Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor
Most high school seniors tackle nothing more strenuous than the next set of waves during spring time. Tama Paogofie-Buyten, however, will be tackling some of the nation’s top rugby players.
Paogofie-Buyten, 18, just finished leading the Kona Bulls U19 team to two tournament wins on Oahu and barely had time to unpack his bags before he has to start packing again.
The All-BIIF defensive end for the Kealakehe WaveRiders football team has been invited to try out for the U20 national rugby team.
With the Kona Bulls season about wrapped up, Paogofie-Buyten leaves next week for the Olympic Training Center in San Diego and begins his quest to make the national squad for the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Previously, Paogofie-Buyten was invited to youth camps across the country, including the high school All-American camp in December in Phoenix.
Of the 30 players, Paogofie-Buyten was the only one selected to try out for the national team.
“Turns out I am 17 days too old to make the younger team, so I’ll be the youngest guy going for the U20s,” he said. “Of course, my dream is to make the Olympics in 2016. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Although he grew up playing football, roller hockey and soccer, it was the sport of rugby that captured his heart.
“It was just by chance. I went to see my cousin play and about 5 minutes after I walked in the gate, this big Tongan guy comes up and says, ‘hey, you wanna play,'” Paogofie-Buyten said. “Within about 10 more minutes, I was suited up and on the field. I had never played before.”
Paogofie-Buyten wasn’t sure he even wanted to play at first.
“I think I was more scared of the big Tongan guy than I was of the sport,” he said. “But that’s all it took. I took to rugby quicker than football. Sometimes I think I’m still learning football, but rugby came naturally. It’s like breathing for me.”
Four years later, Paogofie-Buyten is captain of the Kona Bulls U19 squad. The Bulls rugby club also includes U10, U13 and U15 boys and girls teams.
Earlier this month, the Bulls U19 team reigned supreme at the Aloha 7s and the Hawaii 15s tournaments. The team was undefeated in nine matches and brought both trophies home to Kona.
“To go undefeated in those tournaments was pretty good,” he said. “We beat Kahuku. That was their first loss in eight years. We went down in the beginning, but we had our last try in the last 3 minutes and we won, 22-14.”
As captain, Paogofie-Buyten said he is proud of the team and loves his leadership role.
“At first I think I was captain because I was one of the players who just took to the game,” he said. “But now it’s all about taking care of my boys. When they are happy, I am happy and anything is possible. I love my boys to death.”
Paogofie-Buyten said he’s happy to inspire and share his love of the sport with younger athletes.
“I try to train with the girls, talk story with the 15s, have sleep overs, dinners and stuff,” he said. “And I definitely want to see everyone succeed.”
With few role models in U.S.A. rugby, Paogofie-Buyten said he most admires Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain. “He’s the one I look up to most,” he said.
Paogofie-Buyten said he also is grateful his parents Ed and Leetha have supported him and his rugby-playing sister, Nika, 13.
“Ever since I was a child, mom and dad always said ‘what’s the next sport?'” he said, and that helped spur him to train hard.
“You have to be ready at all times, not just physically but mentally ready,” he said. “You could get the call anytime. You have to adapt and be ready.”
Before he can start planning a trip to Brazil, Paogofie-Buyten said he wants to attend university, study psychology and play rugby at the collegiate level.
He is mulling several scholarship offers, but is leaning toward Lindenwood University in Missouri. “They have a lot to offer right now,” he said.
Father Ed admits rugby has taken over the family’s life.
“It’s all rugby, all the time. Rugby is all we talk about. We didn’t know anything about rugby, but we fell in love with it when Tama and his sister and his cousins started playing,” Buyten said. “We’re very proud. I never would have imagined it in a million years, but we’re so proud of him.”
Buyten said he and his wife have learned not just about the sport of rugby, but about making sure Kona student-athletes can take advantage of all available opportunities.
“It’s an exciting time to be 18 and be into rugby. But you have no idea about the paper work. College applications. The national team. We’ve certainly got the knowledge now and we want to help other kids get to college, get an education and play their sports,” he said. “We’ve done it now and we’ll keep helping other kids.”
Buyten said Kona athletes, as well as those across the island and state, have the attention of recruiters now.
“It’s one of the fastest growing sports out there,” he said. “The national recruiters have been here and they’ll come back. It’s such an opportunity for our kids and it shows our community that our kids can make it.”
One of those kids is Paogofie-Buyten’s younger sister, Nika.
“I’d never tell it to her face, but I definitely think she’s talented,” he said. “And she’s much bigger and tougher than I was when I was her age. I was pretty scrawny.”
According to the U.S.A. Rugby website, the game is played by 4.4 million people in more than 100 countries across six continents. That includes 200,000 girls and women.
Paogofie-Buyten is ready to represent Hawaii on the exploding national rugby stage.
“Just like in all my travels, it’s always about showing the keiki the right way,” he said. “There’s no other Hawaii guys out there right now. There are three other guys on Oahu, but they are younger.”
Hawaii, however, carries a reputation.
“They always ask the same thing: ‘How do you play rugby when you are surfing all the time?'” Paogofie-Buyten said. “I don’t surf so I just tell them that all the fields here are right next to the beach, so I can watch the surfers while I’m playing rugby.”
Meanwhile, Paogofie-Buyten just wants April 4 to get here fast, so he can begin his Olympic quest.
“There is never a day when I don’t want to hold that rugby ball in my hands and run around with my teammates. I just can’t wait for Saturdays,” he said. “Rugby will change your life. I want to be involved with rugby as long as I can, until my last breath.”
— Editor’s Note: The state rugby championship tournament is slated for April 6-7 in Hilo.