into, as he calls it, "too much trouble" at Burbank High School as a ninth- and 10th-grader, they transferred him to Valley High, where he was separated from many of the influences he says were leading him in the wrong direction.
It was there, he says, that "reality set in." He began to become a football prospect courted by major universities along the West Coast, and he realized he had to take life more seriously.
But Hopoi says he had to spend much of his junior and senior years at Valley making up classes he should have taken at Burbank. He eventually got the work done, but didn't do so well on the SAT. He took it five times but never got the score he needed to be eligible. "I was really good at the math part, but it was the English that got me in trouble," Hopoi said.
Washington coaches, seeing both a player who could make a big impact and a person they thought they could trust, decided to take a risk and award Hopoi a scholarship in their recruiting class of 2001.
Every Pac-10 school is allowed to sign one partial qualifier per year. Previous partial qualifiers at UW include linebacker Anthony Kelley and defensive tackle Terry Johnson.
To the contrary, Robenolt pegged Hopoi almost immediately as someone who could be an academic success.
"Attitude has so much more to do with success than skill," she said. "Attitude and work ethic go a long way. He's always had a really good work ethic."
Robenolt said Hopoi's gregarious nature which has long made him a favorite of reporters covering the team also helped.
"He will stand up and ask a question, which can be very intimidating to do in larger lecture halls," she said.
Robenolt said Hopoi also "recognized all the structure we had and took advantage of it."
All freshmen athletes at UW are required to attend nightly study hall and tutoring sessions until they have proven they can get the work done on their own.
That heavy structure which is typical in all major-college athletic programs leads some critics to say that athletes are coddled and essentially led by the hand through their school work. But in some ways, it's a no-win proposition for schools take away that structure, and other critics will say they are taking advantage of athletes, making money off of them while not offering a proper education.
Hart has strong words for those who criticize the system and want to change it.
"We're going to legislate away opportunity for a lot of young men," Hart said. "We better be careful or we are going to make this an elitist, bourgeois affair out here rather than giving a chance to a kid to better himself and give him a chance to run."
The latter is exactly what UW coaches and officials say happened with Hopoi.
As a partial qualifier, Hopoi could practice with the team in 2001 but not play. He says sitting out that year helped him get adjusted academically, learning how best to manage a schedule that often runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the season, filled with classes, team meetings, practices and study halls.
Still, he admits to struggling in his intended major of sociology in his first two years, getting below a 2.0 GPA in several classes within that major.
But he said he never grew overly frustrated.
"Sometimes I find it overwhelming (balancing football and academics)," he said. "But then all of life is overwhelming, so you might as well get used to it."
Once he chose a new major, American Ethnic Studies, Hopoi's academics really took off, he says.
As an AES major, Hopoi studies different cultures. One paper he wrote recently struck particularly close to home an examination of the differences and similarities between the Tongan and Samoan cultures "and why they are still mad at each other." "It's real interesting studying different cultures and what they have been through and what they've had to overcome," he said. "When I get older, I want to be a counselor and talk to kids, and this way, if I talk to a Native American kid or a black kid or a Mexican kid, I will know their backgrounds and be able to relate to what they have been through."
Hopoi credits not just the academic support he has gotten from the UW athletic department, but also that which he has received from a new program on campus available to all students the Center for Learning and Undergraduate Enrichment. The center, which offers tutoring, a writing center and other study aids and is used by several hundred students a night, "is something Manase really takes advantage of," Robenolt said.
Hopoi said he has been particularly helped by a CLUE tutor named Paul Valenti, who grew up in Hawaii and has a particular understanding for students with a Pacific Island background.
Valenti said one of the main challenges in dealing with many male athletes particularly those from somewhat impoverished backgrounds is getting them to believe that "it's cool to know about history or English. ... For a lot of guys, education is not something that they see as available to them as they are growing up, so they adopt the attitude that it doesn't matter."
Hopoi, however, says he never felt that way.
"When I graduated from high school, the reality hit me that I'm 18 years old now and a grown man, and I need to make the right decisions and that what I do know will benefit me later in life," Hopoi said. "I want to be working a high-paying job when I'm 30 or 40 and doing something I enjoy."
Proof that he's still learning, however, arrived last spring when he was arrested for assault in an incident at a club in downtown Seattle. Hopoi, who said he acted out of self-defense, said he has agreed to pay medical bills for the victim and that the case should be cleared up soon.
Hopoi said he knows that the incident will color how people view him.
"Ask anyone and they will tell you I have good character," Hopoi said. "I would never do anything to hurt the team or the family or myself."
Coaches and other UW officials concur, saying the Hopoi they know has done everything they have ever asked on and off the field.
Hopoi is officially listed as a senior but can earn the year back if as planned he graduates by the end of this academic year. He says he will return to UW next season, though there's a chance that he could leave for the NFL should he have the breakout year both he and Huskies coaches are hoping for.
What he's looking forward to first, however, is next June, when he plans to walk at UW's commencement, becoming the first but, he says, not the last member of his family to get a four-year degree.
"I want to wear the robe, take the pictures," he says with a smile. "The whole deal."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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