Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now
Sports >  WSU football

From Pālolo Valley to the Palouse: Washington State starting freshman QB Jayden de Laura overcame daunting odds

When night falls on the Pālolo community of Honolulu, many of whom live in the Pālolo Valley Housing complex slip outside in order to escape the tight, muggy spaces of the low-income residential building tucked against the lush, green hills of Honolulu’s Koolau Range.

With no air conditioning, it’s how they cool off. It’s how they gather. It’s how they engage in the seedy activities Jacob and Malinda de Laura spent 17 years trying to shelter their oldest son from. With a wide network of relatives who pitched in to help, Jacob and Malinda ran a tight ship and always practiced the right values. But it wasn’t always easy to protect Jayden when others weren’t doing the same.

Young kids strolled around unsupervised at 1 and 2 in the morning, mingling with drug dealers and drinkers. Teenagers with all the wrong intentions huddled in a nearby park. Jayden’s friends would call his name through a bedroom window, trying to lure him outside – a tug-of-war between right and wrong that every adolescent struggles with at some point.

“At night, everybody’s out in the street,” said Jayden’s uncle, Mel de Laura. “When I take him home and we’re going up to his house, he kind of lived all the way in the back and everybody’s parked on both sides and everybody’s outside because it’s so hot, nobody’s in their homes.

“Yeah, it’s a trip, man.”

If you punch “Pālolo Valley” into a search engine, the first thing that comes up is “Pālolo Valley homes.” The next: “Pālolo Valley crime.” A 2016 article from Honolulu Civil Beat claims the area is “making progress,” but in many ways still “overshadowed by its past.” Community crime is down, but gang violence still exists, the article suggests, and much of it centers around activity in the public housing projects where the de Lauras reside.

In other words, Jayden de Laura had an overwhelmingly better chance of falling into the Pālolo trap than he did of excelling as a high school football star, playing his way off the island with a full-ride college scholarship – his voucher to a better life – and subsequently becoming the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in Washington State history.

Those odds may have been longer than even the journey across the Pacific that de Laura took from Pālolo Valley to the Palouse, where he’s settled in as well as any young quarterback the school has seen, and will have an opportunity to demonstrate it on regional television when Washington State opens the season Saturday against Oregon State at 7:30 p.m. PST on FS1.

“He doesn’t come from a lot,” father Jacob de Laura said. “We live in the housing, so the biggest part was being honest and not letting him get caught up in this kind of life in here. It’s easy to get caught up in the lifestyle in here and a lot of kids really don’t make it. He was lucky, and I don’t think he takes that for granted.”

De Laura’s full name won’t fit on the back of the white jersey he’ll wear at Reser Stadium, and you can forgive the FS1 analysts if they decide to forgo repeating it at any point during Saturday’s broadcast. It rolls off the tongue for Malinda – “Jayden Pukonakona ha’awi mai na makua ha ‘ele mai Kahiapo e wili ‘ia me ke aloha Peters de Laura” – and if there was any doubt, Jacob quickly assures, “I’ll have her text you the name.”

But the totality of de Laura’s journey to the mainland won’t be forgotten by the quarterback when he steps onto the field Saturday night – a moment that feels as big for WSU’s football program as it does for the island of Oahu, which has always stood proudly behind its local boys, and more specifically, the Pālolo neighborhood of Honolulu.

• • •

De Laura’s two-year run at Saint Louis, the distinguished Catholic school that claims a laundry list of top-flight college quarterbacks including Tua Tagovailoa, Marcus Mariota, Jason Gesser, Timmy Chang and Darnell Arceneaux, is well- documented at this point.

The path that led him there? Not as much.

Jacob de Laura was a former high school football player and Mel was a former slotback at Portland State, where he learned the run-and-shoot offense under Mouse Davis before playing briefly in the NFL and returning to the college game as a strength and conditioning coach for June Jones at Hawaii and SMU.

Jayden starting tossing footballs at 4 years old, and began playing flag football at the age of 7, albeit as a wide receiver. There was some initial resistance to the idea of playing quarterback, mainly because the young boy wanted to “score touchdowns” and had a hard time coming to grips with the idea of throwing passes to people who got to walk the ball into the end zone, rather than doing it himself.

