Meet Wisconsin's backflipping 'Mr. Aloha'
MADISON, Wisc. -- The most popular man around here is a 6-foot-2, 335-pound, backflipping, ukulele-playing, toe-touching former cheerleader who happens to be the starting nose tackle for Wisconsin's football team.
That's an important thing to understand about Olive Sagapolu. He's known for football (a shocking disclosure: it's the reason for this story) and likely will be for a while. He's an All-Big Ten candidate who has started 19 games for one of the country's best defenses. But football doesn't define him.
Born in Hawaii and raised in American Samoa and Southern California, Sagapolu sought an adventure for college. "Someplace far, someplace where I could rely on myself as an individual," he said, "growing from a boy and stepping into manhood." He has found it at Wisconsin, from Camp Randall Stadium to university classrooms to State Street, where he can't walk 15 feet without seeing a friend.
The man named after the olive branch brings peace and joy to everyone he sees.
"In Hawaii, you call it Mr. Aloha," said Wisconsin defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, a fellow Hawaiian. "He's got that free spirit. He's got that personality. He fits into any group.
"Mr. Aloha: That's what you call a guy like him."
Those who closely study Wisconsin's defense can appreciate Sagapolu's on-field contributions: He had three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last season for the nation's No. 2 defense and No. 3 rushing defense. But Sagapolu is more recognizable for doing backflips on Instagram and toe-touches at basketball games.
I didn't really point my toes," he said with a sigh of his halftime jumps. "Cheerleaders, they know whenever you jump; you've gotta point your toes."
Sagapolu speaks from experience. While playing football at California prep powerhouse Mater Dei, he joined the cheerleading team, inspired to learn to backflip. He mastered it in about 10 minutes.
Although he's not officially on Wisconsin's spirit squad -- despite repeated requests -- he regularly participates in their open stunt workouts.
"He's better than some of our guys," said Josette Jaucian, Wisconsin's longtime spirit squad director. "He can throw a girl all the way to the top. He's so outgoing and fun. There's always a smile on his face."
The smile was there as a young boy in American Samoa, where Olive (pronounced Oh-Lee-Vay) would help his mother, Martina, coach high school softball. Martina, who hit cleanup and played catcher for American Samoa in the South Pacific Games, had Olive demonstrate sliding and base running. She put him in catcher's gear to show the players not to be afraid of the ball. During games, he served as bat boy. "The girls loved him," Martina said.
Olive brought his smile stateside at age 9 when his family moved to California, where Martina, an agent for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had taken a new job. There was some initial resistance. When Olive walked up to strangers at Safeway and introduced himself, some recoiled. One woman grabbed her purse when Olive asked if she needed help.
Despite people's reactions to Olive, his mother told him never to change.
"'Even when people don't say hi, you can continue to say hi,'" she told Olive and his brother, Osias. "'They're just not used to it. So we're going to make them used to it.'
"'We are going to bring aloha to a place where there is no aloha.'"