(Mason Kelley, University of Washington)
He is no more than five years old when the fire first roars from the tooth of death.
Standing at the edge of a coffee field on the Big Island with the ceremonial fire knife in his hands, the boy is on the verge of submerging deep into Samoan culture. But nothing can prepare him for the primal growl, the sheer intimidation, of the heat and flame.
Not much taller than the traditional Samoan war club used in the historic fire knife dance, he lights a kerosene-soaked towel wrapped around one end of it. His small hand, which has been spinning sticks since he could walk in preparation for this very moment, grabs the lit towel and squeezes until the kerosene and fire ooze through his fingers, igniting his hand and all that it means to be a Samoan man.
In one swift motion, his lit hand grabs another kerosene-soaked towel on the opposite end of the club before he quickly wipes the hand on his lava-lava wrap to extinguish the flame. There, on the newly inflamed end of the war club, is a hooked cane knife.
The Samoan tooth of death.
"I learned at a very young age," Psalm Wooching says, "it's better to experience something than to hear someone tell a story about it."
Wooching is 23 now, a football player at the University of Washington, a late-blossoming fifth-year senior linebacker whose development as one of the Pac-12’s surprising stars parallels the Huskies' sudden emergence in Year 3 under coach Chris Petersen.
After two seasons of kicking around the .500 mark, Washington is among the nation's elite, a one-loss team that will play Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday and, currently ranked fourth, has a shot at the national championship.
After four nondescript years in Seattle, Wooching won a starting job this fall and has played so well he is a projected late-round pick in next April's NFL draft. Only a few months ago, the idea of Wooching being drafted was laughable.
As critical as his development on the field has been, life experiences have carved a unique path that one day may lead to the NFL but without question will involve giving back to his Samoan family and culture.
"Football is important to Psalm," Petersen says. "But football doesn’t define him."
(Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
Petersen tried for two years to get his players to understand that winning was more than just talent. Anyone can throw a starting 22 on the field and win games.
For the Huskies to be unique, to do more than raise their heads above underachieving, there had to be a galvanizing purpose. Petersen's teams at Boise State crushed the intangibles of playing with and for each other, of everyone zeroed in on the same goals and playing hard every play. Of playing with your family.
You know, those corny things coaches love to talk about.
"Those things that win games," Petersen says.
So he began this past fall camp with an idea to build team chemistry: Anyone fighting would be subject to Lovers’ Lane. The two offenders would hold hands and walk around circling the playing field—and work it out.
Jordan Miller and Quinten Pounds weren't the first two players to take the stroll; they were simply the two caught on camera. The video went viral, and the idea has taken hold for the 11-1 Huskies.
Nowhere did it hit closer to home than with Wooching.
"I would’ve been in Lovers’ Lane all day long when I first got here," he says.
When he arrived from the Big Island four years ago to play fullback, Wooching quickly earned a reputation from coach Steve Sarkisian's staff: the angry guy. In the team’s first day in full pads, he found himself on top of the starting safety at the end of a play, punching him in the helmet over and over.
This is how they worked things out growing up. If you have a problem, Samoan culture says you don't bicker back and forth with words. You fight with fists.
"It’s not so much you're a bad guy. It's part of growing up. It's passed down from generation to generation in our culture," says his father, Luki. "You have to prove it. When you're a man, you have steps to earn. You become a servant first in your family circle, and do the chores. Then you take another step, and another and another until you become the chief."
The problem is that this culture of constant anger release didn’t translate to Seattle. So when he looked up after fighting on that first day of full pads, it wasn’t respect that he saw in the eyes of his teammates.
It was fear.
"When you're a man, you have steps to earn. You become a servant first in your family circle, and do the chores. Then you take another step, and another and another until you become the chief."
"Back home if I throw down with someone, one of the older men in the family would always eventually break it up and say, 'OK, shake hands.' That's what we knew," Psalm says. "On the mainland, you do that kind of stuff, and you're going to jail—or worse, you're going to get shot. I didn’t want my parents to get a phone call saying I was in jail. I didn’t want to be that person anymore."
He never really was. He was the boy who couldn't speak or read English, and was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia. He adapted by learning the Hawaiian language and using it as a tool to learn English.
He was the boy who played Pop Warner football, complained about the coaches and was forbidden to play again by his parents because you don't complain, you do what you're told. Years later, after begging his mother, Shannon, to allow him to play football again, Psalm joined his high school team and was told he was an offensive lineman.
It took a year, but he eventually moved to tailback, and by the end of his senior year he had set single-season school records. He got to Washington and started out at fullback, was moved to defensive end when Petersen arrived and eventually settled in at linebacker. As a first-time starter this year, he has redefined himself on the field and has NFL scouts intrigued by his play.
"He's 6’4”, 240, he's raw, he can grow into that frame and he can run," says one AFC scout. "He's a project, but with some work, he could pay off big down the road."
Where has he heard that before? This, more than anything, is the story of Psalm Wooching. The boy with potential who grew into the man with a purpose.