June 13, 2019

A Tribute To Dad

Father’s Day, of course, is just around the corner. For one middle child in a family of 11, that day, what it represents, its personal resonance, isn’t a once-in-365-days thing.

That day, for him, rolls around every day of every month in every year.

Pastor Sione Kneubuhl has been gone 13 years now, ever since the middle child was attending eighth grade in American Samoa and a regular in the choir at his dad’s baptist church.

“Even though he’s not here, the things he taught me ring in my ears,’’ that child is saying, now all grown up, 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds of him, leaning beside the field-side door to the Calgary Stampeders’ locker room at McMahon Stadium. “They come back to me when I need them. Words to live by.

“That means a lot.

“We have a big family. Nine boys and two girls. And my dad, he was the rock. Pretty much the foundation. Whatever he said, went.”

Offensive lineman William Nila Kasitati laughs – as he tends to, a lot, it seems – and the smile is as wide, as welcoming, as vista-like as the view peering out from his birthplace onto the azure expanse of the nearby South Pacific Ocean.

“Well, after he’d cleared it with my mom, of course …”

The road to here, to now, to the CFL and the Stampeders, has been a singular one for Kasitati, wending its way as it has through American Samoa, a family move to Texas, the University of Oklahoma and finally here, to foot of the Rocky Mountains.

“It’s definitely been a trip,’’ says Kasitati, who speaks Tongan and a smattering of Samoan.

“I never would imagined any of this. Honestly. Coming from Samoa, even going to college was a lot to dream of.

“Now to be here … and it’s just started.”

When Kasitati first took up football in his sophomore year of high school, every day he’d spend 25 cents, often searching the ground for any lost change – not an insignificant sum for the time and his family’s circumstances – for bus fare to attend a school on the other side of the island. The last bus left for home at 6 p.m., meaning a lot of nights, due to to practice running late, he’d miss it and left no alternative but to trek 10 miles back on foot, lugging his helmet and shoulder pads.

“I was playing football,” he says by way explanation. “So it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. My mom didn’t want me to play because of our situation at the time. But it was a passion of mine.

“The walks … they weren’t bad. Gave me time to think. About school. About football. About life.

“For a long time I wondered what it was that I loved about football. And after a while it came to me: Football reminds me of my family. That brotherhood, that bond, you share.

“And family means … everything to me.

“It’s the biggest drive I have, in everything to do. Having so many brothers around me at home growing up, let’s just say it was never boring.

“And now, with these guys – he waves a hand to indicate his football siblings trooping into the room – “I have even more.

“It’s the kind of mindset that I try and take on in football. Because at the end of the day, these guys are my brothers, too, the guys that I play with, the guys that I line up with. I take that onto the field. Especially playing a position like offensive line, where you have to protect.”

There were days during his youth, many, that Kasitati remembers returning home to an all-but-empty refrigerator.

“We didn’t have too much but I remember my dad saying all the time: ‘We may not have a lot but we do have gifts from God.’ Whether it was our talents, each other, whatever it might be.

“I took that to heart.”

When Kasitati was in eighth grade, the unthinkable became reality: His father got sick due to the family’s poor living conditions and passed away two weeks after being admitted to the island’s hospital. Upon being taken to ICU, his mom Ana Kasitati brought each of the children to say their goodbyes.

Sione told his middle child to take care of his mom, to look out for her. Made him promise.

“It was hard when we got to speak with him but definitely inspiring, coming from my dad,’’ says Kasitati now. “What he said to me, to each of us, well, it’s one of those things that’ll stick with all of us forever.”

The middle child has been a man of his word.

“He’s working so hard to be there, to be where is,’’ mom says, from home in Euless, Tex. “I’m proud of everything he’s achieved. We all are. He has a big heart to do it. He did sacrifice a lot, starting at the island of Samoa, going to Texas, then Oklahoma and now he’s far away from me.

“Sometimes I’ve wanted to tell him to give it up but he’s doing what he loves.

“Nila loves to be around a lot of people. He loves to be around us, around his aunts and uncles and everybody. He gets that same feeling from football. His teammates make him feel welcome, make him feel at home.

“I have nine sons and I love them all equally. But Nila is different, somehow. He’ll tell me everything about his life, what’s going on. He loves to ask questions about my life, what it was like for me growing up and things like that.

“My other sons talk to me but not like Nila talks to me.”

Did Ana have any idea where Calgary might be when her son packed his bags and headed north.

“I don’t think so,’’ she confesses, with a silvery laugh.

Signed by the Stamps on May 10, 2018 following NFL stints with Washington and Jacksonville, Kasitati made his Calgary debut in Week 14 of last season, eventually playing four games, two at centre and two at right tackle.

“The speed of the game here in Canada was an adjustment,’’ he acknowledges. “And playing at a new position was challenging. I’d played at centre once in college but never at tackle. Tackle’s a different world. You’ve got speed and athletes on the outside, monsters on the inside.

“But I haven’t had too hard a time adjusting.”

During this camp, Kasitati been transitioning to right tackle full time.

“He’s in a competition with (Justin) Renfrow and Derek (Dennis) and Leon (Johnson), who’s been hurt for a while,’’ says Stamps’ O-line Pat Del Monaco.

“We’ve wanted to see a progression from him and he’s showing it.

“Moving to tackle means adjusting to the speed of the ends, their lack of consistency in the pash rush – inside, outside, speed, power. There’s a lot to deal with. You have to have a consistent spot to set on and work from, and that’s what he’s done.

“He’s got a really good punch, the timing of that punch, and I think that’s where I think he’s starting to grow as a player.”

At 25, there’s still plenty of room, ample time, for that.

“When my agent called me about last year about the tryout in Dallas, I wasn’t so sure,’’ Kasitati freely admits. “I was in Hawaii at the the time spending time with my family.

“But I decided to take it and I’m glad I did.

“I’m here now and I love it. People are so welcoming.

“It’s been a blessing.”

Saturday, 5 p.m., marks the season Stampeders season opener, another opportunity for Nila Kasitati to bond with his second set set of brothers, his extended family.

Sunday, of course, just happens to be Father’s Day.

“That’s right,’’ says his mom, “Father’s Day is coming up.

“You know, I can’t think of a better Father’s Day gift than if our team wins this game.”