- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Coaches and teammates marvel at Sione Pouha's strength. He can squat-lift 600 pounds, flip a weighted blocking sled as though it were made of plastic and immobilize offensive linemen with one arm. He's among the two or three strongest players on the New York Jets, a blue-collar tough guy who believes in hard work.
And the spiritual power of his long, curly black hair.
"Every time I need help or find myself in a tough situation," Pouha said, "I'll touch my hair."
In those moments, the massive, 325-pound nose tackle gently strokes his hair because his father, Sonasi Pouha, touched it as he lay on his death bed. It was his final gesture on earth, a father's way of telling his only son he was proud of him. This was July 2, 2009, at the family's home in Salt Lake City. Sonasi, 76, his body ravaged by pancreatic cancer, could no longer speak, but he didn't need words to convey a lifetime of love.
It was their father-son thing. Whenever Sione excelled, either in school or football or Boy Scouts or with his trumpet, his dad would rub his hair and say, "Good job, son." Sione cherished those moments. To him, they were as meaningful as the accomplishment itself.
So with the family gathered around Sonasi's bed, a vigil to the man who left his native Tonga in 1976 to start a new life and raise a family of five in the United States, the big man in the middle of the Jets' vaunted defense summoned up the strength to say goodbye.
"Hey, Dad, do you still remember who I am?" he asked, knowing the advanced stage of the insidious disease and the impact of chemotherapy had impaired his father's mental state.
"The last thing he did was rub my head," Pouha said quietly.
He vowed to never cut his hair. And he hasn't.
• • •
On a headline-making defense that includes a superstar (Darrelle Revis), a rising star (David Harris), a future Hall of Famer (Jason Taylor) and a media magnet (Bart Scott), Pouha is overlooked by those outside the Jets' locker room.
That's because he plays the all-guts, no-glory position of nose tackle, and because he's often perceived as the fill-in for the injured Kris Jenkins, one of the most dynamic interior linemen in the sport.
Truth is, Pouha (pronounced BO-oo-ha) was slated for a significant role before Jenkins suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Because of the injury, and because Jenkins also missed most of last season, Pouha has started 23 of the past 25 games.
Once again, he's the backbone of an elite run defense.
No defense holds opponents to 89.6 rushing yards per game (fifth in the league) and 3.4 per carry -- the Jets' numbers -- if the big fellas are getting pushed around. Pouha and fellow tackle Mike DeVito are the anchors, tying up blockers so others can make the tackles and receive the attention.
"We joke about our defensive linemen protecting our two, big-name linebackers," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. "The running joke is, 50 cents protecting $50 million."
Pouha's impact was felt last week in Cleveland, where the Jets stifled one of the league's top inside runners, Peyton Hillis. The 250-pound bruiser rushed for only 36 yards on 12 carries between the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the previous game, Hillis pounded the belly of the New England Patriots' defense, gaining 133 inside yards on 21 carries.
Call it the Pouha Factor. Trained eyes see what he means to the defense.
"He's one of the three or four strongest players I've ever seen," said Jets defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, who has seen plenty in a 13-year career that has included stops in Denver and Baltimore. "He can do things most players can only dream about. We'd be in trouble without him. He's damn good."
Pouha is hell on blocking sleds. When his fellow linemen get tired of pounding the sled, loaded with 200 pounds of weight plates on the back, they ask Pouha to do his thing.
"One guy will say, 'Sione, break the sled,' and you'll hear a big clattering of weights," Pettine said. "You turn around, and the sled is upside down with weights everywhere."
There was the time last season when Jenkins came into the locker room, boasting that he did 33 reps on the 225-pound bench press -- a ridiculous feat. Turns out that Pouha did 35, although you'd never get him to admit it. He's so humble that he didn't want to reveal any specifics about his weight-room exploits.
Pouha, outgoing and affable, believes in the team concept. On the Jets' defense, there is no room for attention-starved freelancers. When asked about stopping the Houston Texans' Arian Foster, who is coming to town this weekend as the NFL's leading rusher, Pouha refused to call it a personal challenge. He's not looking to be a hero.
"It would be like a flute hitting a C minor in an orchestra piece while everybody else is in tune," he said, laughing. "You're not doing your job."
Turns out that Pouha is a pretty fair trumpet player. Why the trumpet?
His dad suggested it, of course.
• • •
Pouha and his father were extremely close. Sonasi attended Sione's high school games and practices at East High School in Salt Lake City, and he established the school's booster club, which will honor him posthumously next week. He also served as the scoutmaster of Sione's Boy Scout troop, guiding his son to the highest rank, Eagle Scout.
"He's my biggest fan," Sione said, speaking in the present tense.
Sonasi was an important member of the community, as he helped smooth racial tensions when East High was combined with the poorer West High. It was like the movie, "Remember the Titans," with teammates clashing. That the football program was named one of the worst in the country by USA Today didn't help team harmony.
It didn't stay that way. After games, Sonasi showed up with his family and cooked for everybody. So began a tradition.
"After every game, it was like a Polynesian feast," said Keeko Georgelas, who coached Pouha at East High. "I know he didn't have the financial resources, but that didn't stop him. It really helped create a sense of family and pride in the school. Best booster club president I've had in 25 years of coaching."
The vibe carried over to the field, as East went from losers to champions in Pouha's senior year.
Before starting his college career at Utah, Pouha served a two-year Mormon mission in Pittsburgh. This was no vacation. It was a Spartan existence.
From 1998 to 2000, he went without TV, radio and a phone, going to door to door through Western Pennsylvania, teaching and preaching. He was up at 5:30 a.m. every day, studying his scriptures. He was allowed to call home only twice a year, Christmas and Mother's Day.
"There's no break, there's no bye week," he said. "That teaches you discipline."
Pouha, 31, considers the mission a turning point in his life, the bridge from childhood to manhood, and he'd do it again if he had the opportunity. He got a late start on his NFL career -- drafted by the Jets in 2005 at the age of 26 -- but he has no regrets.
He's convinced he wouldn't have made it this far without that discipline. The rest, he owes to his father, whom he honored last season by wearing a white glove for the first few games -- white because it was the color of his dad's hair.
Sione and his father shared quality time before his death, hanging out and driving in Sione's Hummer across the Utah countryside. When they diagnosed the cancer, the doctors said he had three months to live. Sonasi beat that by more than a year.
It has been about 18 months since Sione's last haircut, and his black hair -- once shaved to his scalp -- is running wild in different directions. He loves it.
"You've heard of people shaking hands with someone famous and saying, 'I'm never going to wash this hand,'" Pouha said. "Same thing with me and my hair."
It provides inner strength, and not all strength can be measured with pounds on a barbell.
The last thing Sione Pouha's late father ever did was touch his son's hair.