Pride Of The Westside
Oregon grad DeForest Buckner, just taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the 49ers, is proud to be from Nanakuli-Waianae, and folks there are proud of him. He talks with ‘MidWeek’ about the path and the work ethic that led him to the top
DeForest Buckner has “It.” The French put it much nicer. They would say he has je ne sais quoi, or roughly translated, that coolness factor you cannot describe because you do not possess it yourself.
As we said, it is nicer in French.
When you meet the man you cannot help but notice it, from the calmness he exhibits to the patience he demonstrates when reporters ask the same ham-handed questions ad nauseum, and from as simple an act as the ease with which he threads a hands-free microphone under his Nike-sponsored shirt.
This man has it, and now so do the San Francisco 49ers, who selected him seventh overall in the NFL Draft April 28.
“I’m probably the happiest guy in the draft right now, being reunited with Arik (Armstead), having that history with him back in Oregon,” says Buckner after his selection. “He’s a good friend. We’ve been talking about it a little bit throughout the draft process. I’m excited, I’m ready to go and try to be a part of this team and win some games.”
Not only is he being reunited with a former team-mate, but also with head coach Chip Kelly and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, their position coach at Oregon.
It was a raucous occasion out in Kapolei at Da Crawfish and Crab Shack, as hundreds of Buckner’s family and friends gathered for the draft day show. It was half media event, half Westside backyard barbecue with satellite dishes and television cameras intermingled with plastic gridiron tablecloths, oversized white fish coolers and everyone attired in matching fluorescent yellow-and-green Buckner No. 44 jerseys.
This combination perhaps best captures Buckner’s new life, the simple boy from Waianae who has risen to be a top prospect in our nation’s biggest sports obsession. But staying true to his roots, while all the other top candidates were being wined and dined in Chicago, Buckner preferred to be at his friend’s uncle’s “shack” here in the middle of the sea.
“My family, I love being with my family. They (the NFL) were gonna give me seven tickets to come to the draft, but I have a lot more than seven people in my family,” says Buckner with the quiet smile that surely will soon be selling us Zippy’s chili and Fujitsu A/Cs. “I have a lot of friends and family who have been there with me throughout my whole life and got me to where I am today.
Each and every one of them had an impact on my life.”
His beginnings will sound familiar to all of us growing up here in the Islands: days spent poking fish and chasing his cousins around. There were lots of pickup football and basketball games. His father George played three years of collegiate ball at
Ole Miss before finishing his career here at HPC (now HPU), and had blessed his son with his height. And hands — DeFo’s measured 11.75 inches from thumb to pinkie at the draft.
But proud as his mother Maria is today, she was not big on her young son playing tackle football, so Buckner’s first foray into the game was flag football at age 7. He played some QB and showed some aptitude for the game, and at age 10 his uncle took things into his own hands.
“Uncle Tupu convinced my mom to let me play tackle football. I used to beg my mom to play all the time,” says Buckner, who went to elementary school at Kamaile and then the charter school in Nanakuli, Ka Waihona o ka Na Auao.
“If it wasn’t for him convincing my mom, I wouldn’t be here. He was my coach growing up — we were always throwing the ball around with my cousins and he saw how much I loved it. I don’t know how he convinced her, but he did it and everything took place from there.”
As he continued to play both football and basketball, he caught the attention of his PE teacher at school, who happened to be the brother of Kale Ane, the football coach at Punahou. An interview, a placement test and suddenly this West-side boy was going to be a townie student at the school that produced our president, and yet this was not the most impactful event in Buckner’s eighth-grade year.
That came in the form of a late-night phone call to his mother. His father had been hit by a truck on his motorcycle a mere few blocks from their home. His injuries were severe: a broken femur, several broken ribs, a punctured lung, a torn aorta. He was put into a medically induced coma for six months, and suddenly what had been a carefree lifestyle for the young Buckner was taken away with the screech of tires and shearing of metal.
He was the man of the house now, and even after his father came out of the coma, his message to his son was very clear.
