Talk Story: Morris Unutoa Sr.

LIHUE — Morris Unutoa Sr. has had quite the journey in the sport of football — from winning a high school state championship in California, to playing Division I college ball at Brigham Young University, to spending seven seasons in the National Football League.

Unutoa moved his family to Kauai in 2009 and now works with the Kauai Police Department. His football playing days are behind him, but now he’s seeing his boys walk a similar path.

His two sons, Morris Jr. and Eli, both played for Kapaa High School’s varsity football team this past season. Morris Jr. recently signed his letter of intent and will play for the University of Utah.

Unutoa sat down with The Garden Island recently and talked about his path in the sport from youth to the pros, making the move to Kauai and his work with the KPD as a school resource officer.

You played football. Your boys play football now. Do you come from a family where all the men just played?

Yeah. I came from a family of six — five boys and one girls. I’m the youngest. And yeah, just started playing at a young age. I tried to play all the sports when I was growing up. My favorites were basketball and football.

High school, I played football at Carson High. It’s in California. It’s in LA. From there, we did well. We won a state championship. Got a scholarship to play at BYU. From there, played one year and then I went on a church mission for two years in New Zealand. And when I got back, went back to BYU and finished up there; ‘95 was my last year.

Hoping to get drafted, you know? But that didn’t go through. But I had a coach at BYU at the time by the name of Norm Chow, who was the former UH coach. He happened to have a good friend who, I think, was a scouting director for the Philadelphia Eagles. They were talking during that draft weekend. He asked Norm if he had any long snappers. So, he mentioned my name. “Yeah, we got a guy who’s been snapping for us for four years. He’s pretty good.” Then he said, “OK, we’ll give him a try.” So, Norm Chow called me into his office that week. He said, “Hey, got a friend. He’s going to fly you out to Philadelphia tomorrow. Go snap for them and see how you do.” So, I did. Went out there. It all happened in one week. Snapped for the special teams coach and the kickers. They liked me decided to sign me as a free agent. That’s how my NFL career started.

It didn’t pan out for me as far as a lineman. I wanted to play as a center or guard, but they looked at me as special teams — someone who can snap and, if needed, I can be a backup lineman. So, I was able to do that. Did that for seven years — three years with Philadelphia, three years in Tampa Bay and one year in Buffalo.

You also played in the Canadian Football League, right?

Yeah, played in the CFL a few years later; 2005 was my last year. And then after that, I went back. I wanted to work with kids — troubled kids. I went back to Utah. I was a counselor at Heritage Schools. That’s in Provo, Utah. Kind of like a counselor, where you just help kids with their program and achieve their goals. Try to get them back on track and out of juvenile facilities. So, did that for a few years.

And then, got into teaching. My neighbor was opening up a charter school. Thought I would be a good teacher. So, she asked if I wouldn’t mind teaching fourth-grade. I was like, “Sure, I don’t mind.” So yeah, got into teaching, and I was teaching fourth-grade for a couple of years.

So, we were back in Utah. And then my wife’s grandmother got sick. She needed someone to look after her. She was 97 at that time. My wife asked if we could move back to Kauai. My wife’s from here.

Let me backtrack. So after my senior year in college, I met my wife at BYU and I was just going into the NFL. After my rookie year, came back and got married. Then we moved out to the East Coast, and that’s where we were the whole time. Mo was born in New Jersey in ‘99 when I was with the Eagles, and then Eli was born in Tampa when we were down in Tampa Bay.

After all that, my playing years, went back and finished school. Worked at the facility and got into teaching. I wanted to teach. I liked the schedule. I like working with kids. And then we ended up moving out here to take care of my wife’s grandmother. She was 97 at the time. We stayed with her for a couple of years, and then she passed.

Sorry to hear about that.

Yeah, no. She was a strong lady. I enjoyed those nights talking to her. She had a lot to share about how Kauai used to be. Yeah.

After that, while we were here, I was teaching. I was looking for work. I was a substitute teacher, and then Kauai High called and asked if I wanted to teach long-term. So, taught there for a couple of years, from 2010 to 2012. I taught special ed. for one year. And then the following year, I taught wood shop.

After that, I kind of applied for police knowing that I would be moved around as a teacher — being at the bottom of the totem pole. I don’t have that seniority. So, I applied for the police during that time. Got in, but the hiring process was taking such a long time — doing background checks and all that.

So, I worked a few jobs. I worked at Kapaa Middle School for one year as a home ec teacher. A part-time security job at Kauai Beach Resort. I was working a few jobs before I got hired at the police department on New Year’s Eve on 2012, right before 2013.

So what is your job with KPD?

I’m the school resource officer, the SRO, at Kapaa High School. We handle all the cases at the high school. We have drug cases, kids bringing drugs in school, or getting into fights. I handle all those cases. I also do presentations for the freshman class — choices, consequences, things like that. Drugs and all that.

What made you want to go into that kind of work? Working with troubled kids?

