There is a scar on Pio Sagapolutele’s left knee.
It’s something he has been carrying since the day he scraped his knee while playing tackle football on cement during his childhood in Hawaii.
But that’s not what he told people at San Diego State University last year when he sat out his freshman football season.
He was prevented from playing by Proposition 48, the NCAA rule mandating that college freshmen must meet certain academic requirements to be eligible for college sports. But he told people he wasn’t playing because he had had knee surgery. And then he’d point to the scar on his left knee as proof.
He got tired last year from not playing football. Tired of having to explain to others that he didn’t do well on his SAT in high school not because he was dumb but because he grew up in a home in which English was spoken only as a last resort. Samoan is the native language of the Sagapoluteles.
Because of that, when Pio Sagapolutele sat down to take the SAT, he discovered that he hadn’t even heard of some of the words used in the test.
“Last year people would say, ‘Aren’t you on the football team,’ ” Sagapolutele said. “I’d say, ‘No.’ And they’d say, ‘Why not?’
“It made me feel stupid. I figured people would be thinking I didn’t have the brains to pass the test.”
In high school, he didn’t know too much about Prop. 48. He knew his test scores weren’t very good, but he thought he could still play football. He figured there would be a way around the rule.
That was his thinking as he was recruited. Washington, Arizona and Arizona State all were interested, as well as SDSU and some other schools. But when they discovered there might be a problem with Proposition 48, Sagapolutele sensed declining interest on the part of many schools. SDSU still wanted him, and he liked the Aztec coaches, so he decided to go there.
Then, early one morning during his senior year in high school, he and a friend were having breakfast. Sagapolutele was reading the Honolulu Advertiser when he came across a chart listing where the local Hawaii kids were going to play football.
While munching on a sausage croissant, he saw his name. It was under the category of those ineligible to play because of Proposition 48. So much for ways around the rule.
“I remember being real hungry that morning,” Sagapolutele said. “But then, after reading that, I wasn’t so hungry anymore.”
He quickly threw away the sports section. He was ashamed and didn’t want his friend to see it.
And a few months later, he went off to school in San Diego.
“The bad part was that a lot of people from Hawaii thought I was playing,” he said.
He was faced with even more questions.
So he lied. He told people something about a knee surgery. And he commiserated with roommate Doug Blanchard, another Proposition 48 casualty who sat out last year.
He also thought about quitting school and returning to Hawaii more than once. His girlfriend, Kalie Cadinha, whom he met in high school and who attends the University of San Diego, talked him out of it.
So Sagapolutele went to class, worked out in the weight room and waited until he could take the field this year. He’d show them.
And he has.
In the season opener against UCLA, he played enough to be named SDSU’s defensive player of the game. By the third game of the season, against Stanford, Sagapolutele, 6-feet 6-inches, 275 pounds, was a starting defensive end. And he’s done it by using his brains as well as his muscle.
“Pio has been our best defensive lineman,” Coach Denny Stolz said. “And the amazing thing is, he didn’t even play in spring ball. I was surprised at how quickly he picked up the defensive schemes and concepts without spring ball. He’s what we call an impact player.”
Said defensive coordinator Ed Schmidt: “Sometimes when you think of a Prop. 48 guy, you think of a guy who is academically behind other people. But Pio is a very bright young man. He couldn’t pick up what we’re doing if he wasn’t. We’ll take about 10 more like him.”
Through 7 games, Sagapolutele has 19 tackles (7 solos, 12 assists), 1 sack and has broken up 2 passes.
The success has surprised even himself.
“I didn’t know if I’d make an impact this year,” he said. “I thought my coaches and teammates might think I was no good anymore. I thought I’d be a backup.”
Along the way to the starting lineup, he has learned a few things.
He has learned that you have to be consistent in college football. If he got tired in high school, he might take it easy for a few plays in practice and get away with it. The coaches would let it go, and besides, his high school team had nobody that was a match for even a half-speed Sagapolutele. But if he takes it easy at SDSU, he gets burned, and the coaches get angry.
But the most important thing he has learned is that technique is extremely important at the college level. He was bigger than most players in high school. Not anymore.
“Some plays I can’t use my power,” he said. “I have to use speed and technique.”
Said Schmidt: “He still needs to learn a few things about the defensive line. He’s not a great technician. But it’s hard when you lay off for a year. It takes a little while to get back into the swing of things when you’re not even a part of the team for a year. It takes a little while to adjust to the discipline.”
Sagapolutele knows he needs to work on his technique. But the temptation to use brute force--his favorite aspect of the defensive line--is always there.
“I like to line up against an opponent and try to tear his head off,” he said. “I’m so used to dominating people. I try to out-physical my opponent. But you can’t do that in college because he’s bigger, and you get tired.”
Said Schmidt: “That’s Pio. What he misses in technique, he makes up for in desire.”
After a year away from football, time spent adjusting to the academic and social rigors of college, Sagapolutele’s desire these days extends further than the field. Sure, he wants to become one of the best defensive linemen in Aztec history. But he also intends to earn a degree in criminal justice.
“I want to set an example for all of the Prop. 48 guys,” he said. “A lot of them were good high school players, but the year they sat out really hurt them. I want them to know that if they sit out a year, things can still happen for them if they strive for something.”
Nose tackle Brad Burton has been downgraded to doubtful for Saturday’s game at Utah because of an inflamed right ankle. He would be replaced in the lineup by freshman Eric Duncan of Stockton.