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Hawaii defensive back Matagi Thompson (25) perform a Ha’a, or Hawaiian war dance, Aug. 2022, before a game against Vanderbilt in in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
HONOLULU — Each football practice, University of Hawaii safety Matagi Thompson plays for his past.
His quick and graceful movements are tributes to grandparents Jack and Cha Thompson, founders of Tihati Productions, one of the state’s largest providers of Hawaiian and Polynesian entertainment.
His strength and power are reminiscent of his father, Afatia Thompson, an All-State running back at Punahou School who went on to be a valued member of the Rainbow Warriors’ resurgence under June Jones in 1999.
And he plays for the what-if possibilities of an uncle, Eli Thompson, a Saint Louis School linebacker who unexpectedly died two months after signing with the Warriors in 1993.
“They’re a part of who I am, ” said Thompson, who was given his uncle’s full name of Eli Hunter Matagitokelau Thompson.
“We’ve got highlights back home, ” Thompson said of his namesake uncle. “I used to watch that growing up. From what I saw, he was a beast. He was an animal on that field.”
The younger Thompson also has started to make an impact—and a name—with the Warriors, elevated to the safety rotation.
“I just put my head down and grind, ” Thompson said.
After delaying his UH enrollment a semester, the 2021 Punahou graduate started the first four games of the 2022 season before suffering an injury to his right shoulder. After undergoing surgery a year ago, Thompson did not play the rest of that season nor participate in the Warriors’ 2023 spring training.
Thompson, who is 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds, entered this season on the developmental track. With his sideline-to-sideline speed and tall frame, the widespread belief is added weight and strength would lead to Thompson eventually moving to outside linebacker. Last year, Nalu Emerson and co-captain Logan Taylor made a similar transition from safety to linebacker.
Thompson played three defensive snaps in the fourth game against Oregon—“not very valuable plays, ” he said—and was beckoned in the second half against New Mexico last weekend.
“Peter (Manuma ) was tapping his head, ” Thompson said of UH’s starting field safety. “He needed a breather. I just ran onto the field. I wanted to get my playing time.”
In seven plays, Thompson was credited with two stops. He is expected to serve as Manuma’s understudy for Saturday’s game against San Jose State.
If he is credited with a medical hardship for the 2022 season, he could be a candidate to redshirt this year if he does not play in more than four games. In that scenario, pending the NCAA’s approval, Thompson might be a third-year freshman in 2024. It will be a patient plan for Thompson, who has a contrasting background of quick learning. He was 5 when he began performing for Tihati, and 6 when he learned to spin fireknives.
But Thompson is hopeful of contributing the rest of this season, and improving during the offseason. The reward could be skin deep. Thompson said he has no tattoos because “my arm’s too skinny. I want my arm to be bigger.”
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