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My story from Wednesday’s paper:
Psalm Wooching was 5 years old when he tasted fire for the first time. Soon enough, he was bragging about the first burn on his hand.
“I hope this stays forever,” he told his dad.
His hand has healed. The burning passion remains, as Psalm showed during a photo shoot earlier this week on the shore of Lake Washington.
After changing out of his football gear following practice, the University of Washington linebacker from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, changed into his traditional luau garb, wearing only a floral wrap around his waist. He used a blue Bic lighter to ignite one end of his 3-foot fire knife and proceeded to demonstrate part of the traditional Samoan dance, using his right hand to pull the flame from one end of the staff to the other.
As he swirls the staff, the roar of the spinning flame is unexpected, startling even; the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh like a mini jet engine blasting off. And for a 5-year-old boy, yes, it’s intimidating.
“My dad said the only way you’re going to get better at it is if you keep doing it, so I’d keep putting it on my tongue — one second here, two seconds here, three seconds there …” Wooching said.
Some dads teach their sons how to throw a spiral. Luki Wooching taught his how to embrace fire, and Psalm carries the family’s cultural torch with pride.
“There’s no trick to it,” Luki said in a phone interview from the Big Island. “When you get burned, you move on. It’s the risk of being a warrior.”
A new home
This month, Wooching has embraced the challenge of learning a new position for UW, and he heads back to Hawaii for the season opener against the Rainbow Warriors on Saturday expecting to be a key contributor on special teams, and as a reserve on the defensive line.
A 6-foot-4, 225-pound sophomore, Wooching has been yo-yoed from one position to another since arriving at UW in 2012. He came in as a running back, became the starting fullback last year and, after that position was eliminated in the new coaching staff’s system, he switched to defense in the spring, working first as a defensive end and now in the hybrid “buck” end role. He isn’t complaining.
“I kind of just wanted a change — I wanted to be let free, in a way,” he said.
He believes he’s found a permanent home on the D-line among his fellow Polynesians, including Hau’oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton and Taniela Tupou. Kikaha has taken an especially active role in helping Wooching during the transition. After a recent practice, the two were discussing the details of a hand-placement technique on a pass rush that Wooching was trying to perfect.
“Psalm is a tenacious, physical player, so it doesn’t matter where you put him — he’s going to hit somebody as hard as he can,” said Kikaha, a senior from Laie, Hawaii. “He’s always asking questions and trying to get the next step up.”
Wooching is still a relative newcomer in football. He really only started playing about five years ago as a sophomore at Kealakehe High School. Before that, the idea of playing football, well, it didn’t have much appeal.
“Pads?” he recalled thinking back then. “That’s a girly sport.”
Rugby, you see, is Wooching’s first love, another passion inherited from his father. In high school, Wooching played for the U.S. rugby junior national team, and one can’t help but feel for all the other, smaller boys trying to slow him on the rugby field in his YouTube highlights.
“He was known to be the train that nobody could bring down,” his dad said.
Wooching received another invitation recently to join a junior camp for the national rugby team, which he had to decline because of his UW football commitments. The Samoan national team, his dad said, has also expressed interest.
Still, in his spare time, Wooching has found a way to play for the UW club rugby team part-time. In May, with Wooching playing a position similar to a running back, the UW club team won the Division I-AA national championship, beating Utah Valley by a score of 39-22 in Sandy, Utah. Psalm scored one “try” — analogous to a touchdown — in the championship game.
When Wooching got back to Seattle, he mentioned the rugby team’s national championship to new UW coach Chris Petersen. “He congratulated me,” Psalm recalled, “and said, ‘Well, now we’ve got to get one.’”
A proud namesake
Luki is from Samoa originally, and Psalm’s mom, Shannon, is from Tacoma, where Psalm’s grandparents still live. Psalm tries to see them on most weekends.
Luki says he’s been to more than 35 countries to perform his fire dance as part of a Christian fellowship. The family’s two kids, Psalm and daughter, Hero, were along for many of the trips. For a couple of years, when Psalm was 6 and 7, the family lived in New Zealand.
Luki and Shannon, as you’d expect, got the inspiration for their son’s name from the Bible. “Psalm sings and writes songs about God,” Luki said. “And whatever passion our son had, he would be able to sing that.”
Four nights a week, for four hours each night, Luki runs a luau at a hotel on the Big Island. “I’m the captain of the boys,” he said. He does the luaus after completing his full-time job as a cook at a small university. (When he visited Seattle last year, Luki made a traditional Hawaiian feast for the entire UW football team. He hopes to do it again when he visits next month. It’s probably safe to say he’s the most popular dad on the team.)
The Samoan culture, with its emphasis on family values, runs deep with the Woochings, as evident in the first tattoo Psalm had inked on his right arm when he was in the seventh grade. That artwork represents the story of his life, with new ink added for new chapters and new stories.
After asking his family’s permission, as is custom in Samoan culture, he also had a large Samoan “fue” — a chief’s whip — inked over his left shoulder. Luki has the same tattoo, a symbol of authority and respect, and Wooching hopes his son will have the same one some day, too.
“He has a big responsibility with that,” Luki said.