That was always my passion — working with kids. I always wanted to help kids, growing up in LA. If I didn’t have good coaches, that kind of, you know? I have good parents, but both my parents worked. I was just doing whatever, hanging out with friends and stuff like that. I didn’t really have a direction. That was until I got into football. I started playing when I was in seventh-grade, where everything took off for me — the direction and the coaches that I had. It just helped me with what I wanted to do. Just the discipline and the type of coaches that I had, they were just there. They kind of paved the way for me. It just carried on — Pop Warner, high school, college and then pro.

So, I just wanted to give back. I want to teach kids what it’s like. To not have everything, and to work for things and stick with it. I wasn’t a straight-A student. I wasn’t even a B student. I was an average student — Cs, and couple of Bs and one D, you know? I was just in there. So for me, to get a scholarship and to go to a Division I school, it was a big deal for my family. Nobody in my family has graduated from college. I was the first to go to college and graduate. I had siblings that went to college, but I was the first to graduate from a university.

So, that’s my passion — to give back and try to teach kids through sports, and just be like a mentor, a counselor, to help kids. Like, recognize the things that they’re doing and shouldn’t be doing, and help them to make good choices. Better choices. And help them see the results of good choices — what happens in your life when you make more good choices than bad choices.

It also gives me an opportunity to spend a lot more time with my family. Being a police officer, it’s hard. The shift work can be hard, sometimes, not not be with your family at certain functions, a birthday, graduations or something big for the family. But being a resource officer allows me to do those things that I like to do. I was helping with the Kapaa football team, just coaching and mentoring. I was able to do that on weekends, and do my work at the same time during the week. So, it worked out. I kind of came full-circle, where I wanted to teach and then I wanted more stable with better pay. So, being a police officer and right back into the schools, it was cool it happened that way.

So when did you make the move to Kauai?

2009. Yeah.

Ever been to Kauai before then?

Yeah, we would visit. My wife’s from here, from the Kapaa area. She’s a Sheldon. All of her family are born and raised here. In fact, all here family are former police officers. Her dad was a police officer. Her uncles, her grandpa, her great grandpa, the Sheldon family is a big law enforcement family.

So back to football. I looked you up online. Did you really win a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay?

No. I wish. I was with the team, but I got released. So, I didn’t finish the season with them. But I look at that like, “Dang.”

But still, you made it to the NFL. Was in the league for seven years. Looking back now, what can you say about your career?

That experience was blessing. I truly believe the choices you make in your life will have an effect on your future. So for me, I’m a God-fearing person. I believe that God has a plan for each of us. It’s for us to figure out what that plan is, to stay true to God and try to keep his Commandments. By doing so, he blesses you. It’s as simple as that. He has a plan for you. You obey his plan, and he blesses you. And in the process, it’s also how you treat your wife and your children. Those things that are very important, I feel, helps you down the road. The way you conduct yourself with coworkers and friends, the way you speak and the way you act. All those little things play a big part of who you are in your life.

When I look back at my football career, it all started because somebody when I was young saw something in me that made him say, “Hey, you got potential. Just keep working hard, and you’ll get somewhere.” It all started with my coaches in LA that guided me. That was the vehicle that helped me get a scholarship and further my football career.

I always wanted to play for a certain high school when I was in Pop Warner, and that was Carson High. It was one of the top high schools in California and in the country. That was a big goal. When I got to that high school, each of my friends, we all wanted to go to college. We all wanted to play in Division I, and we did. There was four of us that played in Pop Warner. We all went to the same high school. We all dreamed of playing in Division I somewhere. We did. Some of wanted to play pro, too. A couple of us made it all the way. The other two played, got a shot in Major League Baseball and the Arena Football League.

When your with the football team at Kapaa, do you get questions from the kids about playing pro?

Sometimes. It’s different. The kids here, when they play football here, they play for fun. Some of them, they play football because everyone else is playing. Some of them don’t have that drive. It’s nothing against them. They just want to play high school football. They don’t want anything beyond that.

And there’s some kids that have the ability to make it to the next level. But the majority, there’s just content with playing high school football with their friends, and then want to do something else after when they go to college. I try to encourage them to use football as a tool to get them to the next level, to wherever college it may be. Whether it’s Division I, II, III or junior college. Any type of school that will allow you to get off Kauai and experience football and life on the Mainland somewhere, or on Oahu. Any school that will pay for your education and allow you to play football, or any sport you love.

And now you have two sons playing football. One of them just signed his letter of intent. You’ve already had your experiences. What it like now seeing them go through the same thing?

It’s cool. It could be tough at times because I can be hard on my boys. I know what they’re going though, and my expectations for them are higher because they have all the tools. They’re blessed with the size and strength. They’re blessed the intangibles. I see the immediate potential, so I coached them up harder. I know what it takes to get to the next level. I know what it takes to play at practice even though you’re tired, and then you got homework. I know what the grind feels like for a young kid because I’ve been through it. High school sports and then keeping your grades up, it’s a long day for these kids.

I try to be supportive. My wife reminds me a lot to be supportive. For the most part, I was tough on them because I want them to practice the way they should practice — the technique and that motivation. That aggressive nature to play this game, especially if you’re on the line. You have to play aggressive. You can’t play passive or soft because you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re not going to help your teammates, and you’re not going to improve yourself. So, I try to teach them how to use your size, your strength, your quickness, everything that would make you a football. That’s what I try to do as a father — try to teach them things that will help them.

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