He made the transition anyway and led an 8- and 9-year-old flag football team – the Texans – to the NFL FLAG Regionals in Houston and then the national championship in Florida. Nobody from Hawaii had ever accomplished the feat, but de Laura led his team to eight consecutive wins, using a version of the run-and-shoot offense that was tailored for Pee Wee players.

Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura learned to play football growing up in Honolulu.
Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura learned to play football growing up in Honolulu.

“When we took the field, we just spread it out and we started throwing the ball all over,” Jacob said. “So everybody was kind of shocked and I just told him, if he wants to play in high school and maybe even the next level, he’s going to have to get used to it.”

Koali Nishigaya, a true freshman receiver at the University of Hawaii who befriended de Laura at the age of 8 or 9 and played alongside him until both graduated from Saint Louis, explained “that’s when I knew he had so much potential in him.”

“He was always competitive, you could tell from a young age he wanted to play at the highest level,” Nishigaya said. “He always had that fire in him.”

By the time de Laura grew to the ripe age of 11, his father felt comfortable inviting him to adult flag football games at a local park. The young boy cut gracefully through the dirt field, putting the moves on grown men with jobs, families and mortgages, trying to detach the yellow piece of plastic hanging from his shorts.

• • •

Jacob and Malinda knew their son had a future, but that was also what worried them.

Of course they wanted Jayden to excel in something that would keep him out of the Pālolo neighborhood, and eventually move him out for good, but specialized quarterback training can be an expensive undertaking, with private lessons, camp fees and travel expenses that tend to be steeper when you live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Jacob works two full-time jobs, as an education assistant at a local middle school and hospital security officer, just to get his family by. Jayden has two younger brothers, Jayson and Jayxen, who are also aspiring football players.

So, when it came to covering the costs of Jayden’s pricey hobby, extended family members usually had to step in, accentuating the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“I think without that foundation he would’ve never made it,” Jacob said. “Whether it was grandparents help him pay for his trips, aunties and uncles. Everybody had a hand in getting him to where he’s at, and that’s what makes it so special and makes his support system so big.”

They estimate that some relative funded “almost every trip,” and even then, Jacob and Malinda were only willing to send their son to “a select few” – something that could’ve stunted his recruitment.

What if de Laura wasn’t good enough? What if he fell in with the wrong crowd despite their best efforts? What if he lost interest? Those were all questions that raced through the family’s mind as they pooled together funds to give their son the experience they felt he’d need to earn an opportunity in college.

“Is it worth it? Am I going to spend my last money sending you here and it’s not worth it?” Jacob said. “It was a lot of stress, but the result at the end, we can’t be more happy.”

• • •

Most of the men on Jacob’s side of the family had attended and played football at Damien High School, and it seemed shortsighted to send Jayden anywhere else. With freshmen unable to play at the varsity level, he was initially a quarterback, safety, kicker and punter for Damien’s “intermediate” team.

But de Laura’s career on the north side of Honolulu ended after just two games, when he dislocated his collarbone diving to make an interception. By the end of the year, the shrewd move seemed to be a transfer to Saint Louis, where de Laura could divert all of his attention to quarterback, learn under the Crusaders’ legendary coaching staff and vie for one of the most sought-after starting jobs in the country.

But he wasn’t going to do it at 6 feet and a meager 140 pounds.

De Laura couldn’t do anything about the former, but he and his village spent the better part of three years committed to the later. It just so happened that his uncle, Mel, was moving back to Oahu from Texas to work on the island’s light rail project.

A self-described weight room junkie who spent years working with college football players on strength and conditioning, Mel made it his personal project to pad his nephew’s frame with 40 to 50 pounds by the time he left for college. Jacob bought a 24 Hour Fitness membership for his son and Mel swung by the housing complex in Pālolo every day to pick Jayden up, usually after two- or three-hour football or basketball practices. Unless Saint Louis had a game, Jayden’s week nights ended at the gym.

