By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — It’s not hard to have a big game when you have your own personal cheering section.
Growing up in California’s Union City, Kalafitoni Pole was always family-oriented. Active in his church, and with parents who consistently attended his games, it’s no surprise that the Washington State defensive tackle had his first two fumble recoveries of the season when he returned to Northern California last Saturday to face Cal.
After all, there was a group of nearly 60 of his friends and family, siting together and rooting him on.
“You need to play more physical.”
Pole shakes his head at the ritual pregame text. What can he say? His dad has come to every wrestling match, track meet, basketball, football, and soccer game since he was little.
Through the camaraderie of his teammates and the love of his family and friends, Pole is able to succeed because a substantial support system constantly has his back. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the jovial, 302-pound man-child was very much alone.
Pole and Sekope Kaufusi are family. Not teammate family, or church family, but family. They are cousins, and grew up near each other. When Pole committed to play defensive line at WSU in 2010 he knew there would be at least one kind face; Kaufusi had become a Cougars linebacker the year before.
“He was a big part of me, here,” Pole said. “We spent all our time together and all that. We grew up around each other, you know? So it was like a home away from home.”
The cousins excelled. In 2011, Pole started three games at defensive tackle, and Kaufusi earned a reputation as a big-hitting linebacker, getting team defensive Player of the Week honors after notching eight tackles against San Diego State.
They were each other’s rocks both on and off the field, and they were the future of WSU’s defense.
That vision was shattered when Kaufusi was dismissed from the Cougars in March 2012 for violating team rules. No longer could Pole put his hand on the ground in a defensive stance, knowing that he had family behind him to watch his back. The next season Pole played more snaps but started just two games, and couldn’t yet replace what he had lost in Kaufusi.
“It did, it affected him greatly,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said. “It took him a little bit to get over but those are the things that he has to understand. These opportunities are not guaranteed. If they’re not prepared, don’t do right, they’re not going to have it. He’s recovered from that and it’s a life lesson.”
For his part, Pole externally expressed a more communal concern: The defense had lost one of its stars.
“His presence on the team was huge,” Pole explained “He was a great player, played with great intensity. When you take a player like that away it does impact the team.”
While the coaches understood the impact of losing his cousin, they also saw the opportunity for a teaching moment. The bonds with teammates can bear the same strength as familial ties and for the Cougars to have success, the collective must come first.
“Some of those things you don’t have a guide for,” Salave’a said. “You’ve got to be there for the kids and support them, but you’ve also got to know that this is the way things are supposed to be. You signed up here to go to school and play ball.”
The cousins are still in constant contact, and according to Pole, they text “all the time.” But now Pole has plenty of support. He’s a popular player and student, a musician who sings as he enters press conferences. He’s enjoying a breakout season, making an impact on the field by sacking quarterbacks, blocking kicks, and, of course, recovering fumbles.
His cousin may not be around to hang out with anymore, but it hasn’t affected his play in awhile. And why should it? Pole has plenty of family all around him.