Big Island trio comes up big at NFL Punt, Pass & Kick
Jason “AJ” Alani won by the biggest margin of the 10 events at the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick national competition Sunday in Denver, displaying the dominance of Hawaii competitors.
AJ of Captain Cook took the boys 10-11 year-old division championship with a punt of 108 feet, 4 inches, pass of 155-7, and kick of 119-11 for a total of 383-10. The runner-up, Hunter Renner of Indiana, had a 309-11 total.
It’s AJ’s second national title. He won the 8-9 year-old division in 2012 in Baltimore.
“It was good, but it was cold,” said AJ, a sixth-grader at Hawaiian charter school Kua O Ka La. “My parents (Jason Alani and Traci Kahananui) were happy. I got a trophy.”
AJ, whose parents accompanied him to Denver, is a quarterback for Pop Warner, a pitcher for baseball and also participates in track. He went to Pennsylvania for a softball throwing contest, so arm strength is an asset, his mom said.
“The arm is where all his power is,” she said. “We were impressed with his distance. That was his highest score ever. From the regional to the national, he didn’t grow but he got stronger. During practice as the months went by, he kept trying harder.
“The best part was the competition. He’s mellow and to him it was like nothing. After the competition, he didn’t want to talk about it. He wasn’t nervous, probably because he did it before. We had all the nervousness going.”
Jayla Medeiros of Kealakekua was second in the girls 10-11 year-old division with a total of 308-9. Eryn Puett, of Missouri, was first with a 356-9 total.
It’s Jayla’s fourth time at the national competition. She was the only 10-year-old in her division. Next year, she’ll compete as an 11-year-old favorite. Previously, Jayla pocketed a pair of national titles.
Nalu Kamakea of Mountain View was fourth in the boys 8-9 year-old division with a total of 225-7. Luke Adams, of Illinois, was first with a 287-11 total. Nalu was denied his third title.
The national winners were introduced during halftime of the NFL divisional game between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers on Sunday at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos won 24-17.
The competition was held a day earlier at Valor Christian High School. Representing the Chargers were five competitors, with four from Hawaii. Maui’s Lalelei Mataafa was third in the girls 14-15 division.
AJ’s favorite team isn’t the Chargers. It’s actually the Cincinnati Bengals. And his NFL idol is wide receiver AJ Green with quarterback Andy Dalton a close second.
“I’m thinking it’s because of his name AJ,” Kahananui said. “The team wears orange and black. Alani means orange in Hawaiian.”
The Saturday weather was nice and hot with clear skies, but the Hawaii competitors noticed during the 15 minutes of warm-up that the air was really thin. Then the competition started with two rounds, and the best score taken.
“The ball was flying and we knew the scores would be high,” said Jacob Medeiros, father of Jayla. “Jason killed it. He smoked the competition. There really was no competition for him.
“Jayla’s first round wasn’t the greatest, but the girl Erin nailed everything and she was accurate, too. The second round Jayla nailed it, but she wasn’t close to what Erin put up. Jayla beat the two other 11-year-olds. A lot of people were surprised she got that high.”
Medeiros was asked by other parents what makes the Hawaii kids so competitive. They’re not only regulars at the national competition, but also fill out most of the roster for their team, the Chargers.
“We come so far and we’re not going to go all the way up there and not take care of business,” he said. “Everything is short on time. When we qualify, we only have a couple of days to make flight arrangements for our family and kids, take off from work. It’s something serious. We’re not driving two hours. We have to fly and if we make that commitment we’re going to do our best.”
When Medeiros talked with other parents, he found out that most of them have something in common: their kids all play soccer. His daughter and the two other Big Island youngsters don’t; they play football.
“They have two events over us. Two of those events are kicking,” he said. “But our kids really pulled it off.”
The families watched the game in the upper-deck section. And also representing the Chargers on the field was rookie linebacker Manti Te‘o, the former star at Notre Dame and Punahou. He later left the game with a concussion.
“We were in the nose-bleed section. It was a good game, and it was good to see Manti give those boys some hard rubs,” Medeiros said. “They said it was going to be 45 degrees and the weatherman said it would be 30 degrees at the end of the game. Sure enough it was cold. When the wind chill came in, it was cold, but it was good.
“Coming from Hawaii, we don’t have any pro teams. You go to Aloha Stadium, then you go to that stadium and it’s unreal. When you pull up to park, you see so much people. They’re like ants. It’s thousands of people. It was an experience.”
Medeiros said he was also thankful for the tireless work of local coordinator Brenda Kuamoo.
“She really works hard, goes out of her way and does what she can to get Hawaii kids on the map,” he said. “A lot of families will never go to an NFL game. It’s what these kids do for us. It’s amazing.”
For more about the NFL’s Punt, Pass & Kick program, visit nflppk.com.