Jaylen Gonzales was sure he wanted to play football at Whitworth, but he wasn’t sure how he would pay for it.
As a Division III program, Whitworth doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. Coaches can point players toward other kinds of scholarships, but that’s it.
Gonzales went to his counselor at Waianae (Hawaii) High School, Desiré DeSoto, who happened to be a Whitworth graduate. He asked her if there was anything she could do.
As it turned out, there was.
Later that fall, in 2017, Gonzales joined the Whitworth football team and enrolled at the university on a scholarship that didn’t exist until he started asking about it. Now there are seven former Waianae players on the Whitworth football team.
“If it wasn’t for that scholarship, I wouldn’t be here today, no doubt,” Gonzales said. “And I’m sure (that’s the case) for a lot of the boys, too.”
Fellow juniors J.J. To’oto’o, Solo Grey and Rudyjay Keopuhiwa joined Gonzales in the first class to receive the scholarship, which is funded by a grant from the Kamehameha Foundation. This year, each of those players has made his mark.
While Gonzales was an All-Northwest Conference first-team selection last year, receiver To’oto’o is fourth on the team in receptions (nine) and third in touchdowns (three) this season.
Grey, a 5-foot-9, 215-pound defensive lineman, is tied for the team lead in both sacks (three) and tackles for loss (six). Fellow lineman Keopuhiwa is right behind him with a sack and four tackles for loss.
To’oto’o said he looked into attending and playing at George Fox – Whitworth’s opponent Saturday at the Pine Bowl – but the chance to play with his high school teammates and to potentially receive a scholarship wasn’t one he wanted to pass up.
“It was more of the boys reaching out to me,” To’oto’o said of his high school and now college teammates. “I knew about the school and was going to apply because all of them were going.”
Since those initial four, three other Waianae student-athletes have joined them on the roster: sophomore cornerback Braiden Ayala, freshman defensive back Jimbo Joseph and starting offensive lineman Cody Bollig, who is from Waianae but attended Kamehameha High School in Honolulu.
There are 18 players from Hawaii on the Whitworth roster. In the NWC, only Pacific Lutheran (with 24) has more.
“They bring a lot to our team with their energy and their passion,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said. “We are so blessed to have them.”
Whitworth’s connection to Waianae goes beyond those players. Walter Young, the high school’s football coach from 2015-18, was a 2003 Whitworth graduate and football player. Whitworth’s education program has sent students to teach at Waianae during January term since 2015.
Alan Stanfield, Whitworth’s sixth-year offensive coordinator, has been the team’s primary recruiter in Hawaii and has attended the last five Life Champion Bowls, a Hawaii high school all-star game. That has grown the Pirates’ presence there considerably. Stanfield knows of the connections with Waianae but doesn’t go there specifically because of that, he said.
“We recruit, and if there’s a guy (at Waianae) that’s a good fit for us, we encourage them if they’re a good fit for that scholarship to apply for it, but we’re hands off with everything,” Stanfield said, pointing out there are Whitworth players on a variety of other needs-based scholarships.
Stanfield said he will cede some of his recruiting responsibilities in Hawaii to Andrew Faaumu, Whitworth’s second-year offensive line coach. Faaumu played at the University of Hawaii.
“(Stanfield has) worked really hard to foster relationships. We have lots of alums over there, and now having Andrew (Faaumu), who’s from there and knows everybody, that’s just added fuel to the fire,” Sandberg said. “They have a coach (Faaumu) who gets their jokes and their food, and it’s just awesome because as much as we try we don’t fully, and he does, and that’s been really good.”
For Gonzales and To’oto’o, as well as other Hawaiians on the team like Seth Fukushima, that sense of family – something important in Hawaii, Faaumu said – was apparent as soon as they got on campus.
“It was more the family aspect,” Fukushima, a senior offensive lineman from Hilo. “I felt a very tight connection here.”
“The biggest thing growing up back home is you kinda understand that your individual self is never as important as the group,” Faaumu said. “So, I think with the message that coach Rod (Sandberg) and the culture he has instilled in Whitworth, it marries up really well.”
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