Touchdown: Leading with Empathy in Sports and Beyond
By Brandi-Ann Uyemura
John-Keawe Sagapolutele ’23 has a knack for blending award-winning athletics with a distinct brand of empathetic leadership. These tenets have served him well during his rise to football notoriety, helping him secure a four-year scholarship with the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa – and land the coveted quarterback position for the Hawai‘i Rainbow Warriors, which he will assume after graduation this June.
Punahou’s athletic director, Rick Tune ’93, sees the draft as a strategic coup for the organization. “UH made a great call. He’s extremely talented at his position,” he says. “One of the beautiful things is that they are getting a true leader and a tremendous teammate.”
Leading with empathy is one of Sagapolutele’s biggest strengths, according to Tune. It’s a skill that he honed while growing up as a quiet child in West O‘ahu – often feeling out of place. “I’ve been in that situation a lot,” he says. “When I see other kids who are left out, I understand how that feels. I try to include them.”
Sagapolutele’s football roots run deep. “I come from a football family. Growing up, I only knew football. My dad played football. My mom’s younger brothers also played football. It was the first sport I played,” Sagapolutele says. “The first thing I picked up as a little kid was a football.”
He officially began playing flag football for the ‘Ewa Beach Dragons when he was in the third grade. Three years later, he joined the ‘Ewa Beach Sabers for tackle football. He enrolled in Punahou as a sixth grader and started playing varsity for the School during his first year in the Academy. Now in his senior year, Sagapolutele has a lot to be proud of, including a slew of victories, which catapulted him into being one of the state’s top quarterback draft.
ESPN Honolulu recently chronicled his inspirational story in a short film entitled, “The Difference Maker,” which showcases the qualities he exudes beyond the playing field.
Sagapolutele and his family have made many sacrifices to get to this point, not the least of which is his grueling schedule. He lives in ‘Ewa Beach and has a 22-mile commute to Punahou – which means having to leave his house before dawn. He often doesn’t return until nighttime, after completing his schoolwork and finishing his vigorous training sessions.
Despite the challenges, Sagapolutele is grateful for the opportunities he has and is determined to put in work to get his body and mind ready for his next chapter in the college football arena. Tune predicts he will clear this hurdle, not only with executional success – but also with grace. “He plays the most high-profile football position in the School, yet he’s humble and inclusive,” says Tune. “That’s just the kind of leader he is.”
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