Isa’ako "Isaac" Sopoaga is focused on the big picture, which is why he was disturbed by a recent shot.
"That’s a bad picture," said Sopoaga, holding up the reporter’s camera. "Where’s the shaka sign? I always have a shaka sign. When I make a tackle, I have the shaka sign. Take it again."
The image was clear: Sopoaga, who was raised in American Samoa and now plays defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers, has pledged his allegiance to Hawaii.
"Without this place," said Sopoaga, who gazed around the University of Hawaii athletic complex, "I wouldn’t be where I am today. When I was here, I was a student-athlete. Now I’m a pro athlete."
Sopoaga lived full-time in Hawaii a little more than two years, playing for the Warriors in 2002 and 2003. But he said he draws his "spiritual strength" from the islands. So much so that he and his wife – they have four children – own a house in Hawaii Kai and are looking to purchase a second home here.
"I like it here," he said. "On the mainland, it’s busy – too many businesses. I can relax here. It’s peaceful."
Sopoaga is in town to train and participate in football-related functions. During a break from yesterday’s workout at UH’s Ching Athletic Complex, he reflected on a National Football League career that will enter a seventh season.
"To be part of the NFL is amazing," he said, noting that while growing up "I never thought it would happen, never dreamed of it. I give thanks to our Heavenly Father for all of his blessings."
Sopoaga always had the strength. At UH, he was one of the first to bench press 500 pounds. At the NFL Scouting Combine in 2004, he bench pressed 225 pounds 42 times, which, at the time, was the second-most reps in the event’s history.
But power was not enough for Sopoaga, who was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round of the 2004 draft. As a defensive tackle and nose tackle, Sopoaga was asked not only to hold the point, but to track ball-carriers. Too often, Sopoaga was out of position.
"Football," he admitted, "is more than running and lifting."
He said he devoted extra time to studying playbooks and videos of opponents.
"That really helped a lot," he said.
He also found another learning tool: rugby.
The 49ers were initially concerned about his participation in a Bay Area rugby league. Rugby players do not wear pads.
Sopoaga recalled telling the 49er coaches: "You have to trust me. This is what I need in the offseason as an extra workout."
Sopoaga said rugby’s non-stop action kept him fit and trained him to track ball-carriers.
"Everything is fast in rugby," Sopoaga said. "The ball doesn’t even stop, not like football. I always tell people rugby was my first sport. I love it."
The 6-foot-2, 330-pound Sopoaga has developed into a versatile defensive lineman. He now plays defensive end in the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme.
In 2008, he signed a five-year contract worth about $20 million.
The best thing about his healthy bank account, Sopoaga said, is it allows him to spend time each year in Hawaii.
"This is my second home," he said.