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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Word of Life's Onosai makes her own mark

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

Careena Onosai wasn't forced into athletics by father Joe, a former standout athlete at University High and the University of Hawai'i. Careena will compete for the UCLA track and field program next season.

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Joe Onosai played fullback and helped lead the 1982 Pac-Five football team to its first title in the Prep Bowl, the predecessor to the state tournament. He was The Advertiser's ILH Offensive Player of the Year that season.

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Onosai played for the University of Hawai'i from 1983-86. He was a second team all-Western Athletic Conference offensive lineman in 1985 and 1986. He was drafted in the sixth round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1987.

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In her first official discus competition of the season last Friday after missing over a month's worth of events with a stress fracture in her lower back Word of Life Christian Academy senior Careena Onosai flung the saucer 126 feet, 7 inches.

That mark would have placed her third in last year's state championship meet.

"I was trying to go for 130," said Onosai, the two-time defending state champion. "It might have been jitters."

Aiming high has gotten Onosai to where she is today, as one of Hawai'i's premier high school student-athletes. A second-team Advertiser All-State selection in volleyball, a first-team Interscholastic League of Honolulu Division II basketball all-star, an honor student with a 3.5 cumulative grade point average, recipient of a full track and field scholarship to UCLA.

"Careena always was a hard worker and she had the desire to be the best," said father, Joe, a former standout athlete himself at University High and UH. "On the basketball court, she would always be the one spending another hour practicing her shooting and dribbling."

Her intense drive to succeed belies a mellow, easy-going personality that churns out at least three or four smiles per minute. But she and Joe make it clear that her athletic motivation comes from within and not from her dad, who saw a potential NFL career suddenly cut short by a neck injury as a rookie during training camp.

"He just encouraged us (in sports), he never put pressure on me," Careena said. "But from him, I learned that you really have to work hard to make it to the top. He inspired me to work hard, and I also learned how to be humble."

KEEPING THE FAITH

Joe Onosai's fascinating athletic career took him from the housing projects of Kuhio Park Terrace to the Dallas Cowboys training camp, to the doorstep of becoming the World's Strongest Man (he made it as high as third in the competition).

In between, he starred as a fullback for Pac-Five, being named The Advertiser's ILH Offensive Player of the Year in 1982 and helping the Wolfpack win their first Prep Bowl championship that season. He earned a scholarship to UH, where he moved to the offensive line and garnered second-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors in 1985 and 1986.

Onosai was drafted by the Cowboys in the sixth round of the 1987 NFL Draft, but during training camp he suffered a serious neck injury and doctors advised him to quit football.

"My whole life was (geared toward) making the NFL, but that dream was cut short," said Onosai, who is now Word of Life's athletic director and assistant pastor. "But what I learned is that who you become as a person is more important than whatever achievements or honors you get. The lessons you learn in athletics will take you farther than any trophy or award.

"So that's what I try to pass on to my kids when you face adversity, keep fighting. Sometimes things in life don't work out the way you want, but don't quit. Just press forward."

A NAME FOR HERSELF

With Joe's popularity in Hawai'i from his football playing days and exposure from the ESPN broadcasts of him tugging tractor trailers and performing other spectacular feats in the World's Strongest Man competitions, Careena and sisters Talia and Shayna could not escape immediate recognition from an early age.

"Everywhere I'd go, people would be, 'Hey, you're Joe's daughter,' " Careena said.

When older sister Talia began playing organized sports in the sixth grade, Careena followed. By the end of her freshman year, she had made a name for herself by scoring 37 points, grabbing 18 rebounds and blocking six shots in a varsity Division II game against Hawai'i Baptist.

Careena was named the league's Co-Player of the Year that season and also won the ILH discus and shot put titles.

As a sophomore, she drew national attention when she won the state discus championship with a throw of 151-9, just short of the meet record set in 1982. Onosai's throw ended up being the sixth-best in the nation.

"It was registered in a national magazine, Track and Field News, so after that she started getting bombarded with college letters," Joe said. "She got letters from big schools like Auburn and Clemson, but she wasn't interested. All she wanted to do was play volleyball for UH."

Careena had received some volleyball offers from "mid-Division I" schools, Joe said, but perennial national powerhouse Hawai'i did not have any available for her. A year ago, she agreed to walk on to the team anyway.

In the meantime, Careena attracted strong track and field interest from Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Penn State and Louisiana State. Finally, UCLA made her an offer she could not refuse.

"I really love volleyball, but I realized that I probably would stop playing after college," Onosai said. "In track, there's a lot of opportunities after college maybe even the Olympics. Plus, UCLA is a great academic school; my parents always stressed academics."

Joe Onosai said he hopes his daughter blazes a trail for future athletes at Word of Life, a school of 544 kids in grades K-12 located in Kaka'ako. Careena said she's happy her success helps bring recognition to the campus.

"Our athletic program is helping to get our school's name out there," Careena said. "We're still underdogs, but now more people know about us."

Reach Wes Nakama at wnakama@honoluluadvertiser.com.