Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Football runs in Kanongata’a blood
Dishes from the tiny Polynesian island nation of Tonga certainly didn't hurt the growth of sophomore linebacker John Kanongata'a.
"My mom always cooked Tongan food," said Kanongata'a. "My dad always said eating it will make you big and strong and fast, so that made me want to eat it."
Maybe not fast and strong enough to draw attention from bigger schools coming out of Washington's Bellevue High. But the 5-foot-11, 227-pounder certainly is making plays for the Grizzlies since he was inserted into the lineup after an season-ending injury to Jordan Tripp during the Eastern Washington game.
With his distinctive long black hair draped past the name on his jersey, Kanongata'a tallied a career-high 12 tackles and had a game-clinching interception with 25 seconds remaining in Montana's 17-14 win over the defending Football Championship Subdivision national champions. His play against the Eagles, which also included a key fourth-quarter sack that pushed EWU out of field goal range, helped Kanongata'a earn Big Sky Conference defensive player of the week honors.
For the season, Kanongata'a, who has three brothers who also played football at the collegiate level, as well as a pair of cousins in the NFL - Indianapolis Colts' defensive tackle Fili Moala and Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata - has made 77 tackles, which is second on the team. He also has an impressive 9.5 tackles for a loss.
Kanongata'a credits his success to his ability to trust his teammates.
"If I know the guy next to me is going to do his job, I can do mine, and we'll be fine as a defense," he said.
Q: Was there anything different about your offseason?
A: It was my first year working out with the team. To be able to lift with the team was a huge change. It brought us closer together.
Q: After a 2-2 start, Montana in many eyes did not have the look of a championship contender with inconsistencies on both sides of the ball. What was the turning point for the Grizzlies this season?
A: After the Sac State game, we realized we aren't invincible. We realized we needed to step our game up. It gave everyone perspective on where we need to be and to not end up like last year.
Q: What are your responsibilities at strongside linebacker?
A: Being able to play in space. You have to cover some wide receivers and be able to tackle in space. You have to know the defense so you can turn a block away from or a play back to your teammates.
Q: You have an identical twin brother named David. Do you have any good "let's pretend I'm you and you're me" twin shenanigans stories?
A: We've only done it once. It was in the sixth grade. Our classes were right next to each other. We only did it for one class. Everyone thought it was funny. The teachers didn't know about it. We've always been too afraid to try again.
Q: Are you closer to your twin brother David than your other brothers, William and Loka?
A: Yeah, we've always hung out together. We had the same friends. We were basically together all day, every day until college. I'm close with my other brothers too, though.
Q: What do you know about Northern Iowa?
A: They have a huge O-line. The shortest one is their center, and he's like 6-3 or 6-4. Their quarterback and running back have some speed. Their tight ends don't have that many catches, but they could still be a threat.
Q: Former Northern Iowa legend Kurt Warner worked in a super market before reaching stardom in the NFL. What's the best or worst job you've had?
A: I've actually never had a job. I've always been busy with sports and my parents never pushed me to get one.
Q: During your junior year you were riding in a bus that overturned on the way to a football playoff game. How scary was that experience?
A: At one point you're focused on playing a game and then the next thing you know you're overturned on I-5. It's something I will never forget. It was very scary.
Q: You helped lead Bellevue High to back-to-back 3A state championships. What are the qualities of a championship contender in your eyes?
A: The way you put in work every day and knowing it will all pay off in the long run. Everyone coming together to achieve one goal, which is what we're doing right now.
Q: You originally verbally committed to Montana State, but of course, you ended up here. What changed your mind?
A: I really only committed there because that was the only offer I had at the time. Friends on the team were telling me about it here and I knew it was where I wanted to go. I just needed to secure a spot on a team. It was a no-brainer once Montana made me an offer. I wanted to come here.
Q: I read your father really wanted you to commit to Montana State. When did your father come around to your view that UM was the best fit for you?
A: I don't think we ever really talked about it. I went for a visit (to Montana State) with him and I think he was just overwhelmed and impressed. Now he's happy that I'm here.
Q: What is linebackers coach Ty Gregorak like on game days?
A: He's more calm during game days. During the week he's more a stickler. If we do make a mistake on game days, he's always there to talk it out to make sure we get it right the next time. He's a cool guy.
Q: How did you get started playing the ukulele?
A: Me and my twin brother always wanted to play a musical instrument, but never had the time or patience for guitar or drums or something like that. Our mom said we should try it when we went to Hawaii for our (high school) senior trip. She learned how to play when she was little and she loved it.
Q: Do you listen to the late Hawaiian ukulele artist Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole?
A: Yeah, I've heard a couple of his songs. He's good at calming me down when I get a little angry. He's a good artist.
Q: When was the last time you were in Tonga?
A: I was in the fourth grade.
Q: What do you remember about your trip to Tonga?
A: I remember how beautiful it was. Blue waters. I also remember the mosquito bites I got while I was there. It was just a great experience. I can't wait to get back there.
Q: Rugby is very popular in Tonga. Have you ever played or do you have any interest in the sport?
A: I never really played it, but it looks like it would be fun to play it. I don't really know any of the rules.
Q: Who has the second best hair on the team?
A: Bobby Alt.
Q: What is something that most Griz fans don't know about your former high school teammate and current Griz running back Peter Nguyen?
A: A lot of people might not know that he's a real religious guy.
Q: What is your favorite place to eat in Missoula?
A: Red Robin. Just because of the bottomless fries.
Q: What is the most quote-unquote Montanan thing you've seen or experienced since you came here? Basically, what's something you've done or seen that you wouldn't have back home in Bellevue?
A: Seeing a deer strapped to a four-door sedan, and not even a truck, was something I wouldn't see back home.
Q: You're a business major. What would you like to do with that degree?
A: I was thinking about going into accounting. Maybe international business.