Papalii family builds strong father-son bonds through football


For those not versed in the language of football, sitting at a table of Papaliis can make you feel like you are in a foreign country. Blitz packages, blocking schemes and hot routes are all topics of conversation at the dinner table.

Kealakehe coach Sam Papalii has been around the game of football longer than he can remember. His sons, Max and Tai Papalii, have been linked to the game since the day they came into the world.

“When these guys were born I was coaching at the University of Arizona,” Sam said. “They were both born on the weekend, right in the heart of the season.“

Since then, football and family have been intertwined for the Papaliis.

“I have been coaching them from as early as they could run,” Sam said. “Football is simply an extension of what we do — it’s part of our family.”

Sam graduated from Saint Louis School on Oahu and then went on to play at De Anza College, a two-year school in Cupertino, Calif. — a school that his youngest son Max would end up playing at years later.

There, two of the most important events in his life happened. He met his wife, Candice, and once his playing days were over, he got his first chance to coach the game he loved.

Sam then rode the coaching carousel all over the college football world. His resume includes stops at Arizona, Utah, Iowa State, Hawaii and UNLV.

In 1998, Sam was let go from UNLV but describes the situation as a blessing in disguise because it gave his family a chance to put down roots on the Big Island — something both he and his wife wanted for their kids.

Soon after, Sam got the Kealakehe head coaching job and with that came the opportunity to coach his sons.

The bond built from a father coaching his sons cannot be measured by wins or losses; however, there was a lot of winning going on during that period of time for the Papaliis.

Three generations of the Papalii family were on the field when Kealakehe won the school’s first BIIF football championship in 2004 and then again in 2005 — Sam as head coach, Tai and Max as players and grandfather Max Kuhns on the staff as well.

“The three years I coached them in high school was just a blessing,” Sam said. “You have some arguments on the field, just like you do as a family, but I thought it really built on my father-son relationship with the boys.”

The ride didn’t end there though.

The Papalii trio now take the field as part of the same Kealakehe coaching staff. Max coaches the running backs and slot receivers, Tai works with the defensive backs and Sam runs the show.

“I’m always talking football with these guys,” Sam said. “I’m always open, and they know that. With Tai, I’m talking coverage and with Max it’s mostly offensive football.”

Not a lot has changed for the Papalii boys from when they were players — just now they are not suiting up and their dad is teaching them a new set of lessons to make them the best coaches they can be.

“He tells us all the time, it’s not what you know, it’s how you convey it to your players,” Tai said. “He also tells us things he used to when we were players, things like to always work your hardest, not to settle and to strive for a goal. Lessons we can use not only in football, but in life”

Max also continues to learn lessons daily from his dad while on the job.

“I try to learn as much as I can from him every day we are at the field,” Max said. “Anything he tells me I listen. I try to emulate what he does. He has probably forgotten more things about football than I know right now.

“That is true,” Sam agreed, grinning.

Max is a full-time coach on his father’s staff, while Tai is finishing up his education at the University of Hawaii and is the top candidate to land a coaching internship at Hawaii this fall.

“It’s not a destination, it’s a journey,” Sam said. “There’s really not an end. Football is in our blood.”