An essay about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, written by Punahou senior Tevarua Tafiti ’22, hangs on the office wall of his dean, Jonah Ka‘akua ’97. “If you could have seen my corrections on the first draft of this essay, there were more red marks than black,” said Ka‘akua, who was Tafiti’s teacher the summer before his freshman year. Ka‘akua proudly displays the essay because it shows how much a student can grow with a strong resolve to improve. “He changed his future with his work ethic,” he said of his former student.
Now Stanford-bound on a full scholarship, Tafiti says his transition from Stevenson Middle School to Punahou for his freshman year was rough. Honestly, the Kaua‘i native never thought he’d make it to Punahou. But with a fierce drive, he forged a path to become one of Hawai‘i’s top college football prospects – and an excellent student with a 3.52 GPA.
What sets the defensive linebacker apart is his fearlessness to try something new or ask for help when he needs it. He makes the most of every opportunity given to him, and he doesn’t offer up excuses. For instance, when he joined Punahou’s football team, he was on the smaller side. He didn’t own his own weights, so he stuffed books in his backpack and did pushups to build strength. He raised his grades by connecting with teachers after class. He tried out for the diving team during the off-season for football, even though he didn’t have experience. And he turned in his Stanford application early, after taking great care to fine-tune his application and workshop his essay with teachers.
As a football star, his record is stunning. During his sophomore year, he was selected to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s All-State First Team. Top college coaches took notice, and he received scholarship offers from such powerhouse schools as Notre Dame, Arizona State, Washington University and Stanford. “Football taught me a lot about grit and not to give up, especially when you’re losing,” Tafiti said. This carried over to school. “If I did bad on a test, I knew there would be another one for me to try again,” he said.
Learning to deal with adversity certainly helped him cope through the shifts and uncertainty of the pandemic. Even though all football games were canceled during his junior year, he communicated with college coaches, and he was able to demonstrate growth by practicing football with his father, Matthew, who played football at Wai‘anae High School. “COVID didn’t ruin recruiting; it actually helped,” Tevarua said.
At Stanford, Tevarua is considering majoring in environmental engineering while playing football. “I’ve been watching football all my life and watching plays. I just want to be in that field, that crowd, that environment,” he said. But he’s equally excited about connecting with classmates. “Especially at Stanford, you never know – your classmate might be inventing something new, and just to have that connection with them would be great,” he said.
At Punahou, Tevarua is regarded as a quiet and humble leader – someone who leads by example. During his freshman year, he won Punahou’s John F. Fox Achievement Award, which honors students with accomplishments in academics, athletics or extra-curricular activities. But it’s his character that his teachers and deans say makes him a standout. For example, when helping out at school functions, such as Sophomore Lu ‘au, Ka‘akua says Tevarua is typically one of the last people to leave. Tevarua attributes this commitment to service to his family and Polynesian background.
“If there are more people with Tevarua’s attitude in the world, it would be a much more beautiful place,”Ka‘akua said. “I hope he becomes a leader for other students like him. It’s an inspiration – it’s the American dream to work hard and succeed.”
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