Even though the ultimate risks remain mathematically slight, one of the dynamics of football that often transcends rivalries and the distance between sidelines is the realization by all players that their lives can be forever altered on any given play.
It wasn’t a football play this summer that shattered the life of Kalepo Naotala, who was set to join the University of Hawaii football team this fall. In his case it was a diving accident while swimming near Honolulu on July 1 left Naotala with a severe spinal cord injury. Instead of gearing up for Hawaii’s home opener Saturday against Western Carolina, Naotala is in Colorado attempting to adjust to his new life.
Beyond the fact that former CU player Chris Naeole serves as Hawaii’s offensive line coach, there otherwise is no direct connection between Naotala and the Colorado football program. However, when head coach Mike MacIntyre and the Buffs’ handful of Polynesian players learned Naotala had been transferred to Denver’s renowned physical rehabilitation center, Craig Hospital, they were quick to rally around their fellow brother-in-arms.
A few weeks ago MacIntyre and a group that included football intern Erik Aunese along with players Lyle Tuiloma, Eric Klemmer, and Jaisen Sanchez visited Naotala at Craig, and on Friday night the fallen Rainbow Warrior will be a guest of the Buffaloes during the Rocky Mountain Showdown against rival Colorado State.
All three of the CU players that visited Naotala are from Hawaii. The group made this gesture on a Sunday that otherwise was a day off from the rigors of training camp.
“When we were there it was a big blessing to him. He was very uplifted,” said Aunese, the nephew of late CU great Sal Aunese. “He was very positive. You could definitely see that hunger in his eyes. He definitely is doing everything and anything and he can to get back on the field again. Going through that kind of adversity and trying to work back into normal functioning for his body, it definitely seemed to uplift him. Especially seeing coach MacIntyre take us with him. To go out of his way on this speaks volumes for the kind of guy coach MacIntyre is.
“He definitely encouraged (Naotala) and let him know there are other people around college football wishing him well and keeping him in our prayers.”
A few months ago, chances are Naotala didn’t think the first college football game he’d witness in 2017 would be in Denver between Colorado and Colorado State. But the Buffs certainly are glad to have Naotala in their corner.
“(Naotala) had great spirits,” MacIntyre said of the visit. “It made all our guys realize how special life is.”