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Talk story: Mel Rapozo

Mel Rapozo might be outspoken when it comes to government issues, but behind the scenes he’s also a major advocate of keiki sports. He’s been a volunteer for Pop Warner, a youth football organization, for decades, and just started coaching the Mitey Mites, ages 7 to 9, this year. It’s something he takes pride in and doesn’t plan to stop doing, no matter how many other gigs he’s got going on, including working as a night auditor at Timbers Kauai resort.

The Kauai High School graduate, who is married to Patsy with whom he has two adult children, Baron and Nicole (who both live in Oregon), might not be representing the people in the government right now as a councilman, but he’s still just as involved in issues on Kauai, as well as the state, and talks about them every Wednesday via Facebook Live. In fact, some might say he’s more social-media savvy than people half his age — he’s even got a YouTube channel.

Prior to his engagement in social media and the political realm, Rapozo enlisted with the Hawaii Air National Guard and attended basic training and technical school in Texas. He actually had dreams of becoming a hotel manager, as his mother, Jessie Sam-Fong, worked at the Coco Palms Resort, where he spent plenty of time as a kid. While on deployment in Korea, however, he applied for a job as an officer for the Kauai Police Department, where he subsequently worked for 12 years — six as a detective. After that, he started his own private investigation company, which he still has to this day.

His first stint in government didn’t start until 2002 when he served three consecutive terms on the County Council. When former Mayor Bryan Baptiste passed away in 2008, Rapozo ran for mayor for the first time. He lost, but his spirit of political adventure never faltered, and he ran for County Council again in 2010. He served another four terms, two as chair. Though he lost the race for mayor again in 2018, Rapozo still pays close attention to what’s happening in the community, and is keeping his fans on their toes since he hasn’t decided yet if he’ll run again for council.

But his heart seems to beat most strongly for his first love, football. And he will continue to instill the importance of not only sportsmanship in keiki through Pop Warner but also the value of maintaining good grades and staying healthy.

Why football?

For me, football is a great sport to teach life skills; the fact that you have to work as a team. We stress, before we start practice, every player shakes every other player’s hands. And then they shake all the coaches’ hands. And then at the end of every practice — all the players shake hands or high five, and then we do that with the coaches. Every single practice. We want to build this family. We want to bond these guys as a family, as brothers and sisters, because girls can play, too. It boosts your confidence and you learn. And it’s healthy, and you get strong.

What sports did you play as a child?

I played mostly football as a kid. I started playing at the Midget level in Pop Warner and then in a division called Bantam, because at the time there wasn’t any junior varsity at high school. I also tried baseball, but I was just afraid of the fast pitches. I will say this, Derek Borrero, he was a head coach of Kauai High and a well-respected guy — he was the pitcher of an opposing team, and when we played a game, his fastball scared me. So I just wasn’t comfortable playing baseball, which is weird because football is much more of a contact sport. I wanted to keep playing in high school, but I just couldn’t swing the job I had and football. But when I got older, I did play again in the adult football league for two years.

What has been your role with Pop Warner?

I started coaching when my son got involved. He was a Junior Pee Wee more than 20 years ago. And then I realized that I was more of a detriment being a coach on his team. So I decided to join the Lihue board. I let someone else coach my son and I got active on the board. I became board president, then league commissioner, then league president and then regional director for the western states. The regional director’s position is voluntary and there’s a lot of travel — I went to Florida, Pennsylvania, the West Coast; at least four trips a year. The whole thing was so rough. After about three or four years, it was just too much. When I stepped down from that position, I told myself that one day, I wanted to be back on the field with the kids. I don’t want to be in the meeting room, I just want to be back with the kids. That was my biggest joy, coaching kids. I was so stoked this year when they called me looking for coaches. This time, I’ll be staying as a coach and leave the other things to the youngens.

Why is Pop Warner beneficial to keiki?

These kids need structure, and I think Pop Warner is the best organization for that. Our program is actually called ‘Pop Warner Little Scholars.’ It’s not ‘Pop Warner Football’ or ‘Pop Warner Cheer.’ There is a scholastic requirement, and so that’s why I chose it. Until today, I say it’s the best football organization because of the scholastic requirement. And they’re very strict. Your report cards are checked throughout the season by an assigned scholastic monitor, and that person has to go through every single report card. And if the kids don’t make it, they don’t play. There are all these different grids we use, and if they’re less than satisfactory, they cannot play. The focus is on the scholastics and sportsmanship.

Have parents been cordial at the sporting events?

I heard a lot of horror stories but from what I’ve seen, they’re out here cheering for the kids. We all practice on the same field and a lot of them have kids in different divisions and I haven’t seen any problems. I’m pretty excited.