“I said, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to do everything to cover your bones,” Mel said. “We want to put some meat on you and get you strong, and not get you hurt while we get you strong.”

With the exception of high-risk Olympic lifting, de Laura built just about every part of his body. It wasn’t about targeting a certain muscle group, but shaping the whole thing so he could withstand hits without being concerned about injuries.

Mel handled the strength training aspect of Jayden’s transformation. His grandmother, Allison, made sure he was well-nourished.

“I told her, this is a big joke, I said ‘You feed him, I’ll train him and grandpa will pay the bills,’ ” Mel recalled. “That was a big joke we all had going. So that’s what she did. She fed the kid and I trained the kid and my brother kind of took care of them financially, as far as helped them out with camps and going to different clinics and all that stuff, so that worked out good.”

De Laura ate carbs with more carbs, putting away bowls of rice and eggs – six eggs at a time often. He’d balance it with steak, Portuguese sausage and other sources of meaty protein, then ingest protein shakes whenever he and his uncle were at the gym.

By the time Mel’s work with the light rail project finished, meaning a return home to Texas, his project was nearly finished. De Laura had bulked up to 193 pounds. When the two talked a few weeks after de Laura moved to Pullman, he reported to his uncle he’d peaked at 203.

“Every once in a while, somebody comes along that’s special and he looks just a little different,” Mel said.

“He’s got those intangibles, and that kid is like that.”

• • •

When Gesser left Saint Louis, he led to the Cougars to an appearance in the Rose Bowl. Arceneaux led Utah to 11-2 as a starter and won the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl. At Hawaii, Chang became the NCAA’s career passing leader. Mariota won the Heisman Trophy at Oregon while setting a multitude of Pac-12 records. Tagovailoa guided Alabama to a national championship. Chevan Cordeiro, though still young, is already 5-1 in six career starts at Hawaii.

No high school in California, Texas or Florida can boast a quarterback pipeline as robust as the one that’s run through Honolulu’s Saint Louis for the past 30-plus years. De Laura, who accomplished something that none of his predecessors did by winning consecutive state championships without losing a game, is the next in line.

“I think Washington State’s lucky to get a guy like Jayden, and he’s a competitor,” said Ron Lee, the longtime Saint Louis offensive coordinator who recently replaced his brother, Cal, as head coach. “He’ll compete. They’re not scared. Our quarterbacks that come out of Saint Louis, they’re not scared.”

That’s largely because they trust their preparation. The quarterbacks listed above all carry genetic gifts that can’t be taught on a whiteboard, but Saint Louis has accentuated their development by making sure they know how to read defensive coverage. Film sessions, involving both quarterbacks and receivers, are also a staple of the run-and-shoot offense that Lee has used in at Saint Louis since he arrived there from Kaiser High School in the late 1970s – and Nick Rolovich is introducing this fall at WSU.

Former Saint Louis quarterback Jayden de Laura cocks his arm back to throw the ball in a high school game against rival Punahou.  (Honolulu Star-Advertiser)
Former Saint Louis quarterback Jayden de Laura cocks his arm back to throw the ball in a high school game against rival Punahou. (Honolulu Star-Advertiser)

“School gets out about 3 p.m.,” Lee said. “We try to practice between 3:30 and 4, but we try to spend about 45 minutes – a half hour or 45 minutes every day in the classroom before we go out.”

Film review was also assigned homework when quarterbacks and receivers got home, too. All were given accounts and Lee, with a management feature that allows him to see how much time players have spent on the platform, knew when his players were slacking.

Vinny Passas, who was the school’s renowned quarterbacks coach up until this year, when he moved to Las Vegas to start coaching the position privately, advised his Saint Louis players “as soon as you get home, turn on your Hudl and let the thing run when you go take a bath, when you eat. At least the time’s running. Even if you’re not watching it, just get the time rolling so when coach asks you.”

Because of transfer regulations, de Laura had to sit out his sophomore year after leaving Damien, but it gave him more time to shadow Cordeiro, who led the Crusaders to a state championship in 2017 in his lone year as the starter.

