Union’s ‘Big Sau’ Faalevao plays through injury, separation from family

Senior stays with Union football family as his actual family moves to Hawaii

By Meg Wochnick, Columbian staff writer

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Game-day face paint, what Sausau Faalevao uses to complete his intimidating look at the line of scrimmage as Union’s 340-pound nose guard, also secretly hides his pain.

The physical pain he feels is the result of eight pins in both hips from two surgeries since 2011. The right hip is causing the most discomfort this season and likely will require another surgery.

Even worse, though, is the emotional pain he’s carrying following his parents and four younger siblings’ permanent move to Hawaii last month.

Faalevao already knows Thursday’s final regular-season home football game at McKenzie Stadium will be just as heartfelt as it was in the season-opener Sept. 1 when Sausau Faalevao, Sr., and Tanu Faalevao watched their son play high school football for the final time.

Tears were shed that day, and while Sausau Jr., knows his family can’t be there Thursday to escort him for Senior Night ceremonies and to watch him play when Union (5-1 overall) hosts Evergreen (4-2) at 7:30 p.m. in each teams’ final non-league contest, he knows the tears will come then, too.

This is when the black face paint comes in.

“I’ll have to put a lot on,” said Faalevao, “so nobody knows I’m crying.”

Family leaves for Hawaii

The most difficult part, Faalevao said, of being separated by 2,600 miles, part of the Pacific Ocean and a time zone from immediate family at age 17 is simply adapting, especially in a Samoan heritage and culture that emphasizes the importance of family and tradition.

He’s grown up quickly now living with his paternal grandparents and aunt and uncle in Battle Ground. There’s more responsibilities asked of him as the only child in the home of five.

Faalevao chose to stay in Clark County to finish his senior year at Union rather than follow his family to Waianae, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, where his father recently became a Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa pastor.

“My heart’s at Union; I love all my brothers here,” Faalevao said. “I didn’t want to leave after spending all three years with them.”

Faalevao, though, is dedicating his senior football season to the two most important people in his life who no longer can watch their second-oldest son play the sport he loves. Every down, every play, every game, Faaleveo now cherishes.

Fellow senior Zion Fa’aopega knows the feeling. He’s Union’s left defensive end in the 3-4 defense, and joins running back Jojo Siofele as one of Union’s three American Samoan-descent varsity players. Fa’aopega and Faalevao are side-by-side in the trenches, but their connection goes further because of a shared heritage and culture.

“Our parents instill in us that power of love can go a great way,” Fa’aopega said. “We both understand, and it makes our bond so much better.”

That power of love translates beyond football, but the sport often is a gateway to a better life. As recently as 2015, approximately 200 American Samoan-descent players were on NCAA Div. I football rosters. Fa’aopega and Faaleveo want to make it, too — and even dreams of the NFL — and that means pushing each other in the classroom and in the daily grind.

“We want to see each other succeed and be happy,” Fa’aopega said.

Said Faalevao: “Football is everything to me. Football is my ticket out. Every time anyone asks what I want to be, it’s always been a football player. It’s been nothing but football. It’s something I can’t live without.”

Getting his start in rugby

Football is now a way of life for Faalevao, but it didn’t used to be.

That’s because youth football was not an option when he and his family lived in American Samoa, an unincorporated U.S. territory in the South Pacific, for six years of his childhood. That’s since changed, thanks, in part, to the NFL and USA Football.

He still learned how to tackle, catch, and be tough — without pads — because of rugby.

The once-shy, soft kid no longer exists.

“That’s where it all came from,” he said of life in American Samoa, “where a lot of character gets built.”

Playing football wasn’t an option, either, when he and his family returned to Washington (he was born in Spokane), settling in Vancouver as a middle schooler. Hip issues — more specifically, hip socket problems that required permanent pins over hip surgeries in 2011 and ’13 — prevented him from starting football until enrolling at Union as a freshman.

Even then, he’s learned to manage pain throughout high school, even if it’s meant limitations in summer workouts and only playing defense this season. He starts at nose guard after also playing both guard and tackle on the offensive line as a junior.

White Sosene Sr., is Union’s first-year co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, and said the lineman fights uphill battles daily, but what he doesn’t question in Faalevao’s — a guy known as “Big Sau” — heart and determination.

“His resiliency always gets him to do his best,” Sosene said.