Puafisi guides Utah youth to national title
Maui High graduate coached team at Pro Football Hall of Fame
Few from Hawaii get the chance to make the 4,500-mile trip to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Earlier this month, 2008 Maui High School graduate Jay Puafisi not only visited the home of NFL history in Canton, Ohio, he left with a national championship.
Puafisi was the head coach of an 8th-grade All-Star team from Utah that played in the Final Four of the inaugural National Youth Football Championship, which was held Dec. 14-17 at Tom Benson Stadium.
Zion Utah defeated Team Charlotte from North Carolina 21-6 in the semifinals before taking down Chicago in the championship game, 32-6.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the boys,” Puafisi said. “A lot of our boys are from severely at-risk backgrounds, situations where they don’t really get opportunities like this.
“For a lot of the boys, it was their first time in an airplane, so that was fun as a coach, to kind of see them and tease them a little bit, you know, because from Maui, we ride planes all the time.”
The road to Canton started when Puafisi, a teacher and assistant coach at East High School in Salt Lake City, was asked by the head of Level Up Elites, a local recruiting organization, to coach and put together a team of football All-Stars from across Utah. Athletes from 16 schools tried out, and the 28 players selected for the team went on to post regional wins over squads from San Diego and Oakland to earn a trip to the national semifinals.
The championship game was held in less than ideal conditions for a Maui boy.
“Playing in 12-degree weather for a national championship was kind of surreal, but it was definitely worth it,” Puafisi said.
“But I was still wearing a tupenu,” he added, referring to the Tongan lava-lava. “I was like, ‘You know what, I gotta represent.’ “
Puafisi said his team, considered an underdog, has already been invited to take part in next year’s tournament.
“Obviously, coming from Utah, playing against all these West Coast teams and teams from Chicago and the South, we were definitely ranked low,” he said. “It was kind of good not to have that pressure. But then we won, and they invited us back.”
An Oahu team, the Hawaii Crusaders, also made it to the final day, finishing as runner-up in the 12U division.
“It would be a dream to put together a team from Maui too to go to one of these,” Puafisi said.
For Puafisi, who played offensive line for the Sabers before serving a two-year mission in Nicaragua and attending Brigham Young University, growing up on Maui has played a big part in shaping who he is and what he tries to instill in his players.
“Definitely, just the hard work and the confidence that we’re raised with with the Maui culture as far as believing in yourself and believing that all things are possible, and also putting God first and that correlates with football and sports,” Puafisi said. “Faith is a big aspect of athletics back home, so that’s something that helped me along the way.”
* Stefanie Nakasone is at email@example.com