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Lineman plays for more than just Crater

Losing a loved one is never an easy experience.

When it comes on suddenly and unexpectedly, it only amplifies your emotional state.

On this subject I can truly empathize. It was two years ago Tuesday that I lost one of my brothers and closest allies in a shock to the system that still shakes me today.

Crater senior lineman Nakoa Kahaulelio unfortunately has had to endure a similar setback in his life, but it’s a loving understanding he holds in his heart and the supporting nature of his teammates that have allowed him to push past his painful loss.

In the early morning hours after the Comets’ season-opening loss to Oakdale High in California, Nakoa’s 21-year-old brother Paioa suffered a heart attack in his hotel room and was lost. Only hours earlier, the brothers and their father Nathan had been together following the Comets’ loss and all was well with the world.

“He was born with a hole in his heart and it came with problems but it was never expected to be this bad,” said the 17-year-old Nakoa. “It was not expected at all, it was just random.”

Nathan and Paioa had been living in Santa Rosa, California, with Nakoa’s uncle but made the trip to see the 6-foot-2, 250-pound offensive tackle open his senior campaign on Sept. 2. The game didn’t go as the Comets had hoped, but that didn’t deter the Kahaulelio family from sharing some laughs, smiles and hugs before having to separate.

“At first my brother’s arm went numb and my Dad sat him down and he was OK for a while and doing good and talking,” Nakoa said of the scene in a Sacramento-area hotel. “My Dad gave him water and then my Dad said all of a sudden he stopped breathing.”

Paioa was rushed to the hospital but was unable to be revived.

“It was especially hard on me because he was my brother and because I knew he always had my back,” Nakoa said of his only sibling.

What wasn’t hard, however, was rejoining his Crater teammates after only a couple days following an emergency return trip to California with his mother LaVonne. When the Comets played — and won — in Week 2 at South Albany, Nakoa and his teammates wrote “R.I.P. 9/3/16” on taped wrists as a tribute to Paioa.

“It helped me a lot to have that kind of support,” Nakoa said of his teammates, who have rallied around him during his recent challenges. “I’ve never been a very emotional guy and once I saw that, it just made me feel really good, not just for me but mostly for my brother and how many people were supporting him.”

As for getting back to football so soon, Nakoa said the transition during his grieving process was a natural one.

“It’s just been kind of easy for me to go back because I believe that he’s still with me and still watching my games,” he said. “It’s tough because I miss him but it’s kind of easy to get back into rhythm because I feel like he’s still watching over me.”

Rallying around the affable lineman was certainly not difficult for those in the Crater program.

“He’s such a wonderful young man and such a nice nice kid,” said Comets head coach John Beck, “and then to have that tragedy happen to him and his family is just heartbreaking and a horrible situation out of nowhere.”

“Handling it the way he has has really been an amazing deal,” added Beck. “He just has unbelievable maturity. There’s no way I could’ve handled it the way he has, no way. And to keep going to school and focusing and even to play football and not take more time off, I just don’t know how he does it. That’s a real testament to his family values and what his parents have taught him and his upbringing has been outstanding to be able to handle all this like he has.”

Nakoa especially credits teammates and best friends Austin Kramer and Bryce Cwiklinski for being there for him through it all, and said it was comforting to receive a number of texts from his classmates while at Paioa’s recent funeral.

“He had so many people in both states who loved him,” Nakoa said of his brother. “A lot of people from Oregon came down to his funeral and came to support him.”

Nakoa said he’s comfortable talking about his brother and open to answer any questions people may have because, most of all, he just wants Paioa to receive the credit he deserves.

“Basically I just want people to know how great of a guy he was,” said Nakoa. “He was just a very supportive person to anyone he cared about, and everyone loved him. He made everyone he’s ever met happy and he really taught me how to live. That’s the main part of it, he taught me how to be a man.”

“It’s not a lot of sadness right now for me,” he added, “I’m just looking forward to living my life for him.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Nakoa Kahaulelio