This story originally appeared in Cal's Kickoff Game Progam on Oct. 13, 2007.
By Anton Malko, California Media Relations
It should come as no surprise that senior defensive tackle Matt Malele has a knack for making teammates better, the willpower to overcome obstacles and a commitment to others that yields lifelong bonds. A member of the Golden Bears since 2003, Malele has helped Cal rise to the next level with his talent and by attracting an infusion of Polynesian student-athletes who have made Berkeley their undergraduate home.
"It's just amazing how he can just stand someone up," says junior defensive tackle Mika Kane of Malele's talent. "His run-stopping ability is great, but the most impressive thing about Matt is that when he gets hurt, the way he bounces back." Malele defied predictions by missing only one game after hurting his foot against Louisiana Tech in September, returning for Cal's big win at Oregon.
"You just can't break his will," says cousin Noris Malele, a junior offensive lineman. "He's been working very hard and it's paid off. It's just great to see and I'm very proud of him."
The pride extends to Matt's role in a flourishing Polynesian presence on the football team. Prior to his arrival, Cal had no Polynesian players on its roster. Now the third-ranked Bears have eight players of island-descent.
"You can say that Matt was the first domino in us developing what we have in terms of such a strong and positive Polynesian presence," defensive line coach Ken Delgado says. "His choice to come to Cal is what set it all in the right direction."
Malele was born Torrance, where his parents settled after they arrived in the United States from Samoa as children. After moving to the vibrant Polynesian community of nearby Carson, Matt and his cousin went on to star as all-city players for the Carson High Colts.
"It's mostly Samoan, but a lot of Hawaiians and Tongans, too," says Matt of his hometown. "As a community, we were Polynesians as a whole."
As a recruit Malele had serious interest not just from Cal, but also from Tennessee, Washington, Penn State and Notre Dame, among others. Penn State and Tennessee were yet to establish Polynesian roots. Other schools in the Mountain West, WAC and Pac-10 had made decent inroads, but at the time, the Bears had not.
"The Malele name in Carson, California, is very, very recognizable," Delgado explains. "Everyone recognized that Matt Malele could have gone to other places and he chose Cal. That turned into a positive recruiting tool for us in the Polynesian community. So he was the guy that started it all."
"Growing up in Carson, football was fun as a family," says Noris, who followed his cousin to Berkeley the following year. "We were aware of Polynesians in college and the NFL, and when we got to high school, we realized it was something that was in reach for us as well."
Today the Polynesians on Cal's roster include Matt and Noris, Hawaiians Kane, Tyson Alualu, Savai'i Eselu and Solomona Aigamaua; and Will Ta'ofu'ou and Chet Teofilo, who, like the Maleles, were born in California.
"Matt is definitely one of the reasons I came here, and I know it's one of the reasons why we're still getting kids from Hawaii," says Kane, who hails from Honolulu. "Being up here together, we're all the same. You can just tell that we've been raised similarly. It really helps the homesickness because it's like a family away from home."
"Coming into camp, all the older Polynesians are just trying to make the younger guys feel comfortable, trying to get the homesickness away from them," Matt says. "Hanging around together with the younger guys is something that we do just so it'll help the transition."
"We're just trying to make a family atmosphere, not only for Polynesian players, but for any player that comes on a recruiting trip," says Noris. "We let them know that California has a family atmosphere on this football team. We treat each other like brothers, love each other and look out for each other every weekend."
Part of the comfort zone is built around traditional Polynesian foods. Among Matt's favorites are garlic chicken and palusami, slow-cooked pork and coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves.
Leery of too much of a good thing, Matt had to recalibrate his relationship with comfort cuisine in order to achieve his fitness goals after teammate Brandon Mebane departed for the NFL following the 2006 season.
"Knowing that I was going to be on the field a lot more this year, I knew my conditioning had to get better, and I knew my weight had a lot to with it," Matt explains. "With Mebane gone, I had to take on this role."
"It wasn't a no-no," he says about the legendary tailgates his family and friends are known to prepare every weekend, with teammates like Mika able to duplicate the feat with their cooking skills during the week. "It was just moderation."
As a result, Malele entered spring ball 25 pounds lighter and honed his health further over the summer to emerge with a body better able to accommodate his high-IQ football mind.
"He's reshaped his body, his energy has increased and his productivity has improved, so that's really served him well," Delgado says. "He has so much command with his experience and his scheme. He'll do things that are way beyond his role because it helps everyone. He'll recognize something, whether it's an imbalanced formation or a particular wing formation that's going to alert the defensive end to do something. It's very unusual and takes a level of not only intelligence, but presence on the field. When you're on the field and able to see it and recognize it and act it, that's another level of awareness. That's very rare."
"He's like another coach out there," Kane agrees. "Coach Delgado stressed that we've got to become aware of what's going on behind us. If you know what the coverage is, you know what passing lanes to get in and little stuff that can help out a lot on the field, and Matt has a really good grasp of that."
It's easy to envision a future that includes Matt Malele as a coach, teaching players to be their best. With the world wide open, the sociology major prefers to set his sights on returning to his roots when the time is right.
"One of the things I want to do is become a teacher," Matt says. "I want to go back and teach at Carson, and try and start a program to help the Polynesian youth. Coaching is something I see myself trying to do, but not so much as becoming a head coach, perhaps defensive line, probably in the high school range, just trying to help kids develop."
He and his cousin have made it a tradition to return to Carson High each spring to speak to current Colts about their opportunity to seize success.
"It's always great going back to Carson," Noris says. "We've always had role models who have been very encouraging on our journey here, and we just want to do something to give back, because the rest of the community was always so supportive."
As the "first domino," Matt has propelled Cal in the proper direction with his powerful play and positive perspective. "He sees the progression of how to get from A to B and sees the big picture, and can take people from the small picture to the big picture," says Delgado.
And that's been big for the Bears.