At 5 feet, 6 inches tall, De’Zhaun Stribling didn’t stand out among the crowd of incoming freshmen at Kapolei High School in the fall of 2016.
He loved football, though. Still does. Now 6-2 and 190 pounds, Stribling became the focal point of Kapolei’s aerial attack. Coaches and media voted the well-rounded pass catcher to the Star-Advertiser All-State second team. He is patiently living through the process. Scholarship offers from Hawaii and San Diego State are on the table. Last week, he willed the Hurricanes basketball team to victory, a major comeback win over Aiea. After hoops, Stribling will be busy with the high jump on Kapolei’s track team. The grind never ends, and he is patient.
“I’m just trying to make sure I make the right choice for me and my family. It’s a long process. I’m just making sure I make the best decision,” Stribling said.
Former Kapolei slotback Ikari Stokes has a vision of Warriors life for Stribling, his cousin.
“He’s going to UH. Their offense is a good match. He’ll play four games, take a break, redshirt. Then his second year, he’ll be playing and he’ll be like a John Ursua, just bigger. More rugged. He’s going to get drafted to an NFL team and be one of the smarter NFL players with money because his mom taught him right,” Stokes said, noting that Stribling’s mother is an accountant. “He’s not going to get married until later because he has to focus in football.”
Stribling is focused, for sure.
“He’s told me it should be Hawaii because of the offense they run,” Stribling said. “It would fit me and it’s home, too, and would make everything easier. Adjusting to the college lifestyle would be easier.”
He could miss some time on the hardwood this week. Practices for the Polynesian Bowl began on Monday. The competition among many of the top prep players in the nation is at a fever pitch during practice.
“I’m ready for the competition against all these big names. The level it’s at means a lot. The bowl itself is big. A lot of prestige. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Very interesting,” Stribling said.
Stribling finished his senior season with 64 receptions for 872 yards and nine touchdowns. He also ran the ball eight times for 47 yards and a TD, and completed both of his pass attempts for 45 yards and another TD. The reps on the field. The reps in the weight room. In the merciless Open Division, Kapolei went 4-6 overall (1-4 OIA), but Stribling was a consistent diamond in the rough.
By the time he played varsity football, Stribling had a major growth spurt.
“My first impression was that he was a tall, lanky kid with a big smile and a great attitude,” Hurricanes coach Darren Hernandez said.
When the ’Canes brought Jeremiah Cockheran in to coach receivers, Stribling’s progress rocketed.
“Coach Jeremiah always says, “Are you a man or are you a mouse?” Me and him, it was more like a brother relationship than a coach and player. He understood the things I would ask him. He can still run routes, so he could show me,” Stribling said.
Cockheran enjoyed seeing Stribling’s progress.
“He’s a big part of why I went to coach at Kapolei,” Cockheran said.
Cockheran, the former Hawaii standout, knew about Stribling before he took on the coaching task.
“I heard a lot about him from Kevin Wilson, the quarterbacks coach,” Cockheran said. “He said, ‘We got this kid who’s a man-child and he needs your help to take him to the next level. I’d seen him run a post route at a GPA Camp. I call it ‘The Nasty.’ He kind of turned the DB around and I said, ‘This kid is pretty good.’ ”
Then, Cockheran got a close-up, everyday look at Stribling.
“He’s physical, got the height, ran good routes, great hands. I knew he could play at the next level if he wants to do that. The first kid I’d seen since Tua like that. His sophomore and junior years, I said Tua could start at UH right now,” Cockheran said. “You can tell who’s got it or doesn’t. If De’Zhaun keeps working, I see him playing on Sundays.”
Stribling put in the work through the offseason with Cockheran, and dedicated himself to getting stronger.
“He worked hard in the weight room and he molded himself into a great physical specimen. He’s a sculpture now,” Hernandez said.
“He was a skinny kid,” Cockheran recalled. “He really worked on being more physical in his route running. I helped him with the mental part of the game. Understanding your defender. Studying film. Keeping mentally strong. At times, he’d drop a ball and get frustrated in the past, but this year, he got stronger and stronger where nothing would faze him. He’s a tough kid.”
The toughness began at home. His parents, Aisha and Carlos, consistently set the bar high.
“She always tells me, ‘It’s all fun and games until someone gets punched in the face.’ She doesn’t play around. She’s very strict, but she’s very loving and very caring. She wants the best in everything,” Stribling said.
Meanwhile, the basketball ’Canes are in the hunt for a playoff spot.
“We just need to find our identity. We’re struggling with certain things, trying to incorporate everything. We just need more players to step up and show more leadership instead of being divided and arguing all the time. We’re going to be good. We’re going to get everything together and find more things we do really well,” Stribling said. “The loss to Radford helped us be more humble and more together. We kind of take things too much for granted and play sloppy. So we’re playing more serious now.”
His football coaches won’t forget him.
“I will miss his infectious smile, his love for his teammates and his passion for football,” Hernandez said.
“I miss the good times we had together,” Cockheran added. “A funny kid always coming at me cracking jokes. All the kids I’ve coached, he’s the best one I’ve had. I’m going to miss the brotherhood we had.”