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Kahuku football coach Sola Soliai's role in carrying on the late Matt Faga's larger-than-life legacy

Sola Soliai has coached football for years, but no one has had more of an impact on his philosophy than the late Matt Faga.

"He's always part of the equation," said Soliai, Kahuku High School's defensive coordinator, during a phone interview from Hawaii last week. "I always factor him into the decisions that I make when it comes to coaching. It cracks me up at times because I find myself talking to him even though he's not there."

Soliai met Faga during a practice as an assistant coach at Kaimuki High School back in 2007. They quickly became best friends, sharing their passion for the sport and coaching for the next 14 years, eventually moving on together to Kahuku High. But in August of 2021, Faga died from COVID-19 complications.

A former defensive tackle at the University of Hawaii (2003-04), Faga was one of three Kahuku football coaches who died a one-year span, along with Maui Kahalepuna (COVID-19 complications) and David Vimahi (heart attack). Faga's impact is briefly highlighted in the latest NFL360 feature "Kahuku Mana," which explores the rich tradition of Polynesian football through the Kahuku program and how the high schoolers summoned the strength to play in honor of their three coaches, ultimately winning the state championship in 2021. The feature aired Thursday evening, ahead of the 2023 Polynesian Bowl, which kicks off at 9 p.m. ET Friday on NFL Network.

After losing three members of the football family, Soliai said Kahuku played "on another level" en route to winning the '21 state title. The players honored their late coach with T-shirts bearing Faga's image and brought an urn of his ashes to games. "It showed how much they loved him," Soliai added.

Soliai has helped carry on Faga's larger-than-life legacy in two ways. The first is in his direct approach with players. He said Faga demanded effort, but often kept things simple.

"He was one the best technicians I've ever seen. The way he could teach his knowledge of playing on the defensive line to the kids was just amazing," said Soliai, who took over coaching the defensive line after Faga's death. "Matt would break it down and wanted the kids to practice one move 1,000 times and perfect it rather than practice 10 moves 100 times. The kids really learned a lot with that approach, so I broke it down like that, too."

The second way Soliai took the torch from his late friend: continuing the free training sessions Faga had created through a program called The Wolfpack in Palolo, Hawaii, where Faga lived, an hour away from Kahuku. In the beginning, Faga primarily coached young defensive linemen, but it soon expanded to all positions with the purpose of keeping kids training in the offseason.

Soliai said the passionate coach had a way of bringing his players together and that he was viewed as a father figure, often taking them "under his wing."

Soliai had noticed the impact this year-around training had on the local high school team and created a sister club called Rebel Squad in Kahuku in 2014. Faga drove to Kahuku every summer for eight years to coach players during the offseason, gaining the community's respect for his dedication and for helping keep the kids safe.

"Matt was a trendsetter. Before him, nobody was doing this, and now, there have been about 10 other clubs created in Hawaii," Soliai said. "You see the benefit it can have on a kid and a program, and our program at Kahuku is going in the right direction based on the work these kids are doing in the offseason.

"There is no one like him. He is hard to replace."

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