Originally published at SDFNL Magazine
Story by Eric Williams
“The two words that exemplify my dad the most are “passion” and “love.” Everything he achieved, accomplished or set his mind to was done with both qualities. In every situation — whether it be practice, a game, a family barbecue, an impromptu ukulele song or just a run on the Oceanside Strand — he always gave you all of himself because to him, there was never any other option.” – Sydney Seau from her speech before her father’s NFL Hall of Fame induction.
It was an early afternoon on January 16, 1995 when my friend Rob and I sat around a big-screen TV watching the Chargers clinch a trip to Super Bowl 29 after shocking the favored Steelers on the road. Later that evening, we started to get word that Jack Murphy Stadium (Qualcomm Stadium after 1997) was going to host a celebration upon the team’s arrival from Pittsburgh, so we jumped into my truck and headed down to Mission Valley. Traffic was bumper to bumper for miles around the roads entering the stadium, so we parked outside and walked down to the massive party that was happening inside. There were no Fire-Marshalls on site, no security guards at any gates, and attendance was free, so seventy-five thousand people jam-packed the stadium. With Chargers fans from all parts of San Diego, we sat in the aisles at the West end of the Loge section waiting for the team to show up. Junior was the first player to arrive and his passion was on full display when he spoke to the fans that night. I’ll never forget his iconic words: “They didn’t think beach bums played football, they thought this was only a tourist attraction, they know about Shamu, and now the World…THE WORLD…is gonna’ know, NOT about Junior Seau, NOT about Natrone Means, NOT about Stan Humphries, NOT about Leslie O’Neal, but….the San Diego Chargers.”
That next year, I was just a few years away from college graduation. I had been studying Sociology, and I was learning how to better the lives of troubled youth in San Diego. While working in the electronics department at Wal-Mart in Oceanside, my manger told me that Junior Seau was going to bring his “Toys for Tots” program to the store during Christmas season. The program was created by the Seau Foundation to provide Christmas presents to young children from low-income households. Seau brought in fellow players from the Chargers to our store one day in mid-December and took hundreds of kids shopping for gifts. The kids could pick anything they wanted; even gifts for their parents, and Junior Seau along with the players were going to pay the bill. I was blessed to see one of my sports heroes contributing back to society and to those less fortunate, and Seau even took a few photos with my friend Jonathan and I. In 1996 we were still learning about the Internet, and there was no Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, or Facebook so the photo we took had more sentimental value. We loved watching Junior Seau play football, and we loved what he was doing for our community. That day we saw first hand that Junior Seau really did love the people here in San Diego. Junior had the kindest heart.
A New Season:
The 2016 prep football season is just weeks away in San Diego, and the media has begun to start previewing some of the top players and teams from around the county. On the heals of successful seasons from both players, it made sense for SDFNL to feature a story on two of San Diego’s top recruits, Ezekiel “Zeke” Noa from Helix High School (6’1”, 225), and Sampson Niu from Madison High school (6’1”, 220). Both players are linebackers, both are of Samoan descent, both understand the impact on the game of football that Junior Seau had, and both share very similar qualities on and off the football field. And like Sydney Seau said about her dad having passion and love at all walks of life, my conversations with these two young men invoked these same qualities. There is one thing about the Samoan Community that I believe is undeniable: They are good people. Noa told me that Niu, “was one of the best linebackers in the World.” Niu spoke highly about Noa as well telling me, “Zeke’s a beast, I’m not gonna’ to take anything from his game. Zeke’s a beast!”
Ezekiel “Zeke” Noa – Helix High School
During the 2015 season, I got the chance to watch Helix High School class of 2017 linebacker Zeke Noa play football in person. Montell Allen from MBA sports brought up Noa’s name earlier this summer as we brainstormed ideas for SDFNL Magazine’s August 2016 cover. We agreed that Noa was one of the top linebackers in the state, so I asked Allen to set me up with an interview. After messaging his father, I spoke with Noa on a Saturday afternoon and our conversation was very positive. A polite individual off the field, the young man is a battle-tested warrior on the field. Noa, who started playing football when he was six years old, attacks like a heat-seeking missile against the run, and he defends the pass extremely well. “My first year of playing, I wasn’t the best player. Growing up though, I was always playing with kids a grade higher than me, so I got better.” By the time Noa got to middle school, he knew his talent was real. “I want to say probably around 7th or 8th grade was the time I started to really love to play football, and I knew I could be really good at it.”
Noa attended Spring Valley Elementary and Spring Valley Middle School in San Diego. He shares a great relationship with his family, especially his father who was kind enough to communicate with me via text to set up the interview with his son. Noa’s father played linebacker at El Camino High School under legendary Head Coach Herb Meyer in the early 90’s winning two San Diego Section championships (1990, 1991). “For me growing up playing football, my dad was and still is, one of the hardest ones on me. He would get mad at me for little things, and at the time I would realize and get mad as well for some reason. Now I realize why my Dad was so hard on me. He was just pushing me to be the best. In the beginning it was kind of rough because I didn’t realize that.” Noa says his dad always taught him about the “little things” like dropping a ball in practice. “My Dad has taught me how to be a better football player and a better man as well. Growing up in Samoan culture is pretty rough…pretty tough, but later on down the line, you realize why your parents are so hard on you growing up. They just want the best for you.”
A very spiritual individual, Noa shares a special bond with his family. “My family is my motivation, I feel like football is my way of giving back to them for everything they have done for me…my family is my motivation for working hard.” Noa proudly expressed to me that his family is what keeps him going everyday. “We actually go to a Samoan Church in National City and we read the Samoan Bible. My Mom is from Samoa and my Dad is from Oceanside…I just grew up the Samoan way.” Noa also calls upon his spirituality to guide him as an individual. “In the offseason I go this program called Gridiron Ministries where we have a group of all ages and another group of just high-school students. The first 30 minutes we would have bible study, the next hour and a half we would work out, and it’s really helped me to become a better person.” Noa said he is grateful for the opportunity to play football at a high level. “Growing up and to this day, I am taught by my parents to stay humble and work hard, and I’m still going to carry that on. So right now I feel like on a spiritual level I want to stay humble and just keep on playing for the man above and for my family, just realizing what God has done for me and giving it all back to him.”
Noa is physically ready to at the Division-1 college level and his athleticism is off the charts, but you won’t see Noa playing any sport but football. “I don’t play any other sports. I can, but it’s kind of hard to because my parents want me to focus on football to avoid any injuries.” Laughing about it, Noa said, “It’s tough because there are some sports my Dad will let me play, but not my Mom, and there are some sports my Mom will let me play, but not my Dad, so I just don’t play at all.” Noa has been playing Varsity football since his arrival at Helix High School. “I started Varsity football my freshmen year, I got moved up like 3rd week…. I was just a special teams player.” Remembering his first game Noa told me, “It was cool, I liked the experience. The biggest difference was the game speed…it was a lot faster.”
Since his freshmen season, Noa has improved his game, but he knows there is still work to do. “I feel like I’m stronger, and my speed has increased but I still need to work on my speed…I’m not the fastest, so still working on that.” A phenomenal linebacker on the defensive side of the ball, the Highlanders coaching staff has also used Noa on the offensive side of the ball during his career at the school. “Playing offense actually helps me with my footwork on defense because I’ve realized that running routes are very important. Changing from one direction to another, I feel like I have improved on that since my Freshmen Year. There is always room to improve though.” Asked what the biggest difference was on the defensive side of the ball after playing offense, Noa said, “I can definitely relate to the routes better.”
Noa still has great respect for his former head coach at Helix, Troy Starr. “Coach Starr was a great coach! He had these ways of getting around kids and making us do our best, not for ourselves but for the team,” explained Noa. “He’s a great coach, he knows his football, and he always uses his coaching staff to get things done. Coach Starr, he’s a great coach.” Starr stepped down after the 2015 season, and the football program at Helix has hired coach Robbie Owens going forward. In his eight seasons as head coach at Grand Junction high school in Colorado, Owens led the team to a 47-38 record making the playoffs each year from 2009 to 2014. Owens, an offensive innovator, ran a high-powered attack at Grand Junction using the no-huddle power pistol formation. Albeit a tough transition, Noa says things are going well for the Highlanders so far with their new coach. “It started off kind of slow because we had to get used to the different style, but it’s great,” says Noa. “The offense is the same, but the big difference is with the terminology coach Owens uses. We’ve got used to it though, so it’s great! It’s a great offense that he’s installed for us.”
Noa says he is blessed to be a part of it all at Helix High School. “I truly can’t imagine going to a different school. The kids there, the football team specifically, we connect. That’s what happens as a team, we connect and I’m not even talking on the football field. I’m talking off the field; we’re close already right now. I’ve realized that’s just Helix Football…the team that bonds together, they become closer, and they’re connected.” The connection was evident this past summer when Helix won four passing league tournaments amassing a 35-1 record in the process. “It was great, winning those 7 on 7 tournaments. That kind of says something, and we have to continue it during the season as well.” Noa told me that Helix is rebuilding their running attack though. “Right now I feel like we have to work on our run game and get it all cleaned up so when the season starts we’re ready. We’ve definitely showed people we can pass, but that run game is very important.” The Highlanders lost one of the best running backs in the history of San Diego football when Nate Stinson graduated in 2016. “We have to fill some big shoes with the loss of Nate…He was surprisingly strong at his size, and the speed he had was just phenomenal.”
Training and great work ethic has made Noa a better football player. “I always go to AJ’s Gym…Alex Johnson. I go to his gym at six in the morning, but it’s not just me, it’s a handful of the Helix players. We workout there from 6 to 8, and after that we all go to Helix where we just work buy ourselves and do routes.” Noa says his ability to get to the ball fast on defense is one of his biggest strengths. “On the field, I want to say my quickness is the biggest advantage I have. I’m always looking to improve footwork though, getting in and out of my breaks…” Inspired by one of the best linebackers ever in Junior Seau for sure, Noa also takes inspiration from another future NFL Hall of Fame Linebacker. “I liked watching Ray Lewis play, and all of his motivational speeches…I watched those too. I’ve noticed that he’s a very passionate guy, on and off the field. I want to carry that type of passion with me on the field.”
During the Week, Noa is very serious about his practice effort. “We’ve actually talked about it as a team. You practice how you play, so we were told to make every practice session like a game, practice hard, play hard, and get each other better prepared for when it’s game time.” Noa stays well hydrated during the week leading up to Friday nights. “I drink Coconut Water and carry around a gallon of water all week at school. On Thursdays I drink a gallon of Gatorade, and on Friday’s I drink pickle juice,” laughed Noa. “I realized it really helps me stay hydrated and prevent cramping.” On Fridays Noa is full of energy. “It’s kind of hard being patient because you’re still going to go to school, and you kind of get tired of walking around. After school we get the pregame meal, maybe take a nap, but the mindset is already there. As a team we gotta’ go…we gotta’ go. It’s game day!”
Noa has received ten scholarship offers including those from Washington St, Wisconsin, Colorado, Illinois, and Boise State. Scout.com recently reported that Noa is currently receiving looks from USC and UCLA. Noa’s recruitment process is a testament to modern technology and Social Networking sites. “It’s been good. It’s kind of hard for me to connect with the coaches because I don’t have a cell phone,” Noa said. “I actually use a tablet to connect with them and I have a Twitter account, so I connect with them that way as well. But it’s been good, I’ve been talking to some coaches, and some other media reporters, so it’s been fun.” A very intelligent person, Noa is on the right track academically as well. “Right now my GPA is at a 3.2, I’ve taken one SAT, and I’m scheduled to take another one before school starts up.” Not done grinding and working hard everyday, Noa is very active in the off-season. “I actually went to a lot of camps,” Noa laughed. “It was kind of tiring, but I tried to go to all of them and just have fun, and realize why I’m there. I really liked the Colorado Camp at Redlands University. The coaches there all wanted to meet my family who were with me. That was pretty cool, as well as Wazzu. Wazzu was at Oceanside, and those coaches wanted to meet my family, so that was pretty cool. I like that.”
Noa’s advice for Pop Warner kids who want to play high school football is to find that motivation to play. “Even when you don’t want to do it, you still gotta’ go out there and work hard because in the long run it will pay off. And you gotta’ have something to motivate yourself. For me, it’s my family.” Noa also shared some advice for some of the younger high-school players who are just beginning the recruiting process. “No matter what, try to get your name out there, and go to camps. I went to a lot of camps. I went to 7 on 7 in L.A…I played for team AIGA. Just try to get your name out there.” Although social networking has helped Noa during the recruiting process, he warns of the dangers. “The Internet can be a really good friend and a bad influence as well. The Internet can help you get your name out for sure, but it can also reflect a bad reputation upon yourself as well if you’re not careful.”
Looking ahead, Noa also has some professional and educational goals in mind. “Right now I like Sports Med. I took it last year and I’m taking it again this year as well, so that’s one of my options, as well as music…I want to do something with music as well.” Noa says he likes to listen to reggae music and Gospel Rap. “I actually love music, my family is very musical. We all started singing at a young age, and we all still sing now.” Noa says his family sometimes gets invited to conventions to sing. “We actually have a group called: System of the Browns. We go around and we sing our own songs,” said Noa. “System is actually an Acronym my sister, who is an artist, created. It means Saving Young Souls To Enrich Minds,” explained Noa. “My Mom taught us how to play music. She grew up in Samoa where her Dad…her parents were musicians and perfectionists of music so she kind of grew up like that, and she carried it on to us. I’m actually in the Helix Choir. I have a brother that’s going to be a freshman so he’ll be in the Choir with me as well. He also just got moved up to JV in football. Right now they have him at the slot and Sam backer.”
Noa told me his most memorable moment so far playing football was in the 2015 Open Division quarterfinals vs. Madison when he returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown in the against the Warhawks. “When I scored, my family had cards in the stands with my name spelled out Z-E-K-E-N-O-A on one side and #30 on the other side. I felt great, I loved that.” Noa also has had a 90-yard pick-six in the 2015 Open Division Semi-finals against Cathedral a week later. As we concluded our conversation, Noa made sure to send out some love to his guys at Helix. “Shoutout to all my teammates because we all work together, and we run together.” Noa also gave me some thoughts on his future. One of his closest cousins is Levine Toilolo who currently plays TE for the Atlanta Falcons. “I’m definitely one of the ones that wants to be playing in the Big Leagues…definitely. That’s my plan right now.”
As the 2015 season ended, champions were crowned, and San Diego County said goodbye to several of our top high school football prospects. The February signing date came and went while the recruiting process for players from class of 2017 and beyond started to heat up again. One local player from San Diego in particular picked up a large amount of offers in a short amount of time…enough offers to make the fire Emoji its own Twitter hash-tag trend in San Diego during the time. A fierce linebacker from Madison High School, his is name is Sampson Niu. And if there ever was a Junior Seau prodigy in the World, Sampson Niu could be that player. Niu hits hard like Seau did, punishing the offense, making them think twice about trying to go at him again. Niu’s quickness in pursuit of the ball carrier reminds you a lot of the former Chargers linebacker, and his footwork is absolutely phenomenal. With very long arms, Niu has the ability to tackle speedy backs before they can get downfield. Sampson Niu is just flat out stronger than anyone else he matches up with. His passion for the game is just like Seau’s, and if you watch Niu play this season, you may just see that famous Junior Seau fist-pump after a big tackle.
Niu started playing football at a very young age. “I think I was in 2nd grade,” he said. “I played for AYS and the Clairemont Hawks.” John Paul Jones in the Serra Mesa area was the first elementary school Niu attended, but he changed schools just before middle school. “For 6th grade, I went to Sequoia Elementary and after that I went to iMiddle School. Both of those are in the Clairemont area.” During his 8th grade year, Niu won a National Championship with Mater Dei star running back, CJ Verdell. “Yes sir, yes sir…it was our 8th grade year, our All-Star team went out to Florida and won it all.” Just like Zeke Noa, Sampson Niu has a football connection to the city of Oceanside as well. His father Sai played with Seau on the Oceanside team that went to the CIF Championship game in 1986. Sai rushed for the Pirates only touchdown that night vs. Lincoln. “All my Dad’s brothers played football for Oceanside…Sam Niu and Mo Niu. My Dad knows a lot of those guys from Oceanside. He was really close to guys like Coach Pulu, the Paopaos…he was pretty close with Junior Seau.” Niu wears the #55 in honor of San Diego’s greatest linebacker ever. “Junior was a good dude. I love the Oceanside area. I go there every now and then.”
I asked Niu to talk about the influence his Samoan culture has had on his life and also the game of football. “As soon as you are born, you are raised into it. My grandparents, they played a big part in my life growing up, teaching us about Samoan culture,” says Niu. “And you know…they keep getting into our head about who we are, who our people are, and what we’re known for, stuff like that you know.” As far as football goes, Niu says football has deep roots in his Samoan heritage as well. “You know it just kind of runs in my blood, especially the coaching. My Samoan coaches, taught me certain ways…how to act, how to think.” More evidence of Samoan influence can be seen by the art that is beginning to take shape on Niu’s body. Niu talked to me about the newest tattoo additions on his left arm. “You know it means three things, the three main things I need in my life: My Samoan Culture of course, my relationship with God, and my family. I carried it over to my chest and my back as well, and I’m hoping to get a full sleeve maybe.”
Niu has Oceanside ties and his father played with Junior Seau, but it was Niu’s destiny to play high school football for Madison. “I spent a majority of my time in Clairemont, and I was always at Madison. I was always a water boy at Madison since like 2nd grade, so you know my brother went there, my cousin went there, and my uncle went there. It was only right that I went there.” For a moment when Niu was younger, there was the possibility he would play basketball instead of football. “At first my Dad kind of asked me, ‘hey you gonna’ try and play football’, and I was like, Nah man I’m a basketball player…what’s football? I play basketball. He said, ‘nah man just try it out you know’, so I did”. That first year I hated football. I didn’t get any playing time, and the kids were bigger than me, so I was miserable. I was playing against kids two years older than me. The next year though, I was a beast going against kids my age! Since then I just loved it, and I never stopped playing.”
Although Niu is very athletic, he does not usually play offense. “I’ve always played defense, but I want to say my 6th grade year I played full back and the got the ball a couple of times,” laughed Niu. “Once I made that transition from youth to high school, my coaches really liked me at linebacker so I’ve always played linebacker since.” Niu did play other sports though. “I played baseball for like four or five years. I played basketball since I was young. I carried it up to my sophomore year in high school and I just stopped playing after that. I did Track.” Niu started playing Varsity Football during his freshmen season. “My first actual game on varsity was my freshmen year, but they had me playing kick-offs. When I actually started playing linebacker was during my sophomore year.” Niu was extremely excited to be on the “big stage”, and he remembers that first moment well. “Man, I remember my first play was against El Cap who went to the State Championship that year. At first I was a little nervous, and I had to get the butterflies out the way, but I loved it though!!”
Playing for Madison head coach Rick Jackson is a big reason why Niu has been so successful at developing his game into the next level. “Ah man, playing for Coach Jackson is a blessing man. Not only him, but the whole coaching staff at Madison does a great job at preparing us before games, getting us right in the classroom, and getting us out there recruiting wise too. Coach B, coach Reyes, and my Dad. Those guys do a really good job challenging us and trying to get us out there. I really appreciate that.” Niu says his work during the week is all about preparation. “Film is very important, you have to know what your opponents are doing, know what formations they’re running, everything. The weight room plays a big part for me too.” On Friday’s, Niu is focused. “Friday is just a mental day throughout the whole day. Go to class, do my work, don’t get in trouble. During lunchtime, I’ll go eat my food, hydrate…hydrate some more, listen to my music. When 6th period comes, that’s when JV starts getting ready to take the field. I’ll watch a little bit of the JV game, go back to the locker room, get dressed and then it’s game time!” Niu also puts on the headphones before games. “I listen to all kinds of music, mostly rap, but before games I like to listen to Dom Kennedy…Dom Kennedy gets me ready man!”
In regards to the student culture at Madison High School, Niu said, “I’ve loved it man, since freshmen year, I can’t believe I’m a senior already! It goes by faster than everybody says it goes by man!” Academically, Niu works hard to maximize his GPA. “You know I’m not going to lie to you, my freshmen year I was a little off track. I probably could have gotten like 4.0, but instead I got a 3.6. You know I was a little distracted getting over the whole hype of high school, just trying to fit in and see where I’m at. My Sophomore year, was when I really you know…woke up and started to see the importance of a college education.” Academics are just as important to Niu as football. “You get that degree and it will take you a long way.”
Niu credits his father for helping him prepare for the recruiting process. “I started watching film with my Dad who is a linebacker coach. We’ve watched countless hours of film together…every night we would be puttin’ in of work and watching film, lifting, and it starts to build on you…you know it changes your perspective on a lot of things.” That hard work has definitely paid off for Niu. “I got noticed during my sophomore year and picked up my first offer. That was a blessing right there. It’s crazy to think that a kid, who had nothing, nobody knew me, but now I’m starting to receive offers. It was cool, but that didn’t stop me from working.” According to Matt Freeman from Irish Sports Daily, coach Jorge Reyes said the Madison coaching staff always expected that Niu would be a big time football player. “He has been playing for me since he has been in youth football at about fourth grade,” Reyes told Freeman. “He is a really respectful young man and a high character kid. He has been working hard this whole time. Sampson is just a humble guy who loves to be aggressive on the football field. His teammates, coaches and teachers love him.” Coach Reyes also told Freeman in their interview that Niu had a recruitment goal even before he got to high school. “Sampson was the water boy when we won State in 2012. At the time we had Pierre Cormier, who ended up signing with Arizona and Pierre had like 22 or 23 offers. Ever since then, Sampson’s goal has been to pass Pierre’s number of offers,” said Reyes. “I just kept putting in work and kept putting in work and a then a lot more opportunities opened up for me,” explained Niu.
A lot more opportunities to say the least, as Niu jumped from having five offers on February 1st, to thirty offers by the end of the 2016 school year. “My recruiting process, I can just say I’m blessed. I’m very blessed to have had all the opportunities I’ve had. I’ve felt the same way about every single offer. It’s really humbling,” says Niu. “My hard work paid off, all those countless nights praying I’d get my first offer, and then I’d get four in one day. I’d get like eight in a week. It’s just been going crazy and it’s been overwhelming. A lot of people are starting to know who I am, so that’s just crazy!” Niu said it felt good because a lot of coaches called to check in and see how he was doing. And there was that one day last April while visiting USC when Niu received the offer that he never expected. “Maaaaannn,” said Niu gleaming with pride. “Getting that USC offer, you know I’m going to be honest, it was probably my most emotional offer. I mean it Junior’s school. I honestly didn’t think it was possible, but getting an offer from USC was crazy! Especially because coach Enfield pulled me aside after one of their practices.” Niu recalls Enfield giving him the good news, “What’s up Sampson, we want you to play for USC and we’ll give you a full ride scholarship offer.” Niu immediately called his parents. “I was in tears just crying, I called my mom, called my Dad to tell them the good news. It was so good that day.”
Things can change during the recruiting process, and Niu chose to make a verbal commitment to another Pac-12 team on June 22, 2015. “The recruiting process can be good but it can also be bad. I had to learn the hard way,” says Niu. “I learned that guys can only take up a few spots at a position, and USC had already offered two inside backers.” Niu took his commitment announcement to local Prep Football insider Paul Rudy at KUSI Sports, and they broadcasted Niu’s decision to play for the Oregon Ducks on live television. “I was ready for the process to be over and to make that commitment. It was pretty cool; I finally got to meet Paul Rudy. It was nice. He was pretty cool, I liked the whole experience.” Niu is not concerned about playing for a Pac-12 rival of USC. “I’m not worried at all with my decision to play at Oregon,” said Niu. “When I went up there, I loved it!” With a 3.7 GPA, Niu could play just about anywhere he wants to. “Grades are probably the biggest reason I received so many scholarship offers.” On the field, Niu believes his awareness and knowledge about football are very important. “You can always improve on something, so I’ll continue to improve on my strength, my speed, and also my knowledge for the game.”
Niu’s plans for college are still developing, but he has goals. “I’m still not sure yet, but I know I want to get my Masters. I’m trying to get my degree in at least three years…maybe in business, or engineering. You never know.” I asked Niu if he had any advice for Pop Warner kids and he said, “Of course…I would tell them to get good grades, listen to your parents, and don’t get distracted.” As for high school players new to the recruiting game, Niu says be patient. “Don’t stress on it. If it’s meant to be to get an offer, you will get one. But the opportunities you get are up to you, so don’t stop putting in the work, don’t hang your head, keep grinding, and I promise you it’s going to play off.” Niu credits his coaches with helping him the most. “I got out there because I have really good coaches, and a really good support team. Not everyone has high school coaches that will be like that, but if you ball, have good film, and your just an overall good person, good things will happen to you, God’s got you.” Niu also said players need to be careful what they post and like things on Social Networking sites. “Don’t be putting anything dumb out there, coaches are watching and everyone’s got your Twitter. If you mess up, delete your whole account and make another one.” Asked if he models his game after anybody in college or the NFL, Niu said, “Nah, I’m just trying to be like Sampson Niu man.”
Niu’s most memorable moment came at the end of his sophomore season. “We lost the CIF Championship Game to St. Augustine (42-49),” recalls Niu. After the game, I just…it was probably the worst I’ve ever felt playing the game of football. You’re starting the whole season as a sophomore, we’re winning the game late, and then we come up short at the end. Losing it for my seniors, it made me feel bad. I couldn’t get them what they wanted, that CIF ring for them.” The loss motivates Niu to this day. “That memory fuels me to always outwork the other person, so it never happens again.” The Warhawks are returning several starters this season, and on paper they are built to win a championship. “A lot of leadership roles need to be filled,” said Niu. “We just to need to step up to the plate, that’s all it is. We have a lot of returners coming back, a lot of veterans. We just need to make sure the underclassmen are hungry as well.” Niu believes it is his responsibility to make sure the guys, as a team, can make it happen. “As Seniors, we need to be on them all the time making sure they’re doing what’s right for the team.” Niu said he and his Madison teammates are ready for some retribution after Madison’s loss to Helix in the playoffs last season. “Just know…It’s not going to happen again. I promise you that. It’s not going to happen again. Mistakes killed us that game, but we want to play Helix again. I believe if we play them again, the result will be good for us this time.”
A fierce competitor on the field, Niu is very peaceful during his free time off the field. “I love hanging out with my family, love playing my Uke, I love eatin’, I’m just about positive vibes man…just hanging out with anyone whose giving me those good vibes.” I asked Niu if he was friends with anybody else around the San Diego football community. “Oh yea man, of course. A couple of guys SDFNL might know like Scotty Young, like Zeke. Zeke’s my boy! Blake…those guys from Helix. I know CJ and Kyle Moses and all those guys from Mater Dei…some guys from Lincoln, I know Daniel Anderson…I know everybody man! Terrell Burgess…That’s my boy. He’s a good dude. It’s always good to see San Diego kids get out there too, so that’s all that matters. It’s just good vibes man…good vibes.”
Like Zeke Noa, Sampson Niu values his spirituality and his family the most. “First and foremost, I have to give a shootout to God for giving me the opportunity and giving me the life I’ve lived. I wouldn’t be, I couldn’t be anything without my parents, and I appreciate everything they do for me and just being there for me.” Niu also wanted to thank some of his trainers who helped him along the way. “I want to give a shout out to Lifelong Athletics, my man Sid, and my guy Joe. Rest In Peace to Joe. Those two guys did a great job especially Joe who helped us get our bodies right and push it. We did some crazy stuff man!” Asked about his future, Niu paused for a few seconds to contemplate it. “I’m not too sure, but what I can tell you is wherever I end up or however I end up, I’m just going to keep doing what I do.”
Madison vs. Helix
I won’t make a claim to which team is better Madison or Helix, but I can tell you without a doubt that the Warhawks and Highlanders are two of the best football programs in San Diego headed into the 2016 season. Helix, fresh off a 2015 San Diego Section Open Division Championship, returns several key starters in 2016. Madison is returning over 20 players from last season’s squad, most of who were starters when their season was ended during the playoffs by that same Helix team. Throughout their history, the two teams have faced each other only three times though, which is odd because Helix (1951) and Madison (1962) have fielded football programs at their respective schools for more than five decades. Last season’s Open Division quarterfinal playoff game was by far the biggest of those three matchups against one another. The game, played at Helix, saw the Highlanders take down the Warhawks by a score of 56-34. The only other times the two played were in 1989, when Helix beat Madison 18-10 and during the 1990 season, when Helix shutout the Warhawks 28-0. A scrimmage between the two teams is scheduled before the 2016 regular season starts, but we won’t get to see these two powerhouses square off during the regular season as they can only meet in the playoffs.
Helix Football, under coach Troy Starr, has an overall record of 83-18-1 since 2008. After losing in the D2 championship twice in a row (2008 and 2009) and the D2 semifinals (2010) to Oceanside, the Highlanders finally beat the Pirates in 2011 to claim the D-2 championship, a season that also saw Helix win a State Championship finishing with a record of 13-1. After losing to Poway in the 2012 D2 semi-finals, and Mission Hills in the 2013 Open Division semi-finals, Helix fell to Oceanside again in the 2014 Open Division Championship before winning a close game with St. Augustine in the 2015 Open Division Championship game. Coach Starr announced his retirement in the midst of that Highlanders run and the team finished 2015 with an 11-2 record after a tough loss in the state semi-finals against Mission Viejo.
In 2012, Matt Calkins from the San Diego Union Tribune wrote that when Rick Jackson first started at Madison, there were eight coaches and just sixteen players on the team. While teaching Biology at Madison, Jackson worked his way into coaching because he wanted to get back into the sport he stopped playing after tearing his ACL as a junior at Mira Mesa High. Jackson started as the Warhawks defensive coordinator under former head coach Steve Miner. Before Jackson was hired as the head coach at Madison, the football program had only made the semi-finals in any division just two times (1996, 2002). Jackson (108-34-1) has led Madison to seven CIF semi-final appearances since 2004 including two San Diego Section CIF championships. Sandwiched between semi-finals losses in 2007, 2009, and 2011, the Warhawks finished as the D4 runner-up in 2008, and the as the D4 champions in 2010, a season when Madison also finished as runner up in the State Championship. Madison won the D4 championship again in 2012 finishing with a 13 game win streak and this time a state championship. Coach Jackson also led Madison to a D1 runner-up finish in 2014 and to the Open Division playoffs in 2015.
You can see from the current resumes of both programs there is an abundance of big time playoff experience amongst these schools; here is a better look at how the two have finished in every season since 2008 and their overall records since then:
Helix Football – 2008-2015 (83-18-1)
11-2 (2015) Open Division Champions (lost in state semi-finals 28-32 Mission Viejo)
10-3 (2014) Lost to Oceanside in Open Division championship 13-20.
9-3 (2013) Lost to Mission Hills in Open Division semi-finals 21-24.
10-1 (2012) Lost to Poway in D2 semi-finals 7-21.
13-1 (2011) D-2 San Diego Champions. (Beat Loomis 35-25 in state championship)
11-1 (2010) Lost to Oceanside in D2 Semi-Finals 17-24.
9-5 (2009) Lost to Oceanside in D2 Championship 10-26
10-2-1 (2008) Lost to Oceanside in D2 Championship 19-23
Madison Football – 2008-2015 (84-16-1)
8-3 (2015) Lost in Open Division Quarterfinal to Helix 34-56
9-4 (2014) Lost in D1 Championship to St. Aug 42-49
9-2 (2013) Lost in D2 Quarterfinal to Mission Bay 18-21
14-1 (2012) D4 Champions (Beat Marin Catholic 38-4 in State Championship)
10-1-1 (2011) Lost to Valley Center in D4 Semi-Finals 21-23.
12-2 (2010) D4 Champs (lost to Escalon in D4 State Championship 14-30)
10-2 (2009) Lost to Valley Center in D4 Semifinals 6-16
12-1 (2008) Lost to Valley Center in D4 Championship 20-31
Let’s clear the air up before I finish my story. There is no true rivalry between the Helix and Madison football programs just yet. This is a football story featuring two of San Diego’s premiere high school football players and the athletic programs they have been developed within. Helix and Madison remind us though that there are indeed several elite football programs in San Diego County. Oceanside is still as dominant as ever on the heels of winning another D1 Championship in 2015 along with the Open Division championship in 2014. The Pirates also won seven straight D2 championships from 2004 to 2011. St Augustine, who was the 2015 Open Division runner up, won the D1 championship in 2014 and also the D2 championship in 2013. Cathedral Catholic won five straight D3 championships between 2007-2011 before winning the D1 championship in 2013. After losing in the D2 finals in 2007, and in 2010, Mission Hills was the D1 runner up in 2012, and the Open Division champions in 2013. Christian high school won the 2013 and 2014 D3 championships, and they were D5 champions in 2011. Both Poway High (2007, 2011) and Eastlake (2009, 2011) have won two D1 championships since 2007.
This past spring, I watched a team win a San Diego Section D1 baseball championship from the losing team’s perspective, as a coach not a media member. I’ve learned how to separate my roles within coaching and media, but sometimes it’s inevitable that the two fields cross paths. You play to win, you coach to win, but most importantly being involved around education, you teach student athletes that they can find positivity even after a loss. Of course losing in a championship game hurts, but seeing another program in San Diego win a championship also feels good. There are a lot of hard working athletic programs in this county who share the same blood, sweat, and tears of a season just like we all do. Only one team per division can hang that banner in their school gym and outside of a meaningful education for their student athletes, wining a CIF championship is the goal of every athletic program in San Diego. Only a few will ever achieve that goal, so it’s our responsibility as coaches, educators, parents, and even media members to support all those student athletes when they don’t win, and to help them enjoy and respect the process.
SDFNL wishes good luck and good health to each and every football program in San Diego as they begin a new chapter in their school’s history during the 2016 season.
You can follow Eric Williams @WBKsports
You can follow Sampson Niu @saampsonniu
You can follow Zeke Noa @zekenoa30