EUGENE, Ore. - As Keloni Kamalani signed footballs, posters, wristbands, hats, helmets, T-shirts, skin and whatever else was put in front of him a week ago on a sun-drenched day at Autzen Stadium, he was thinking about just how far he has come.
"It just makes me appreciate the fact that I have got good people who helped me get here," Kamalani said moments after Oregon's football fan day. "And if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here - people like my father (David), my mother (Shawndelle), I can't forget about them."
A few minutes later, Kamalani entered the third-ranked Ducks' locker room by flashing his thumb print on an entry screen - before graduating from Kamehameha Schools Maui in 2009, it would have been hard to imagine him at Oregon's state-of-the-art athletic complex.
Keloni Kamalani, shown at Oregon’s fan day on Saturday, played in five games last season.
The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photo
Injuries limited his impact as a Warrior to the point where he had to walk on to the Ducks, but he now owns two Pac-10 championship rings, and last season played in five games, including the national title-game loss to Auburn.
Kamalani, who made every travel squad last year, is now seeing significant time with the second-team linebackers and is expected to be a starter on all special teams, meaning he should be on the field for the first play - kickoff return or receive - when Oregon opens its season today at Cowboys Stadium against No. 4 Louisiana State.
Kamalani is one of six Maui Interscholastic League graduates to play for a Pac-12 football team, and perhaps none have come so far so fast. He was a fifth-stringer at the beginning of spring drills, limited to noncontact work due to shoulder surgery after last season.
"It was always a dream," he said. "You think about it, you pray about it. I can only thank Jesus that I am here right now."
Kamalani plays strong-side linebacker, a position that does not usually come to a second-year player, walk-on or not, who is 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds.
"It is a lot of time and commitment, it is almost like a job," Kamalani said. "We are here almost all day every day. I just know that my opportunity is going to come and when it arrives I have to be ready and I do that by preparing myself."
All the effort seems to be paying off.
"Probably the most noticeable area of improvement for him has been understanding our defensive concepts - he has done a tremendous job there," said Ducks linebackers coach Don Pellum. "To his credit, you can tell that he has been doing the study and the work because the evidence is on the field."
Pellum was himself an undersized linebacker for Oregon, and has been at the school for more than 20 years.
"He just keeps on telling me I need to show up," Kamalani said. "That is what I have been doing. That is the only way I am going to get myself out there, get that scholarship, get that playing time."
Kamalani has a 365-pound bench press, 465-pound squat and 330-pound power clean, plus 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash.
Pellum laughed when asked if Kamalani reminds him of himself on the field.
"I wasn't as strong, no, no, not at all," Pellum said. "Maybe in one area - toughness. He is a tough dude."
Since Oregon's 22-19 loss on the final play to Auburn in January, Kamalani has not cut his hair, going from a tight crop to six-inch flowing locks with dark roots and blond ends.
"New look, new style, playing harder, playing faster," he said.
Pellum said the new 'do has grown on him, at least a bit.
"I have grown to not be shocked by it," he said. "He has got that golden hair with the tan and the nice tats. It is starting to look OK."
Kamalani has also changed his uniform number from 57 to 43 in honor of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu and Cleveland Browns' Kaluka Maiava - a former Baldwin standout who wore 43 at Southern California before becoming the first MIL graduate to be drafted by an NFL team, in 2009.
"We are tougher than most people think, we produce some pretty good athletes," Kamalani said of the MIL. "I just want to follow in the footsteps of Kaluka."
With his left arm fully covered in Polynesian-style tattoos to go along with his new hair, he is asked where is from all the time, as one youngster did at fan day.
"People say some weird stuff to me," he said. "They think we still live in shacks and are from Gilligan's Island."
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL ON TV
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