Damien recruit calls big play on signing day
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By Leila Wai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Leila Wai
The pained expression frozen on Michael Sipili's face all morning finally melted into a smile when he announced the decision that had been weighing heavily for months.
"Sorry to disappoint you guys, but I'm going to be a Buffalo," said Sipili, a Damien Memorial School senior linebacker who declared in front of his entire student body his commitment to the University of Colorado Buffaloes football team, capping a daylong ordeal and months of speculation and indecision by switching his school of choice.
Sipili was one of thousands of high school seniors around the nation signing national letters of intent yesterday, the first day student-athletes in sports such as football and soccer can sign a document that binds them to a school.
Signing day has become a production in recent years, with ceremonies yesterday at several sites. Even ESPN2 televised a signing day segment. Rivals.com, a popular national recruit-tracking Web site, reported a record projected 58 million page views yesterday.
Sipili's decision — before 500 students assembled for the big ceremony — was a surprise.
In December he verbally committed to Oregon State, but after speaking to Colorado coaches he began having doubts. The thought of switching gnawed at him.
Although Sipili was leaning toward Colorado all morning yesterday, he made the split-second decision when, "I saw the two guys next to me sign, and I knew I had to make up my mind."
Sipili was joined by classmates and teammates Kealoha Pilares and Lolomana Mikaele, the first time Damien had three signees.
As Mikaele signed with Arizona and Pilares with the Air Force Academy Prep School, a nervous Sipili sat with legs shaking — alternately looking up at the the ceiling and down at the floor. He leaned over until his forehead nearly hit the table moments before speaking. He then made his announcement, signing with Colorado.
Relief settled in as congratulations came from family and friends, and Mayor Mufi Hannemann — and from the satisfaction that he and his mother no longer need to worry about finances.
He is the first from his family to go to college, and knew earning a scholarship would likely be the only way. The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder receives financial aid for Damien. He has two older brothers in the Air Force, Simoo, 22, and Ionatana, 20; and two younger sisters, Celeste, 15, and Kimberly, 8.
"Michael knows I don't have enough money," his mother Taui said. "When he comes to school, he doesn't buy lunch. Sometimes he'll buy a cupcake that is 75 cents. He's like that. Most of the time I ask him for help. Whenever he sees me needing, he'll say, 'Mom, I have.' And he'll give me the money I gave him."
While he knew financially he would be fine no matter what school he chose — he was offered a full ride from both colleges, which includes tuition and fees, books, housing and meals and can run into the tens of thousands of dollars — it was a decision that could impact him for the next four or five years of his life, and beyond.
Sipili said he had difficulty sleeping the night before. When he finally achieved that seemingly impossible feat around 2 a.m., he woke up with the same doubts and questions.
"Last night, he told me he is kind of stressed," Taui said. "He went upstairs, came downstairs, went outside. I told him, 'Listen to your heart. Whatever you decide, I will agree.' "
He sat down for a breakfast of toast and eggs at 7 a.m., and began fielding phone calls. The first was from an Internet recruiting site, the second from an Oregon State coach.
With the sound of SpongeBob SquarePants from a TV in the background, he listened carefully, then said quietly, "Right now, Colorado."
After he hung up the phone, his mom asked, "Are you sure, final?" And he still couldn't answer her definitively.
Taui gathered his letters and mailing envelopes — FedEx for Colorado and UPS for Oregon State — as Michael discussed his dilemma.
"I want to go to Colorado, but I already committed to Oregon State," he said.
His third phone call of the early morning was from a Colorado coach, whom he spoke with as he made his way out the door of their Kamehameha IV complex and to the family van.
He arrived at school, went to the computer lab to print out his homework, then to homeroom and religion class, all the while never looking completely comfortable.
At 8:30 a.m., Sipili, along with Pilares and Mikaele, met family and school administrators in a room for breakfast and preassembly instructions. There, Sipili spoke to football co-head coach Dean Nakagawa in hushed tones with his back facing the room.
"He was just talking about the final details," Nakagawa said. "I just gave him as much information as I could."
Brother Greg O'Donnell, president of Damien Memorial School, gave them their final instructions, and the group made its way to the gymnasium where the three players were about to make life-defining decisions.
"It feels good," Sipili said after yesterday's ceremony. "It's just exciting for me right now. I said a little prayer and went with my instincts."
Reach Leila Wai at firstname.lastname@example.org.