Playing With Fire

Psalm Wooching came to Washington as that angry guy. Four years, three positions and one education later, the fire-dancing linebacker has an NFL future.

By Matt Hayes

December 1, 2016

(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."

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(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."

—Luki Wooching

"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.

(Mason Kelley, University of Washington)

When Psalm Wooching became the first in his family to graduate from college earlier this year, the moment was overwhelming. His friends and teammates screamed in utter joy, chanting his name. One of his professors at UW sat in the audience and sobbed.

And Luki Wooching turned to Shannon, the woman he had met all those years ago on a Christian mission ship; the 19-year-old girl he had promised to marry and eventually did; the girl from Tacoma who had embraced all things Polynesian from the island boy born and raised in a Samoan village called Taufusi. He hugged her and whispered in her ear, "Not in a million coconuts did I think this day would happen."

"The best day of my life," Luki says now.

A life that every chief of every family in Samoa dreams about: a son with greater opportunities than his father.

Family is the one undeniable and unshakable truth coursing through the Polynesian culture that lives on a thousand islands in the central and southern Pacific Ocean.

The region of Oceania, a triangle that stretches from New Zealand to Hawaii to Easter Island, includes Tahitians, Tongans, Hawaiians and Samoans, to name but a handful of the complex Polynesian tribes. They are all connected. They are all one, by blood or by culture.

When Luki was young, when he worked barefoot on a plantation with his 14 brothers and sisters and lived in a hut, the day eventually came when his humble, hard-working father told him it was time. Every Samoan, man and woman, is an heir to “matai,” the family name.

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Luki Wooching

(Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Luki's father, a speaking chief whose title was “Tue ala kea”—which means the righteous path—was a well-known speaker in Western Samoa, as it was known under New Zealand rule and in the early years of independence after 1962.

The speaking chief of the specific matai has a “fue” (or flywhisk) tattoo on his left shoulder, because centuries ago, when the speaking chief laid the flywhisk there, it meant he was prepared to share a message and communicate with the tribe.

From the moment Psalm stared down the tooth of death to the day he graduated from Washington—and so many speaking-chief moments in between—the black ink of the fue that flows and winds and stretches over his shoulder, that gently wraps the mortal while forever piercing the eternal, is his Samoan soliloquy to family, to culture, to love.

Sweet, enduring love.

“Every line tells a tale,” Psalm said. “We are nothing without family.”

Through faith and love, heartache and tragedy.

Two weeks before the start of the 2015 season, Psalm's Uncle Robert—not a blood uncle but close enough to be family—was driving home one night from his job at United Airlines. That job allowed Robert and his wife, Lina, to keep a promise he gave to Psalm years ago when he nicknamed Luki's boy "Da Diesel" while attending all of his high school games: No matter where you go to college, if you play or not, I’ll be at every game supporting you.

Less than a mile from his home in Kona, Robert’s car was hit by a drunk driver and he was killed. Weeks later, during an emotional night, Psalm branded himself, just over his left breast and in clear view of the flowing lifelines of the fue, with the letter “R.”

"I've learned so much from life—both good and bad, joyful and sadness," he says. "It took some time to understand it, but those experiences help you grow. I wouldn’t be me without them."

He and his sister, Hero, had a childhood filled with life experiences, but in meager surroundings. That’s how Luki and Shannon wanted it. They raised their kids in a strict Christian environment with the overriding principle of right versus wrong. There is no gray area.

Psalm questioned everything and needed answers, long before he first held the Samoan fire knife. When he was three, Shannon bought a small journal and wrote down the questions he would ask.

She still has that $1.99 notebook with the half-moon on the cover, still pulls it out and rubs her fingers over the questions and years that run together.

If God is everywhere, why is it so dark?

Are Adam and Eve teenagers?

Were the fish that Jesus fed the people raw?

Theirs was a home where you make decisions, and you deal with the consequences of those decisions. There are no excuses. And everyone serves the less fortunate.

Psalm and his sister grew up with two pairs of shoes (Hawaiian slippers and sneakers), a few sets of clothes and the understanding that material things don’t make the family, life experiences do.

They traveled to New Zealand and Australia and Tahiti and Malaysia. Luki works for one of the largest luau companies in Hawaii, and wherever he went for work (companies in various countries pay for corporate luau shows), his family went, too. When Luki’s sister was set to take her vows to become a nun, they went to Paris for that seminal family moment.

"We always thought," Shannon said, "if it’s possible for anybody, why not for you?"

"I wasn't honoring my family by being the angry guy."

—Psalm Wooching

Psalm scrolls through the pictures in his phone and points out places a majority of people his age could only dream about having visited. There's Psalm at the geothermal geysers at Waiotapu, New Zealand. There he is at the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Tahiti.

There's Psalm at the Louvre, standing in front of the "Mona Lisa."