De Laura became Saint Louis’ starter the following year, which isn’t as straightforward of a process as you’d think. The Crusaders have seen more than 20 quarterbacks transfer to their program in recent years, with waves of young players coming in aspiring to become the next Mariota or Tagovailoa. When de Laura missed a practice with illness during his senior year – mind you, after already winning a state title – he showed up the next day to find he’d been demoted to the third string.

“I think the competition there is what helps us,” Lee said. “They’re really dedicated and we’re really demanding on the quarterbacks.”

It helped de Laura that nobody he’d see during the regular season compared to the defense Saint Louis put out every day at practice. At the time, the WSU quarterback was not even the most highly coveted recruit on his own team. He may not have been in the top four. Nick Herbig, a four-star outside linebacker, is now at Wisconsin; Gino Quinones, a three-star defensive tackle, is at USC; Faatui Tuitele, a four-star defensive tackle, is at Washington.

“He would run and scramble around and get into some heated exchanges with our defensive guys,” Lee said. “… I’d be worried about the 25 plays in 11 on 11 because it would get so heated.”

The payoff was two state championships and, eventually, a decent list of offers for de Laura, whose very first came from Rolovich and Hawaii in 2018, months before he’d even started a game for the Crusaders.

“These guys, they try so hard not only to not disappoint the coach but not disappoint their families,” Passas said. “Their families give them great support and it’s an insult, it’s a slap in their face if they insult their families and don’t (win). It’s a combination of that peer pressure and not disappointing their families. But that’s pressure enough as it is on them, so if they can handle that, then the game is easy. They’ve been through that.”

Passas thinks de Laura’s best comparison is Tagovailoa.

“Well, Marcus and Chevan, they were, like, quiet leaders,” he said. “They just led by examples. They all do, but they never pushed guys or yelled at guys or get in their face. … Where Tua and Jayden, they were that kind of guy. They were getting in guys’ faces, like come on, let’s get this right and let’s get better at it. He let them know when the guys are not giving their full effort. He’s get in their face and tell them, let’s get this … going.”

Many of Saint Louis’ notorious quarterback alums, the only ones who understand the public pressure of holding that position, have formed a brotherhood that’s intended to help the current starter.

“On championship day, they all go into one group text and they text each other,” Jacob de Laura said. “… They all reach out to whoever’s the starting quarterback and they all support each other. They’ve been lucky. Everybody knows if you need a quarterback, you go to Saint Louis High School.”

• • •

De Laura committed and signed with the Cougars under Mike Leach, canceling recruiting visits to Ohio State and USC because he intuitively knew neither would be a better fit than WSU.

“Our visit alone,” Jacob said, “he knew that was the place for him.”

Which made Jan. 9 a full-on disaster. Leach left for Mississippi State and de Laura’s future suddenly seemed uncertain. What if the Cougars brought in somebody who wouldn’t mesh with the Hawaiian quarterback? What if they hired a coach who’d ditch the spread offense to run the ball more?

The reassurance de Laura needed came less than a week later and truthfully, even a little before that. There were rumors the Cougars were considering Rolovich, and de Laura had a positive conversation with athletic director Pat Chun that gave him a better feeling about the situation. Rolovich’s hire became official on Jan. 13, uniting the young Hawaiian quarterback and the first coach to offer him.

“Of course, granted it’s the system he’s ran from, sheesh, when he was a little kid,” Jacob said. “Through flag football, through tackle, through Pop Warner, big- boy league. We’ve always implemented some kind of run-and- shoot plays.”

During a recent Zoom call with reporters, after Rolovich officially named de Laura as WSU’s starter, the coach said, “When he got off the plane I think he had probably a couple missions: Where am I going to live, where’s the playbook, and when are we starting practice? I’m sure he’s been waiting for this his whole life, and I expect him to take advantage of it.”

De Laura is blessed to be where he is, but it doesn’t mean he’ll lose sight of where – and more important what – he came from. Next to the pin on his Twitter account, designating his location, de Laura has neither “Pullman” or “Washington State University.”

Instead, it reads “Pālolo Valley Housing.”

“He does know where he comes from,” his father said, “but he also knows where he doesn’t want to go back to.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter

Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.