Unusually strong and effectively elusive, Kupono Park was starting to develop while cast as the unsung workhorse tailback last season in the University of Puget Sound’s pass-happy football offense.
And then the worst possible thing happened – Park’s body betrayed him. He suffered a second season-ending injury in three years.
This time it was a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee, suffered in the final minutes of the team’s Northwest Conference opener against Lewis & Clark.
Nearly 11 months later, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior is back in the Loggers’ backfield, ready to resume the kind of workload he was just getting
acclimated to in four games last season.
It appears UPS coach Jeff Thomas will oblige. With wide-receiver options still developing and lots of tailback experience with Park and talented Austin Wagner, the Loggers will try to run the football more this season.
“We are going to look to be balanced and give (Park) 20 carries a game, minimum,” Thomas said.
Park’s promising career has been crushed by injuries. He lasted three games in 2010 as a true freshman before going down with a shoulder injury. He was eventually granted a medical redshirt year by the NCAA.
The Hawaii native returned to start nine games in 2011 – and was really hitting his stride last season in September coming off his first career 100-yard rushing day (115 against Whittier).
But on a goal-line carry late in the next game against the Pioneers, Park went down – and stayed down. Not only was the ACL destroyed, he suffered severe cartilage damage to the knee.
In fact, because cartilage had been pushed into the knee joint, preventing Park not only from walking but from moving his knee at all, he had to have reconstructive surgery performedd earlier than normal – a week after the Sept. 29 game.
Park had been through this type of injury before. He tore the ACL in his right knee while playing at Kamehamaha High School.
But the rehabilitation process this time around was much different, mainly because of the blow to the meniscus.
“It just took more time,” Park said.
Off his feet and unable to partake in any physical activity for the first month after surgery, Park began researching the remarkable ACL recovery of another tailback – NFL star Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
Peterson fully recovered from his late-2011 injury in seven months.
“I obviously took AP’s rehab as motivation,” Park said. “I looked up stuff on him on YouTube and even researched his recovery timeline.”
The informantion was fuel for clashes with UPS athletic trainer Craig Bennett, who oversaw the first months of Park’s rehab.
“Craig had a very difficult job holding me back,” Park said. “We got into a couple fights over it, because I wanted to push things, and he wanted to make sure I controlled myself.”
Back to running in May, Park returned to Hawaii to further his rehab at the Tactical Strength and Conditioning facility owned by his uncle, Barry Toyama.
Working side-by-side with elite volleyball, mixed martial arts and fellow football standouts, including NFL receiver Kealoha Pilares, Park pushed his body to extremes.
His morning workouts consisted of heavy squats and plyometrics to gain strength. Then, after working an eight-hour shift at his job at a liquor store, Park would head to either Koko Head Crater Trail – an 1,100-yard trail that changes 1,200 feet in elevation – or to Wilhelmina Rise Drive for an evening run.
“I have been stronger, but I have never been this fast and quick before,” Park said.
That is certainly good news for UPS heading into its season opener Saturday against Chapman.
“His work ethic is incredible,” Loggers quarterback Braden Foley said. “He is the man. He eats, sleeps, and breathes football. And … he is going to be on the field making plays and running over people, that’s for sure. He is a freak.”
UNIVERSITY OF PUGET SOUND FOOTBALL
Coach: Jeff Thomas, fourth season (2-25 record)
Last year: 0-9 overall, 0-6 Northwest Conference (seventh place).
Preseason coaches’ poll: Seventh place.
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Jeff Halstead (spread). Returning starters (6) – QB Braden Foley, 6-4, 190, jr.; RB Kupono Park, 5-11, 210, jr.; RB Austin Wagner, 5-9, 180, so.; TE Josh Gilbert, 6-4, 245, so.; C Matt Moore, 6-2, 295, jr.; RT Nick Murray, 6-2, 250, jr.;
Defense: Coordinator (set) – Thomas Ford (3-3 stack). Returning starters (7) – DT Mike Raub, 6-0, 260, sr.; OLB Max Mirande, 5-10, 205, jr.; MLB Chris Beaulaurier, 6-1, 220, so.; CB Joe Cerne, 6-0, 180, sr.; CB Roy Fuchigami, 5-8, 165, jr.; CB Connor Savage, 6-1, 175, jr.; SS Matt Gilbert, 5-11, 175, so.;
Special teams: Coordinator – Bucky Brenner. Returning starters (3) – PK Sawyer Petre, 5-11, 162, so.; P Jeff Walton, 6-2, 205, sr.; PR/KR Kevin Miller, 5-8, 165, so.
The skinny: The rebuilding effort hits a fourth year. The first order of business is appearing more like a complete football team, which Thomas said is obvious considering how much bigger his players look on both sides of the ball. Then it is not only finding a way to snap a 19-game losing streak, it is also winning a few games. UPS will run the ball more behind Park and Wagner, which should help Foley, who comes from a play-action passing background at Bothell High School. Last season, the Loggers ranked last — 260th — nationally in NCAA Division III total defense (557.7 yards per game). That has to change. Brant McAdams left in the offseason, and Ford — who was promoted from special teams to defensive coordinator — will bring an aggressive style to the unit. The Loggers think their linebackers Mirande, Beaulaurier and freshman Austin Moore could be one of the NWC’s better groups. UPS isn’t going to contend for the conference title, but getting out of the cellar would be a promising development in 2013.
Schedule: Saturday vs. Chapman, 1 p.m.; Sept. 21 at Whittier, 1 p.m.; Oct. 5 at Lewis & Clark, 1 p.m.; Oct. 12 at Pacific, 1 p.m.; Oct. 19 vs. Case Western Reserve, 1 p.m.; Oct. 26 vs. Whitworth, 1 p.m.; Nov. 2 at Pacific Lutheran, 12:30 p.m.; Nov. 9 at Linfield, 1 p.m.; Nov. 16 vs. Willamette, 1 p.m.