What do you say to parents who are concerned about the potential dangers of playing football?

Pop Warner was ahead of the game of acknowledging problems with concussions. National Pop Warner came up with a model and completely changed the way Pop Warner does things as far as practicing and the amount of time you can actually make contact. It’s changed tremendously. In the old days, you just hit all day long, and now it’s different. In fact, we just had rule changes again this year. They don’t have kickoffs and they’ve limited high-speed contacts. Also, we all have to go through a coaches’ certification, which is intense; nothing like I did before. It covers everything down to the blocking; every single thing. And so it’s consistent now. I’m also totally convinced about the dangers of brain trauma. I’m a true believer that we have to be really careful.

How else do you keep your players safe?

Lihue has a mandatory water break every 20 minutes so our kids stay hydrated. And they can have water as often as they need to. You’d never see that before. You’d go until you threw up, which is so dangerous. In the old days, we had to earn our water breaks, and I remember playing where there were practices where we never had a water break. That’s just how it was back then. But everything is different now, which is a good thing. We are definitely the strictest, but safety is paramount.

Let’s shift gears a little and dive into your professional past. What was the best part about working for the Kauai Police Department?

I really enjoyed patrol and working the street. But it was challenging because in patrol you didn’t usually get to take a case to the end, it would always go to the detective. So, I really enjoyed that I got to be a detective assigned to the white-collar unit and became the professional-crimes guy. Mostly it was embezzlements from small companies and travel agencies. You don’t have the excitement of going after the rugged criminals but we always got called out on the major crimes anyway, so I still got my fix. I miss the adrenaline rush and the camaraderie, of course. Also, not knowing what the day will bring and being able to help people.

Why did you decide to get involved in politics and run for County Council in 1998?

I was angry. I ran because of an audit finding; the annual financial audit. An account hadn’t been reconciled in over two years, which was a red flag for treasury embezzlement. When any account isn’t reconciled on a monthly basis, that’s a red flag. So I went to the county and I testified. The council chose not to do anything, and that’s when I said I was going to run. I ran but I didn’t think I had a chance. I won in primary but lost in general. But it’s OK because I wasn’t ready at that time. I started to get more interested in issues and in 2002 I ran again and won.

What it is like being on the County Council?

My first term was a blur. I’m a pretty independent guy, not a political guy. I came from the other side of the aisle, which was criticizing them. And then all of a sudden, I became part of their team. It’s not just showing up on Wednesdays, that’s simply not true. It’s a lot of reading.

How was becoming council chair different than being a councilmember?

Being the chair is a completely different job. The chair is the hub or the focal point of the body. So everyone external, all the organizations, all the people, when they want to meet with the council, it starts off with the chair most of the time. The time commitment is incredible. I don’t know how, but I just did it.

How has politics changed since when you first started?

People have more to say than they used to. The internet changed the world and it fuels everybody’s fire. I actually enjoy when the public gets engaged, whether they agree with me or not. And that’s what I tried to do the entire time that I was on the council. And people could come up to me anytime.

What are some accomplishments that you’re proud of making at the county?

I think we really streamlined the council. I got criticized in the beginning and blamed and accused of changing rules. I never changed any rules, I just enforced them. For example, the 3-minute time limit was enforced, otherwise, people would go on for a long time. I held the administration accountable on a regular basis by being a true watchdog and keeping everybody in check. I also helped toughen the vacation rental bill and JoAnn (Yukimura) and I worked on shoreline setback. A lot of people think JoAnn and I hate each other but that’s absolutely not true. We agree on way more than we disagree on.

What’s something you get criticized about when it comes to politics?

It frustrates me when politicians dance around. My advisers will tell me to slow down and shut my mouth. If people ask me what I feel about something, I’m going to tell them. They’ll love me this week, hate me next week, that’s the nature of this game. But I think people deserve to know. And I have voted on items I don’t support because the majority of the people want it.

What’s the most challenging part about being involved in government issues?

The bureaucracy. The time it takes to get stuff done. The council is always anxious to get things done, but, for whatever reason, it takes awhile.

Do you plan to run for council again?

I’ll make a decision before the end of the year whether or not I decide to seek office again. In the meantime, I applied for county auditor in December and, as far as I know, I am still in the running.

And finally, we must know: what is your favorite football team?

I like the Steelers. They were football when football was football. Now it’s all finesse, it’s all passing, but the Steelers were ground pounders and their defense was tough. Growing up I was a Saint Louis Cardinal fan, (now they’re the Arizona Cardinals) because I love birds and the cardinal was my favorite bird, so that was my team. It’s kind of silly. But I like a lot of teams and I’m not attached to any one of them.

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Coco Zickos, county reporter, can be reached at 245-0424 or czickos@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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