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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 31, 2002

Friendship born from near tragedy

By Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer

For about 30 minutes, McKinley High senior offensive guard Brandon Tatupu stared up into the Makiki night. Praying.

Castle's Cory Daniel, left, meets McKinley's Brandon Tatupu for the first time since Tatupu was hurt in an Oct. 5 game.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Oh, I hope I'm not paralyzed for life," Tatupu recalled saying on the most harrowing night of his life.

On Oct. 5, during a regular season game between McKinley and Castle at Roosevelt High stadium, all of the hoopla associated with high school football came to a standstill as spectators, players and coaches watched and hoped that Tatupu would show some sign that he was all right.

It began with a dive play by running back Michael Vasconcellos, who scored on a 1-yard run off the left side of his line. As the play developed, Tatupu, the right guard, broke from his stance to block his defender. Their heads collided. Tatupu said he felt a sting go through his spine.

Castle defenders pursued Vasconcellos and, in the process, Tatupu said he got turned over on his back and landed on someone's helmet. After Vasconcellos scored, everyone got to their feet. Except for Tatupu, who lay motionless for 30 minutes.

"We felt bad for him, for anybody getting hurt," Castle linebacker Cory Daniel said. "It's not a good sight, being that long on the ground. Then the ambulance came."

Tatupu told the school trainer he had no feeling on his left side and was taken to Queen's Medical Center. He would regain feeling en route to the emergency room, but was diagnosed with having a badly bruised spine. He is able to walk now, and will begin physical therapy Tuesday.

Brandon Tatupu's prayers were answered. But that was just the start of something meaningful.

Daniel's family was concerned about Tatupu's well-being. After all, Leina Daniel has four sons involved in football and another who played for the Knights before graduating last spring. Leina wanted to send a gift basket to Tatupu, but wasn't sure how to get it to him. She remembered that Cory's Kapunahala Elementary teacher was Lois Takamori, the wife of McKinley athletic director Neal Takamori.

Through the third-party channel, the gift basket would find its way to the Tatupu family. The gesture touched Brandon's mother, Lorraine.

"I called to talk to Mrs. Daniel," Lorraine said. "I thanked her for the basket. I broke down in tears. I was overwhelmed that someone from Castle sent a basket. According to Mr. Takamori, it was a really big thing for the family to do."

Leina Daniel said Lorraine's call came as a pleasant surprise.

"I was very, very touched," Leina said. "Tearing. It was the first time I had spoken to her.

"Our hearts went out to their family. We have five sons of our own. It could've been anybody's kid. It could've even been my son."

The mothers hope to meet someday, ideally during the O'ahu Interscholastic Association playoffs, but their sons couldn't wait.

"I knew he was a good person from when he sent me the basket," Brandon Tatupu said of Cory Daniel. "Since, then I've been eager to meet him."

He got that chance yesterday at Castle High. The players didn't need an introduction; they hugged as soon as they met. Other Castle players who recognized Tatupu greeted him and asked how he was doing.

Tatupu is recovering, but he will never forget "the most scary feeling of my life."

"Being on the ground, not being able to move the left side of my body, is scary," Tatupu said. "I thought I was going die, honestly. That's mainly what I was thinking: I hope I'm not paralyzed."

When the seriousness of the injury became apparent to Lorraine Tatupu, she left her seat for the field.

"It was so hard to see my son in tears," she said. "He's a big guy, never cries out for his mom. I could tell he was afraid. I was frantic myself, but I didn't want to let him see it. When he told me he had no movement on his left side, I was speechless. I didn't know what to say."

Tatupu wore a neck brace for 2 1/2 weeks. He said his doctor was ready to clear him to play recently, but changed her mind when he experienced some residual pain. He said she would reevaluate him after a session of physical therapy.

Lorraine Tatupu said she has been touched by the McKinley students, faculty and staff, as well as other parents, who have showed their support with phone calls and gifts. She said she hoped her son could one day give something back to the community.

The two players said the incident put the sport they love into perspective.

"When something like this happens, then you realize it's just a football game," said Daniel, also a senior.

"It really opened up my eyes," said Tatupu, known as Puka (a childhood nickname he said that means chubby). "When I was just playing, it was football's going get me this, football's going get me that. Now, I put most of efforts in academics, trying to get into college and not relying on football much."

Meanwhile, he knows he experienced the true meaning of sportsmanship.

"I'm just glad that everyone can get along after playing a game of football," Tatupu said. "Football is a big thing around these parts. I'm just happy that players can get along off the field, too. We may seem like we hate each other on the field, but just to know that we can get along off the field is good."