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Vai's View: Vai's View: The power of friendships

Tonight, I'm headed to the Philadelphia Center City Marriott to speak to the Yale football team. The Bulldogs play the Penn Quakers tomorrow at Franklin Field to determine first place in the Ivy League as both teams are 3-2 and 2-0 in league play.

What's my connection to Yale? Doug Semones, the Bulldogs' defensive line coach, was a high school teammate.

I first met Doug in the spring of 1977. He was a sophomore at Mesa High and I was a ninth-grader at Mesa Junior High. I had dominated my 167-pound weight class in wrestling, winning the junior high school city championship easily. It was first-year wrestling but I was just stronger and more physical than most of my peers from years of training as a boxer.

Mesa High, where I would attend that fall, was a football and wrestling powerhouse and its head wrestling coach, Ben Arredondo, was about to also become the head football coach. Coach Arredondo invited me to come to Mesa High to compete in a tournament with the "big boys," so I rode my bike to the Mesa High gym and walked in looking for a familiar face but found none.

I found my way to a wall with a big poster of the brackets. At 167 pounds, I found my name and ran my index finger along the draw, not knowing anyone in the tournament. I won my first match, then the second. Soon, I was seeing the name Doug Semones emerging in the bracket and it was clear we were on a collision course.

I was able to watch him in one or two matches before we met in the semifinal round. He was aggressive, quick and I thought, real cocky. I asked a few people and learned that Doug Semones had had a great year on the JV football team and expected to be the starting tailback that fall on the varsity team when he'd be a junior.

There were also expectations that he'd wrestle varsity at 167 pounds. I defeated him in the semifinals with a takedown and an escape and then held on for a 3-2 win to the delight of Coach Arredondo, who watched intently from the stands.

I lost in the finals, but it didn't matter. I knew I had made an impression on the high school coaches and on Doug Semones. I knew I'd have supporters when I arrived in the fall, but I didn't count on Semones to be among them because it had been embarrassing for him to lose to a ninth-grader in front of Coach Arredondo. I expected Semones would be a rival and perhaps even an enemy.

Instead, Doug Semones became a friend in ways I could not have expected. He didn't view me as a competitor but as a teammate who would help the team.

He protected me from unsavory influences, when I was susceptible to them. He took me into his home, fed me and drove me around in his maroon Chevy Malibu.

When I became the starting tailback, he volunteered to move to fullback and became a devastating lead blocker. As I started gaining notoriety, I started drifting and hanging out with some of the bad elements on the team.

Once, a group of these guys enticed me to try chewing tobacco. I got sick and missed practice, lying to the coaches that I had the flu. When Coach Arredondo learned what really happened, he ran me until I puked and suspended me for a game.

As team captain, Doug stepped in and scolded me for my stupidity and warning those upper-classmen not to ever do that again. It was the first and only time I'd ever flirt with tobacco. I immediately severed ties with the bad influences on the team and spent more time with Doug. We would spend nights at his home after games, talking till the wee hours and waking to his mother's bacon, eggs and pancake breakfasts while anxiously reading the Mesa Tribune and Arizona Republic for a mention of our names or perhaps a photo. After graduation, Doug played at Cal-Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., working security for the Dallas Cowboys in the summers, as they trained there in those days.

We continued to stay in touch, even when I enrolled at BYU. He never got to see me play because he was playing himself in the fall and after he graduated, he started teaching and coaching in high school in Southern California. He met his wife, Linda, a math teacher when they worked at Servite High in Anaheim.

When I was selected to the Pro Bowl my rookie year, he called and asked if I could get him and Linda tickets to the game. They had never been to Hawaii.

They came and spent the week in Hawaii with us. After the game, he and Linda informed us that they weren't returning to California.

"Do you have any contacts here where Linda and I can get jobs?," he asked.

I told him the only people we knew were on the North Shore where my wife Keala graduated from Kahuku High. We gave him a few names to contact and we flew home to the mainland. A few weeks later, the Semones called to inform us they were both hired at Kahuku High, where Doug eventually became the head coach of the legendary football program from 1988-95.

Kahuku always had great players but had a reputation for being undisciplined. Doug fixed that and Linda was helping his players in the classroom qualify to the D-1 schools who were constantly recruiting their kids. Doug led Kahuku to their first state championship since 1972 and restored their dominance.

Their two children, Jake and C.J. were born while they lived on the North Shore. Doug eventually left Kahuku to coach the D-line at the University of Hawaii, but Linda continued to teach at Kahuku, where she eventually became an administrator.

His defensive coordinator at Hawaii was a fellow named Tom Williams, a Stanford grad, who became Yale's first African-American head football coach a few years ago and brought the Semones with him.

Coaching at Yale was a strategic move, not only career-wise but also because it would give their son, Jake, an inside track on acceptance to the prestigious Ivy League school where football scholarships aren't offered.

Jake was admitted with the freshman class of 2011 and is the holder for extra points and field goals. He's a bona fide "Yalie." Doug Semones and I are light years away from our days as Mesa High Jackrabbits. Tonight, Doug will introduce me to the Yale Bulldogs. I don't think there's a single NFL prospect on the team, but it's probably a room full of future CEOs, CFOs and COOs.

I think I'll talk to them about the power of friendships. About true leadership. Camaraderie. Team Work. Integrity. Going after your dreams with a vengeance. Then, I'll tell 'em to go kick the Quakers butts.