'Back and better': UH Warriors make detour to offer support to injured player

DENVER, COLORADO (HawaiiNewsNow) - The University of Hawaii football team made a quick detour to Colorado on their way to Saturday's game in Wyoming.

The reason: To offer support to Kalepo Naotala, the football player injured in July after diving off an area commonly referred to as "Waikiki Walls."

A lot of teams wouldn't risk straying from their usual pregame routines. But for the Warriors, Naotala comes first.

Naotala's football career is on hold after his accident. The 19-year-old suffered severe spinal cord injuries, paralyzing much of his body. After multiple surgeries he left Oahu for Craig Hospital, a Colorado rehabilitation center specializing in spine and brain injuries. Naotala's making progress and has already regained most of his upper mobility.

The 6-foot-3 lineman is still in a wheelchair, but he has more people looking up to him now than ever.

"He was all about our philosophy of 'living aloha' and playing warrior when it's time to play football," UH head football coach Nick Rolovich told KCNC in Colorado. "I think that's why you see how important his is to these guys. "

Kalepo's father, Tony, said that Rolovich and his staff have done wonders not just for the program, but for its student-athletes as well.

"I think coach (Nick) Rolovich and his staff have created such a, in Hawaii it's 'ohana, in Samoa, it's 'aiga. He's created an environment to where, I believe his team, his coaches and support staff, they're all family," he said. "I remember he had said when Kalepo got hurt, he said 'once a warrior, always a warrior.' And that creates a sense of loyalty and commitment, as well as a sense of 'ohana and 'aiga.

Watching his son surrounded by his teammates was a moment Tony will never forget.

"His teammates seeing him and seeing where he's at, hopefully would motivate them and understanding how precious life is and how fragile it can be as well ...  this right here, him actually getting to sit, to touch, to talk with his teammates, can't replace that."

Naotala said the support means everything to him.

"When I was in the hospital all of them came," he said. "It's huge for me knowing I got their support and they got my back."

For their visit, the team all wore beanies that bear Naotala's number and the phrase "back and better."

That phrase is a reference to when Kalepo was first in the hospital. He couldn't speak so he had to point out letters with an alphabet grid to spell words. "Back and better" was one of the first things he spelled out to his coach, and he says that's still Naotala's plan: To come back and be better.

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