"I can remember riding a bicycle in the south of France; I couldn't have been more than 11," Psalm says, pausing and looking in the distance and spreading his hands wide. "Big, beautiful countryside everywhere you look. I was riding down a dirt road and came upon this pear tree, and I just stopped, reached up and pulled down a pear. It was like a dream. The best pear I’ve ever eaten."

He looks down at his phone, scrolls a few more times and finds himself back in his boyhood.

"We had nothing," he says, his eyes locked on those memories scrolling by, "but my parents gave us everything we could have ever wanted."

He pauses and looks again into the distance. "I wasn’t honoring my family by being the angry guy."

Want to know why a team of underachievers has become a fixture in the Top 10 throughout the 2016 college football season? Because to a man, this year’s Washington Huskies have captured that "family" ideal, that one indispensable intangible every coach desperately searches for year after year.

Because the player in the middle of every pregame motivational huddle, the player whose words they hang on minutes before taking the field, is the same player who three years earlier changed everything when the Samoan fue was etched onto his shoulder. The angry guy has become the unquestioned leader—in his first season as a starter.

Remember, when the chief talks and shares a message, everyone listens.

"He struggled when he first got there, but a lot of the islanders do," says former Washington All-American and current Cleveland Browns star Danny Shelton, who is also of Samoan descent. "But when you know him, and you know what he's about and how he does everything for his family and his team, to see him succeed now is pretty awesome. A lot of people are hitting me up and saying, 'Who is this Psalm guy?' He’s all-in on everything, that's who he is."

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(Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)

It's better to experience something than to hear someone tell a story about it. As the stories of strife between police and minority populations increased with each month, so did Psalm’s desire to understand more. Surely the person who experiences everything wasn’t going to read secondhand accounts or hear a story from a guy who knows a guy whose brother knows a cop.

So earlier this year, Psalm called the University of Washington Police Department and asked to do a patrol ride along.

He had interned with the UW Police a year earlier, but this was different. That was moving paperwork and understanding the inner workings of the office. This was real-life patrol.

"Everybody should do it," Psalm says. "You get a greater understanding for both sides of the argument."

When Holly Barker first met Psalm, before she says he made her a better professor of sociocultural anthropology at Washington and before she sat in the arena at his graduation and wept, she noticed a strange yet welcoming aura about this young Polynesian man.

"He wanted to do and learn everything," she says.

When Psalm was growing up and first began reading the Bible, it didn’t take long to find his favorite passage. Years later, he had Psalm 144:1 tattooed across his chest.

Praise be the Lord who is my rock, who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle.

"Never lose faith, always stand tall in the face of trials with the gifts God has given you," Psalm says. He looks down at his Size 11 hands and begins to explain the scars and burns from the fire knife and from everyday life. "My hands are my gifts. If you don’t have scars and burns from life, you’re not doing it right.”

That's why he has interned not just with the police, but also with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Why he has mentored youth in the Seattle area by leading classes for the Boys & Girls Club, and why he taught an anthropology class at UW.

It's why he studied abroad in French Polynesia and worked with Pacific Islanders throughout Seattle, connecting with local Samoans and showing them firsthand that historical disparities of educational outcomes can be overcome.

"The multidimensionality of Psalm is something that I love best," Barker says. "He remakes himself and rethinks himself, and can switch between those multiple perspectives seamlessly."

Weeks before their first child was born, Shannon and Luki knew they wanted a biblical name. So she opened her Bible and started flipping through the books. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus...Psalms.

Their son, Psalm Fa'afoisia Pulemagafa Wooching, was born soon after. Fa'afoisia, Luki says, means to restore. A perfect name for a man so adept at remaking and rethinking himself.

The Huskies haven't been part of the national championship conversation since Don James stalked the sidelines in the early 1990s. They're remade under Petersen now, much closer to the heavyweight program James built than those of the five coaches who followed—before Petersen left the safety of Boise State for the unknown of a school that had lost as many games in one season (12 in 2008) as he had in eight at Boise State.

"You can't worry about getting burned because it's going to happen."

—Psalm Wooching

When he was introduced as Washington's coach, Petersen admitted he could no longer stay in his comfort zone. Sometimes you have to jump into the fire.

Or stand in front of it as it roars back at you.

Last January, when Wooching returned to the Big Island after a momentum-building season for Washington finished with a bowl victory over Southern Miss, and after Petersen told him to be ready for a big 2016, he picked up the Samoan war club for the first time in months and danced for his father’s luau company.

When he takes months or years off, the calloused skin on his hand and fingers eventually becomes healthy again. Once the fire knife dance begins again, he's reminded that he’ll never get used to the fire growling back at him. The flames burn his skin in an L shape from the tip of his thumb to the tip of his index finger.

The faster the club is spun during the dance, the quicker the flame extinguishes, limiting the severity of the burn.

"You can’t worry about getting burned because it's going to happen," Psalm says of the tooth of death. "Why be afraid?"

That's a lesson learned from family.

"I wasn’t scared the first time he did it," Luki says of his son's fire dancing. "Everyone gets burned. Your scars are your gold medal."

If you don't have scars and burns from life, you’re not doing it right.