South’s Manuwai just enjoying the moment – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News

Panthers defensive lineman gains new appreciation after medical woes forced hiatus from football

Makani Manuwai wasn’t sure what was happening.

He started to lose his vision, then he noticed himself wobbling as he continued running during a workout.

All of a sudden, he couldn’t think, and all that could be heard were loud noises.

“There were just a bunch of blank thoughts,” Manuwai recalled. “I could kind of see the stop sign where I was supposed to run to. I remember touching the stop sign, and that was the last thing I remember before waking up in the hospital.”

As terrifying as that might sound, that moment in late May 2020 was actually even worse.

Fresh off a COVID-19 quarantine and working his way through his first workout in two weeks, Manuwai was the last in line of a group of four undertaking the workout set in motion by a personal trainer.

None of them noticed he wasn’t with them as they returned indoors to finish their workout.

“Realistically, I could’ve passed away because I was out there by myself for a couple of minutes,” he said matter of factly. “They didn’t see me passed out, so I was out there for five minutes unconscious before they had to call 911.”

Thankfully, Manuwai had collapsed on a little grass hill and not on the nearby street, but it didn’t stop more extreme actions as he suffered a seizure while unconscious, frothing at the mouth while his eyes rolled back.

The initial diagnosis was heatstroke, but even that wasn’t the limit for Manuwai.

“It was hard to comprehend with a lot of stuff going on,” he said. “My body just felt off for a while, and then I was just praying for a chance to get back.”

Following a promising freshman campaign that saw him have an impact on the defensive line by year’s end at the varsity level for South Medford, suddenly Manuwai was being told that he was to avoid all activity.

With concerns of potential severe liver and kidney damage, it would be the only way to give his body a chance to recover.

“That was difficult to hear because I’ve been active for most of my life,” he said. “There was also no timeline at all because they didn’t really know what was wrong with me, so they had to do it all really slowly.”

Treated at first like a normal heatstroke, it soon became clear there was nothing normal about Manuwai’s situation.

“My CK levels and creatinine levels wouldn’t go down,” he recalled. “Normal levels are about 300 to 500 and mine was in the high 3,000s. It took like three weeks before that went down, but then they had me try a workout and it went back up to 4,000. My body straight-up wasn’t ready for it at all.”

That’s when a lot of the worry began to set in, and the realization that your body controls you and not the other way around.

“It was a lot of prayer,” Manuwai said of how he managed the setback. “I do that a lot because I’m a believer in Christ, but I was doing that more than usual.”

What he also was doing while he spent an entire year away from lifting a single weight or participating in a single workout was refocusing his energies to not necessarily make him a better athlete but a more complete person overall.

“I just decided to work on things that I’m not as good at,” he said of his lost 2021 season, “so I was talking to new people and developing social skills and stuff like that. I also tried harder in school and got pretty good grades my sophomore year.”

Tests became like game days, where he attacked each one with all his might. Truth be told, Manuwai was already a straight-A student, but he wasn’t about to let that area slip away during his athletic hiatus.

He also wasn’t about to deviate from the plan put forth in front of him by his doctors, and was rewarded in the middle of July 2022 with a solid clearance to resume activities.

“It was just a listen to your body type of thing,” he said of getting back into it. “As long as I do that, I’m confident in myself.”

Count South Medford football coach Bill Singler as another person confident in Manuwai, who has followed in the Panther footsteps of brothers Makai and Mauka in the program.

“There aren’t too many people that would attack this endeavor by getting himself healthy and getting back on the field like Makani would,” Singler said. “He’s just a terrific kid and has great support systems around him, his family first and foremost .

“Makani, himself, is just such a huge character kid with so much substance,” he added. “He wasn’t going to be denied. He loves football and he loves being around his teammates. Obviously it was a major setback for him and he attacked it head-on and here he is back on the field when nobody saw him having that opportunity really to do that again.”

The 6-foot, 235-pound Manuwai isn’t necessarily the same player he was, and he has come to grips with that being a growth process.

He’s also gained a new appreciation just for being able to be out on the football field.

“It has meant so much for me to be back playing football,” the 17-year-old standout said. “I’m so much happier than I was last year from a mental standpoint.

“I can’t really explain it, it’s just been a bunch of joy and fun really to be out there again,” Manuwai added. “I didn’t know how much I would miss it until it was gone. For a whole year , I was just excited to be back. That’s all I wanted. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment now because I know it can be taken away at any moment. Injuries happen and I’m just trying to enjoy every second that I have.”

He’s certainly made the most of his second football season with South Medford.

“He’s still a work in progress,” Singler said. “Especially in the formidable years when you miss a whole year of working out and lifting and those kinds of things, you don’t just get it back overnight, but he certainly holds down the fort for us on defense. The best is yet to come for him but he’s doing a whale of a job.”

Manuwai is the leading tackler on a defensive line unit that has helped South Medford earn a No. 10-ranking in the latest Class 6A coaches’ poll and a 6-2 overall record entering Friday’s crosstown clash with North Medford (5-3).

“Honestly I have been surprised just because I lost a lot of strength,” he said of his impact during this junior season. “I was stronger as a freshman than I am now, and I was probably faster and bigger as a freshman, too . But a lot of it is I studied the game a lot more so I’m smarter and when I was injured, I would just do slight technique work so I’d have better technique when it came time to play.”

The Panthers have adhered to a strict regimen for Manuwai, playing him only at defense to start the season before eventually integrating him into a few offensive sets midway through the year once he proved he could handle it.

“They’re really conscientious about it,” said Manuwai, who eventually was diagnosed with stage 2 chronic kidney disease. “They’re always checking on me.”

In the end, Singler said, the tackles or lead blocks pale in comparison to what it means for Manuwai simply to be back in a Panther uniform.

“He carries so much respect in the locker room,” Singler said. “All those kids respect the heck out of Makani. He’s not a real vocal guy, he just goes about his business and leads by example, kind of like Jaylin Parnell did in a lot of ways. He has tremendous leadership and presence and the kids respect him greatly, and when he does talk they certainly listen.

“He just carries so much positivity for us in that locker room and then on the field,” added the coach. “I think kids really elevate their play around him based on what he does. We’re just so happy for him that he gets this opportunity to get back out on the field and play sports when initially nobody really knew if that was going to happen. Everybody is just tickled to death that he’s playing again and doing something he loves and being a part of a team again.”

Manuwai is as ecstatic as anyone with his second chance.

“The low point of last year was after that senior night loss to Roseburg and when I went into the locker room after filming the game,” he said. “That was so hard for me because I couldn’t do anything about it. Football is a game where it’s a family, it’s my second family. I just love playing for my teammates, it means the world to me. I’m so thankful to be back.”

Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or via Twitter @Kris_Henry

South Medford’s Makani Manuwai during practice at Spiegelberg Stadium Wednesday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

South Medford’s Makani Manuwai during practice at Spiegelberg Stadium Wednesday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

South Medford’s Makani Manuwai during practice at Spiegelberg Stadium Wednesday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

South Medford’s Makani Manuwai during practice at Spiegelberg Stadium Wednesday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

South Medford’s Makani Manuwai during practice at Spiegelberg Stadium Wednesday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

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