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EWU’s Will Katoa: Don’t let the smile fool you

Will Katoa will be playing against his hometown team on Saturday.  (EWU)
Will Katoa will be playing against his hometown team on Saturday. (EWU)

Even at 310 pounds, the tough-guy look doesn’t come easily for Will Katoa.

Katoa is the run-stopper in the middle of the Eastern Washington defensive line, but the only immovable object is an ever-present smile.

“Off the field, he never stops smiling,” assistant coach Ryan Sawyer said.

And why not? Four years ago, Katoa left behind a big family in Utah and found a bigger one in Cheney.

It all came together a year ago in Ogden. With Eastern clinging to a 6-point lead and the Wildcats driving to midfield in the final minute of the game, it was Katoa who recovered a fumble to seal the first conference win of the season for the eventual Big Sky Conference champions.

A minute later, the Katoa clan – about two dozen – came out of the stands for a gigantic photo op.

“That was really special,” said Katoa, who on Saturday will get a chance to make it four in a row against his hometown team.

“I can’t wait,” Katoa said.

Katoa, who’s of Tongan descent, was born in New Zealand, but the family moved to Utah when he was 3, mainly because his grandmother wanted to rejoin her sister, a Mormon missionary, back in Salt Lake City.

Like many Polynesians, Katoa favored rugby, the game he learned from his father and older brother. But his love for football grew along with his weight. Up to 260 pounds by his senior year, he was second-team all-state selection on offense and defense at Judge Memorial High in Salt Lake City.

During his recruiting trip in 2008, Katoa felt at right at home in Cheney.

“They treated me like family when I first came here,” Katoa said of trip that saw him room with future teammate Anthony Larry.

After a redshirt year in 2009, Katoa saw extensive playing time for the 2010 national championship team. “That was a great feeling,” said Katoa, who followed that up in the spring of 2011 by being named Eastern’s co-most improved defensive player.

The 6-foot tall Katoa has appeared in 42 games in his Eastern career, seldom starting but seeing plenty of action as the Eagles rotate up to 10 defensive linemen each game. Along the way, he learned from the likes of Tyler Jolley, Evan Cook and Renard Williams.

From Jolley and Sawyer, he learned that being fundamentally sound is more important than being big or “freakishly fast,” Katoa said.

Sawyer prizes the fact that Katoa “knows what his goals are and doesn’t worry about stats, and that he’s seldom going to hear his number called.”

He hasn’t suffered a major injury, but has dealt with all the aches and pains that scream out for him to take a break. And he’s ignored them.

“I don’t take practices off,” Katoa said. “If I’m not hurt, I have to practice.”

The adjustment this year to starting was bigger than Katoa first appreciated. “I have to get mentally prepare faster than I would when I was coming in second or third,” Katoa said. “And now my backup is watching, figuring out how good their O-line is, off watching me.”

Now in his final season, Katoa is a starter alongside Andru Pulu, whose ancestry is Samoan. “It’s fun to play with another Polynesian,” Katoa said. “I feel like there’s a bond there that will help us out, and I feel like I have my brother next to me.”

This week, following Saturday’s loss at Sam Houston State, Katoa stopped by to chat with Sawyer.

“He asked me,” Saywer said, “‘What else can I do to help this football team – what more can I do?’”

Katoa said that getting better as a team “is all mental. We are still trying to adjust, but it’s going to take more practice.”