“I just took full responsibility — he kind of told me I had to,” says Buckner in a story with The Oregonian. “I didn’t know how much longer he had because he had been in the hospital so long. He said that no matter what happens I have to take care of the family because I am the oldest boy.”
He was bearing this mantle when he began his career at Punahou, and perhaps it fortified him for the grind and schedule that came with it.
“The transition from leaving my side of the island and going all the way to town was big,” says Buckner. “I had to wake up real early every morning, 4:30 a.m., so Mom would drive a little past work at Fort Shafter to drop me off. It was a struggle, especially my freshman year, getting used to the workload, in general it is a lot more. I get done with practice by 7 p.m., get home by 8 and do my homework till sometimes 2 a.m., and have to wake up two-and-a-half hours later to go back to school.”
This discipline helped forge his strength, knowing that he could bear the weight of being the man of the house and take care of his school-work made him grow up fast. But it was not without a shining example under his very roof.
“After my dad got into his accident, Mom had to manage everything, and take care of all of us and go to work early in the morning,” says Buckner, whom his father believes got his determination from his mother. “Now she has to wake up even earlier, at 3:30 a.m., because traffic is even worse. The things that woman does, she is definitely the strongest woman I have ever met.”
As his father continued to recover, Buckner’s future was looking bright — first team all-state in basketball and football — but which was going to be the right path for him?
Fate would decide that for him as well, when an injury sidelined him during his junior year.
“It is hard to get recruited as a basketball player from Hawaii,” says Buckner. “I got hurt my junior year before a tournament in Vegas, where there were gonna be a lot of scouts, and your junior year is the biggest year to get recruited for basketball, so I switched the mindset to football — and, I mean, so far it has been working out pretty well.”
He is being modest. In his senior year, he helped lead the Buffanblu to a state hoops title.
And at Oregon, he terrified opposing teams’ offenses with his otherworldly size and speed. He got his 6-foot-7 height from his dad, but his 290 pounds of muscle comes from his mother’s Samoan heritage. He is just the second Duck in the last 30 years to be named Pac-12 defensive player of the year and was awarded the Morris Trophy for most outstanding defensive lineman on the West Coast.
Going into the draft, he looked to be a top-10 pick, following his college team-mate and high school competitor Marcus Mariota, who went second overall last year.
In high school, the two split the four games they played against one another, with Buckner winning the first two and Mariota the last two.
They will not get to renew their rivalry this year, as the Titans and 49ers are not scheduled to play against one another (unless they both make it to the Super Bowl), but Mariota did have some advice for Buckner when they ran into one another on campus in Eugene when both returned for the Ducks’ spring game.
“I was running on Saturday and I saw Marcus, and he said, ‘I am glad to see you staying in shape, at this point you got to stay on it because rookie mini-camp is right around the corner,'” recalls Buckner. “He just really wanted me to stay in shape when I go on my visits, to just be me.”
He can keep being himself, but he will get to do so with a lot more comfort. His projected contract values him in the $18 million range with $11 million of it as a signing bonus. He plans to use some of it to get his folks a home in the Bay Area so he can have them close to him and, to use his words, “upgrade their cars.”
Advertising endorsements are sure to follow, and he already has had his first TV work, when ESPN’s Sports Science tapped him to film a segment on the amount of space he takes up on defense with his 7-foot wingspan. They estimate it to be the same as an M4 Sherman tank.
The show concluded that Buckner delivers a half-ton of force when exploding off of the line of scrimmage. That’s more power than a head butt from a bighorn ram.
Another nugget learned from the video is that Buckner’s vertical jump of 36.5 inches is two inches higher than New Orleans Saints wideout Brandin Cooks’, whom Buckner outweighs by more than 100 pounds. Cooks was a first-round draft pick in 2014.
“It was pretty cool,” says Buckner. “I grew up watching some of those episodes, but being able to do it was awesome. I never imagined I could be on something like that.”
There are many things to come that he may never have imagined, and temptations abound that have been the undoing of lesser men. But Buckner is not one of those. Everything he has, he has earned.
For the “It” that Buckner has does not come from the genes that made him NFL-size, but from the life that has made him a man.