There are probably more experienced and seasoned bookends, but it’ll be tough to ignore DeForest Buckner and Luke Kaumatule.
Under a steady drizzle at Alexander Field, Kaumatule smiles and cracks up easily while Buckner is ever stoic. The Punahou multi-sport athletes are just juniors, but their athleticism is at a level that may soon surpass that of the most recent pair of dominant defensive ends — Saint Louis’ Scott Smith and Solomana Aigamaua (2006).
At 6 feet 7 and 230 pounds, Buckner is a returning starter with a ferocity that belies his finesse on the basketball court. Kaumatule, at 6-8 and 240 pounds, has yet to play a down of varsity football, but he is also a force on the hardwood.
Is it even fair that these twin towers are so young, with so much upside?
Before haters of the most prestigious athletic program in the nation bellow about uneven playing fields and lack of competitive balance, consider what the two D-ends go through daily.
During the summer, Buckner heads to the bus stop on Makona Street in Waianae and waits for the C bus — Country Express — for a daily ride to town, where he’ll transfer and arrive at Punahou roughly 90 minutes later. Five days a week, this was his life: iPod, bus pass, bus stop and a cascade of weightlifting and running.
For Kaumatule, the hurdles are slightly different. After transferring from Island Pacific Academy to Radford last year, he stayed out of athletics so he could be eligible immediately after moving over to Punahou.
Twenty minutes before practice started on Tuesday, he was in the end zone, working one-on-one with a lineman as an assistant coach worked with him on his stance and initial contact. Baby steps in slow motion.
"He’s a great kid who works hard," Buffanblu coach Kale Ane said. "He’s got great balance and gets low. He’s able to change direction quickly. We’ll bring him along slowly."
Buckner worked hard on his football skills this summer but also worked on his basketball — he sprained an ankle while trying to dunk. He got bumped on the way to the basket, causing his left foot to land on an opponent’s foot. The ankle is 50, maybe 60 percent healed, but he rehabs diligently, suits up and takes the field for practice, participating in a very limited capacity.
The injury was ill-timed.
"I was improving on my footwork and learning different positions like outside linebacker, dropping back for pass coverage," he said.
Ane had already lost another potentially great athlete before the summer when 6-5 wide receiver Malik Johnson opted to focus on basketball. Losing Buckner for any period of time is a setback, but Ane is making the best of it.
"This will give us a chance to see the other guys," the former Kansas City Chiefs lineman said.
The learning curve is tough for any first-year varsity player, but Kaumatule absorbs everything. His hearty laughter keeps Buckner from scowling too often. Kaumatule has learned to embrace comparisons and competition at close quarters; his 13-year-old brother, Canton, is a 6-7, 245-pound eighth-grader, also at Punahou.
"I haven’t done anything to prove I’m close to being the best," Kaumatule said.
Buckner also shrugged off the extra attention.
"We’re not even close yet," he said.
The two choose their words carefully, but Kaumatule continues to draw Buckner into a laugh every so often.
"I don’t have a game system," Kaumatule said. "I used to have a Nintendo, but my family, we can’t afford that stuff."
Again, with rain falling and Kaumatule laughing, he manages to do the improbable — make Buckner smile.
The Star-Advertiser kicked off the high school football season with unprecedented coverage, featuring top players at each position and counting down to the top teams in the state. See below for past and upcoming stories.
AUG. 8 / SUNDAY
AUG. 9 / MONDAY
AUG. 10 / TUESDAY
AUG. 11 / WEDNESDAY
AUG. 12 / THURSDAY
AUG. 13 / FRIDAY
AUG. 14 / SATURDAY
AUG. 15 / SUNDAY
AUG. 16 / MONDAY
AUG. 17 / TUESDAY
AUG. 18 / WEDNESDAY
AUG. 19 / THURSDAY