Whenever Ken Niumatalolo and Jack Damuni get on the phone together, the stories flow and the laughter follows.
They reminisce about some of their youthful hijinks, such as sneaking into dances on the campus of Brigham Young University-Hawaii, located in their hometown of Laie.
“We were both tall for our age, so we would try to dance with college girls,” Niumatalolo said with a chuckle.
Speaking to reporters during a virtual news conference, Niumatalolo also recalled throwing water balloons at BYU-Hawaii students and doing other “mischievous things.” Damuni and Niumatalolo love remembering and laughing about the good old days.
“Coach Niumatalolo has the funniest laugh ever. I’ll tell a funny story and he will have to put the phone down and laugh for like a minute straight,” Damuni said. “Whenever I hear that laugh, it takes me back to our childhood days.”
Those two boyhood friends will be reunited on Monday night at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium when Navy hosts BYU in the 2020 season opener for both schools.
Niumatalolo will be beginning his 13th season leading Navy football, looking to build on his status as the program’s all-time winningest coach. Damuni, entering his fifth season as executive director of on-campus recruiting and community relations for BYU football, will be on the opposite sideline.
Making the occasion even more momentous is the fact BYU head coach Kalani Sitake also grew up in Laie, a rural town of 6,138 residents on Oahu. When the matchup was announced, Niumatalolo texted Sitake and declared this to be the “all-Laie championship” between “competitive dudes from the North Shore.”
“I think it is pretty sweet. Talk about diversity. To have two Polynesian young men coaching against each other is really cool,” Niumatalolo said. “If anybody has ever been to Laie, that would make it more remarkable to just see how small the town is.”
Niumatalolo became the first Football Bowl Subdivision head coach of Polynesian descent when he was promoted to replace Paul Johnson in December 2007. Sitake made history as well, becoming the first Tonga native to serve as a collegiate head coach when he was hired by BYU in 2016.
“For Ken and Kelani to step on the national stage as the first head coaches of Polynesian and Samoan ancestry is priceless,” Damuni said. “For me to be on the same field to experience that will be unbelievable.”
There are many connections between the Navy and BYU programs, but none is deeper or stronger than the lifelong friendship between Niumatalolo and Damuni. They met in the game room of the Polynesian Cultural Center shortly after Niumatalolo’s family moved back to Laie when he was in the sixth grade.
Niumatalolo said “we just hit it off right away and did everything together.”
“Our houses were divided by a wall. I’d jump over the wall and knock on his door to wake him up and go play basketball,” he added.
They spent hours playing pickup basketball and football at Laie Park or hanging out in the neighborhood.
“We were inseparable. When people looked for Kenny and couldn’t find him, they would come to my house,” Damuni said.
“To this day, Kenny is one of the best friends I have in this world. We share a lot of great memories of growing up on the North Shore in a worry-free environment. It was a special time for me and my brother Ken. We had a lot of fun together.”
Damuni’s father was one of the founders of the Polynesian Cultural Center, among the top tourist attractions on Oahu. Niumatalolo’s father managed the restaurant there. It was natural for their sons to get part-time jobs at the 42-acre theme park and living museum that is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Niumatalolo worked as a “canoe boy” giving tours on the shallow waterways of the complex. Damuni danced in the evening shows that are a culmination of daily activity at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
As middle school students, Niumatalolo and Damuni played for different wards in the local church-sponsored basketball league. “I was always a poor sport. There would be times when his ward won and I wouldn’t speak to him afterward,” Niumatalolo recalled.
Damuni remembers how determined Niumatalolo was to play quarterback at the youth and high school level.
“Ken always wanted to be a quarterback, but when he tried out for Pop Warner they wanted to make him an offensive lineman. He didn’t like that,” said Damuni, noting the same thing happened when Niumatalolo briefly attended Iolani School.
Niumatalolo wound up transferring to Radford High in downtown Honolulu and leading several state championship teams. Damuni, who attended Kahuku High, would drive from the country into town to watch his friend play.
Niumatalolo stayed home to play quarterback for the University of Hawaii and was working as a graduate assistant there when Damuni was being recruited out of Dixie Junior College. Niumatalolo hosted Damuni on his official visit to Hawaii but knew his friend dreamed of playing at BYU.
“It was Ken who told me to follow my heart and go to BYU,” said Damuni, a standout safety for the Cougars in 1992 and ’93.
Niumatalolo followed his mentor, Paul Johnson, to Navy in 1995 and thus began a 21-year association with the institution. Meanwhile, Damuni got into coaching as an assistant at Maui High in 1997. He coached defensive backs at Mesa Community College then served as coordinator of the Hawaii Speed and Quickness Complex before being hired by Sitake.
Damuni routinely asked his best friend for career advice and often used him as a reference.
“If Ken Niumatalolo was not in my life and helping direct me with decisions, I would not be where I am today,” he said.
Niumatalolo enters 2020 with a career coaching record of 98-60 and continues to put distance between himself and George Welsh (55-46-1, 1973-1981) as the winningest coach in Navy football history. He has nine wins against archrival Army, breaking the previous record held by the legendary Red Blaik.
“I cannot even express how proud I am of Ken and his accomplishments,” Damuni said. “Ken has been a trendsetter with whatever he does. He’s a great leader and people look up to him. He’s my overall role model in life.”
Damuni made sure he was in attendance when Niumatalolo was inducted into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame during a January 2014 ceremony held at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.
Damuni and Niumatalolo text before football games to wish each other good luck. Damuni has become a diehard Navy fan thanks to Niumatalolo, while the latter roots for BYU because it is the flagship university of the Mormon church.
“Obviously, being a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, I have great respect for the institution and what it stands for,” said Niumatalolo, whose son Va’a played football for BYU from 2014 through 2017.
After the Navy-BYU matchup was announced, Damuni sent Niumatalolo a text message of thanks because he knew his friend had a big hand in making it happen. The Cougars had seen their 2020 schedule decimated due to conferences canceling, so picking up the Midshipmen was huge.
Damuni last saw Niumatalolo when the Navy coach came to Provo, Utah, to speak to a group of Army veterans at the local Rotary Club.
“Ken is the same person today he was when we were kids. Honest, caring, humble and kind are the words I would use to describe him,” Damuni said.
Monday, 8 p.m.
Latest College Sports
TV: ESPN Radio: 1090 AM