With his long hair and the Madison flag flapping in the breeze, linebacker Keoni Kanoa leads a charge onto the field.
Except for the number, jersey color and venue, you might swear Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu is playing for the Madison High Warhawks.
Same bushy hair coming out from under the helmet. Same undersized bundle of energy. Same heavy hitter abusing opposing players like an oversized bowling ball.
No, not Polamalu, but All-San Diego Section linebacker Keoni Kanoa, who will lead the Warhawks (13-1) into Saturday’s Division III State Football Championship Bowl at the Home Depot Center versus Kentfield Marin Catholic (14-1).
“I’m a Polamalu fan,” said the 5-foot-8, 190-pound Kanoa. “I love the way he flies around, the way he goes to the ball. But really, my favorite player right now is Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o (second in the Heisman Trophy balloting). I just love the way he plays.”
Maybe Kanoa should look at the Madison films a little closer because he brings the same energizer bunny attitude to the game, resulting in a whopping 150 tackles this season — 105 of which required no assistance to bring down the ball carrier.
In fact, when Kanoa helps someone else make a tackle, the Madison coaching staff winces, hoping he doesn’t hurt a teammate by accident.
One of Kanoa’s biggest fans, wide receiver/defensive back/kick return specialist Lee Walker, has begged off more than once when his number was called in practice for a short route that would put him in Kanoa’s crosshairs.
“We go against each other a lot and I like going past him on deep routes,” said Walker, who has accepted a scholarship offer to Arizona. “But going over the middle is not where I want to be. He just steamrolls people. The coaches tell him to slow down in practice and he does seem a little more under control in the game.
“He’s the defensive captain and everyone looks up to him because he plays all out every play.”
Kanoa was Madison’s starting center on the 2010 team that last played in a Championship Bowl, losing in a driving rain in Carson. That explains his number — 54. Centers must wear a number in the 50s and Kanoa has had it ever since.
He remembers that game.
“I think we were so caught up winning the school’s first section championship that we got complacent,” said Kanoa, who carries a glittering 4.1 grade-point average. “The rain crippled us, but this year we need to show everyone what we’re all about.”
This time the opponent is Marin Catholic, which has won 11 straight. After watching film, Kanoa is impressed.
“They remind me of the team we were two years ago or Valhalla this year — they fling the ball around,” he said. “You can tell they’re very well-coached.”
Not that he’s discounting Madison, which has won 12 in a row. Kanoa says with skilled players like Walker, running back Pierre Cormier and soph QB Kareem Coles the Warhawks should give the Wildcats fits on offense.
Kanoa and his teammates are planning on slowing Marin Catholic, which averaged just under 40 points a game.
“Linebacker is the greatest position. It exemplifies what football is all about,” said Kanoa, who is still the team’s long-snapper. “The best thing is you don’t get beat up, you deliver the blow. It’s perfect for me because I’m not big and strong like the linemen or as fast as the DBs. I‘ve played all those spots, but linebacker is best.”
About that hair. Kanoa, who is of Hawaiian and Mexican decent, says he had his hair cut short until the eighth grade. A little later he was into Polynesian dance, and it fit his heritage.
“I was bored with my hair and I just let it grow,” he said.
And grow. And grow. And grow."