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East assistant coach uses the lessons learned on and off the football field to teach boys from his alma mater

East's Jaylen Warren makes a long run for a touchdown, bringing the score to 21-13 Timpview, as East football moves toward a win over Timpview in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.
East's Jaylen Warren makes a long run for a touchdown, bringing the score to 21-13 Timpview, as East football moves toward a win over Timpview in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY – When Brandon Matich took the head coaching job at East High seven years ago, he felt he had a lot to teach the young athletes.

Thanks to players like Ofa Hautau, it was Matich who ended up the student.

“In all the years I’ve coached, and this will be my 19th year, he might be my most significant player that I’ve ever coached in terms of really coming here to East and learning this dynamic,” Matich said. “When I first got here, I was taught that I had to listen. I just had to sit back and listen and learn and understand the kids, and that’s made me a better coach.” Hautau was a gifted athlete with a big heart and strong worth ethic. It was, however, the reality of his life away from the football field that Matich would need to understand in order to help him reach his potential athletically.

In Hautau’s neighborhood, gangs and poverty weren’t simply elements he could discard from his life. They were, instead, pieces of the cultural fabric enmeshed with values like loyalty and sacrifice that made extricating oneself from difficult or dangerous situations excruciatingly difficult.

“Ofa was and is a great player,” Matich said of the man who is now working as one of his assistant coaches while trying to sustain his dream of playing professional football. “He’s like a lot of our kids who grow up in that neighborhood with the wrong group of kids. This school was rough, and the kids were rough. And we’ve kind of had to over come that, and now we are who we are and we don’t have to deal with it as much because football’s become that second way of life for them.” Matich said Hautau was never a “jumped in” or official member of a gang, but his closest friends were gang members. That friendship ended up getting him falsely accused of an assault during a robbery at a convenience store near the high school.

Hautau said it was terrifying to be arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He said he thought his dreams of football, made more real because he had multiple college scholarship opportunities, were over.

“I didn’t think about that,” he said. “I just sat there. I wasn’t thinking about nothing at all.”

While he sat in jail, Matich went to the convenience store and asked if he could see the surveillance video. They gave him a copy, and after studying it, the coach said it was clearly not Hautau..

“I went to court twice,” Hautau said. “The first time I went, nobody was there to support me and I was not getting out. The second time, Matich showed up. I wasn’t surprised. That’s how he is.”

Hautau was released and police went on to find and arrest the man responsible for the assault. Matich said at first he had trouble understanding why those who knew the teen was innocent wouldn’t go to the police with that information. It was Hautau who gave him insight into not just the situation, but the way these young men view life.

Hautau said once he got out, he went to work reviving his football career. He attended Snow College and then Oklahoma State, eschewing offers from other schools because they’d abandoned him when he was arrested. Loyalty isn’t a small thing to a man like Ofa Hautau. Nowhere is that more evident than in his relationship with the high school coach who spoke up for him when no one else would.

“It’s like he’s my guardian angel now,” Matich said, detailing a story in which Hautau insisted on taking the coach to the emergency room when he was having trouble seeing and it turned out to be a stroke. “He is always present with me. …It’s that moment in time linked us and we will always remain close. He’s a special person.”

After graduating with his sociology degree, Hautau was invited to NFL camp with the Philadelphia Eagles. He didn’t land a roster spot, but he’s not giving up. He will play arena football in Jacksonville in February and he hopes another NFL team will see him – or his film – and give him one more shot.

“(The dream) is still alive,” he said while watching the Leopards prepare to take on Springville for a shot at their second consecutive 4A title. “But if it’s not, then this is what I’m going to be doing – coaching. That first year, Matich taught me a lot.”

He said it is a joy to be able to share what he’s learned – on and off the field – with the young men from his alma mater. Matich said his admiration for Hautau is only enhanced by what he’s overcome.

“Football and gangs are the same,” Matich said. “They offer the same type of unique things – violence, camaraderie, family, support. They’re very similar and there is a path that guys can go down with gangs that is going to give them instant gratification with money.”

And then there is the harder path that forces young men to work for a goal that can seem a lifetime away. Having Hautau on the field is a living example of just how close that reality can be if they’re dedicated and willing to listen to a good teacher.

“Football will teach them a lot,” Hautau said. “It teaches you life lessons…They’ll get a big experience from playing this big game and learning from it.”

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports