Thursday, September 11, 2014

There's intense gravity. I'm just your satellite.

Tongans _ Semise moves to PSU 4

I've spent the past two years following two Tongan best friends in their last year of high school. "The Pact" ran in Sunday's Oregonian. Semise Kofe and Sione Taumoe'anga thought faith, football and friendship could lead them out of poverty. But what would they sacrifice along the way?

The first thing Semise Kofe and Sione Taumoe'anga did together was fight.

It was a Sunday afternoon in 2007, just after services at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Rose City 1st Ward. The 11-year-old boys knew of each other. Both their families had come to Portland from Tonga, a tiny Polynesian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. They lived in the same neighborhood of ranch houses at the city's edge. They both had something to prove.

Later, neither could remember why they fought that day. Boys growing up on the blocks just off North Columbia Boulevard, an especially poor, rough part of eternally downtrodden North Portland, didn't need a reason. They earned power and respect just for swinging.

Taumoe'anga, lanky with the first shade of a mustache, punched Kofe in the mouth. Kofe, neckless and wide, grabbed Taumoe'anga and slammed him against a car.

Other boys from the neighborhood were joining the Crips. Kofe and Taumoe'anga had already lost a few friends to juvenile detention centers. As onlookers pulled the boys apart that morning, Kofe and Taumoe'anga shared the same scary thought: We could be next.

"We gotta do something different, bro," Kofe remembers saying.

A friendship was formed. A deal was made.

Taumoe'anga's uncle ran a makeshift gym in a detached garage near Pier Park. Maybe, Taumoe'anga suggested, he could train them for something more productive. For football.

They showed up for the first session wearing school uniforms and no shoes. Both their fathers worked in concrete, an industry that slowed to a near-halt during Portland's wet winters. They had dress shoes for school, but no sneakers.

Kofe suggested they steal a pair. Taumoe'anga had a better idea: "What about the wires?"

People often threw perfectly fine sneakers -- the laces knotted together -- over telephone pole wires. Several pairs hung in the sky near their homes. They knocked a few sets down before finding a pair of baby blue size 9 knockoffs, then took turns wearing them. Kofe ran laps around the park while Taumoe'anga stood barefoot on the sidewalk. Then Taumoe'anga ran while Kofe waited and watched.

"We're gonna get this done," Taumoe'anga said between laps. "Get better. Prove everybody wrong."

They slapped hands and prayed: "Heavenly father, help us get out of here."

It was a contract made by boys, no more binding than a spit-shake. Later, they took to calling it their pact.


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