Virgen's View: Sapolu remains passionate, humble

The story of Jesse Sapolu could have been a sad memoir, a cautionary tale for the toughest of men.

Simply put, Sapolu risked his life to play football.

The choices he made against the reality of a heart defect could have served as a warning for others. Instead, Sapolu, a Costa Mesa resident who starred as an offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, serves as an inspiration. That was his primary intent.

The Sapolu story is not sad at all. You can read about him in his new book, "I Gave My Heart to San Francisco."

These days everything seems to be happy in Sapolu's life. His beloved 49ers are in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII playing for their sixth NFL championship against the Baltimore Ravens.

Sapolu, the 49ers alumni coordinator, left for New Orleans Thursday morning. On Thursday night, a photo of Sapolu with San Francisco Coach Jim Harbaugh was posted on his Facebook page: Jesse Sapolu's Men In The Trenches.

Sapolu's book was released in October. The timing proved to be seemingly perfect as it came during the 49ers' return to greatness.

Sapolu is a busy man, promoting the book and his 49ers. He also runs a football camp for linemen and works as a motivational speaker.

He was at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii last weekend.

He appeared on ESPN Wednesday night. He still took time to speak with me before leaving for the Super Bowl.

In my brief dealings with Sapolu, I've recognized a humble man.

That character is seen in his book, too. He played the game for his name, but he also played for everyone else who dealt with a heart condition, especially the kids, he said.

He had several requests to write a book after retiring. But he said a tragic moment occurred that set the plans in motion.

Sapolu saw his youngest son Roman, a center at Oregon State, deal with the death of his friend, Fred Thompson, who died after collapsing while playing basketball. Thompson's death came from complications of an enlarged heart, Sapolu said.

"I came back from open-heart surgery so that other kids can have the opportunity that I have," Sapolu said, talking about the surgery he had in 1997 and returning to play his final season.

In his book, Sapolu writes about his upbringing, his motivation, his passion for the game of football and his love for his family and friends among other topics. He had plenty of motivation during a career that spanned 15 years and featured four Super Bowl rings, nine appearances in the NFC title game, two Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro selections.

What an amazing career, full of triumphant stories, all while dealing with an abnormal heart, a torn aortic valve. There were times, he admits, when pride and determination ruled his decision making.

He never wanted to tell anyone about his enlarged heart.

Concussions and contact to the head are the hot topics for football players during and after their careers. Sapolu dealt with that along with his heart condition.

But his motivation overcame his fear of death. He was passionate about playing for a dynasty. He was determined to be the best and prove he was much more than an 11th round draft pick (289th overall in 1983).

His greatest joys came from being an integral part of championship teams.

He laughed when the topic was brought up about the 49ers' Randy Moss telling the media that he is the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game.

"On our teams, No. 1, we had great athletes," Sapolu said of the teams he played on. "No. 2, the great athletes were unselfish players. We put the team first above everyone else. Anyone who sounded selfish, we had a chemistry that we would shut it down fast.

"I got a call earlier from a reporter about the Randy Moss-Jerry Rice thing. Sometimes when you are in front of the media, you let the moment get to you, and I think from the teams we played on, we never let the moment get to us. If you're going to become an all-star it would have to come with the team and not on yourself."

So who is the greatest receiver of all time in Sapolu's opinion?

"It's without a doubt Jerry Rice. Not only based on statistics, but on the big games, three championships. I think Randy realizes this is his swan song. I would put him in the top five. I wouldn't say he's the best and 99% of reporters would know Jerry is the greatest ... Jerry is actually considered the greatest player at any position."

Sapolu also sounded off about 49ers former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who is a Hall of fame finalist, saying that he absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame.

Sapolu disagreed with the anti-gay comments made by San Francisco defensive back Chris Culliver.

"I think it's a still work in progress," Sapolu said about the perception of homosexuals in the game. "[Football] would be the toughest atmosphere for any athlete with that orientation. Will time change that? I believe so. When you get to a point when you're secure with yourself, as long as that person doesn't push his lifestyle on you, then he should be a teammate. It's going to take time, especially because it's football. It's a man's game."

Sapolu felt bad for Culliver.

"This is unnecessary attention that doesn't need to be there in the biggest game of the year, the biggest game of his life," Sapolu said. "Unless you're there in the Super Bowl you don't realize all the reporters there. Sometimes people don't handle it the way you should handle it. [Players] need to realize everything you say will be scrutinized."

Sapolu, of course, picked the 49ers to win, by at least 10 points, he said, if they are playing at their best, which he expects.

He said it's too early to tell if the 49ers are headed toward another dynasty-type era, but he likes what he sees.

"We have good young team," Sapolu said. "We have a young defense that's only going to get better. We have a young quarterback, who is mesmerizing. The sky's the limit and everything is looking up but there are no guarantees. As long as we have Coach Harbaugh there, it can be great."

Twitter: @SteveVirgen

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