Meet Wisconsin's backflipping 'Mr. Aloha'

Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire

MADISON, Wisc. -- The most popular man around here is a 6-foot-2, 335-pound, backflipping, ukulele-playing, toe-touching former cheerleader who happens to be the starting nose tackle for Wisconsin's football team.

That's an important thing to understand about Olive Sagapolu. He's known for football (a shocking disclosure: it's the reason for this story) and likely will be for a while. He's an All-Big Ten candidate who has started 19 games for one of the country's best defenses. But football doesn't define him.

Born in Hawaii and raised in American Samoa and Southern California, Sagapolu sought an adventure for college. "Someplace far, someplace where I could rely on myself as an individual," he said, "growing from a boy and stepping into manhood." He has found it at Wisconsin, from Camp Randall Stadium to university classrooms to State Street, where he can't walk 15 feet without seeing a friend.

The man named after the olive branch brings peace and joy to everyone he sees.

"In Hawaii, you call it Mr. Aloha," said Wisconsin defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, a fellow Hawaiian. "He's got that free spirit. He's got that personality. He fits into any group.

"Mr. Aloha: That's what you call a guy like him."

Those who closely study Wisconsin's defense can appreciate Sagapolu's on-field contributions: He had three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last season for the nation's No. 2 defense and No. 3 rushing defense. But Sagapolu is more recognizable for doing backflips on Instagram and toe-touches at basketball games.

Flips on Flips @connorallen4

A post shared by Olive Sagapolu (@osagapolu) on

The sight of a man of Sagapolu's size displaying such hops and flexibility brought widespread admiration, yet Sagapolu is a perfectionist.

"I didn't really point my toes," he said with a sigh of his halftime jumps. "Cheerleaders, they know whenever you jump; you've gotta point your toes."

Sagapolu speaks from experience. While playing football at California prep powerhouse Mater Dei, he joined the cheerleading team, inspired to learn to backflip. He mastered it in about 10 minutes.

Although he's not officially on Wisconsin's spirit squad -- despite repeated requests -- he regularly participates in their open stunt workouts.

"He's better than some of our guys," said Josette Jaucian, Wisconsin's longtime spirit squad director. "He can throw a girl all the way to the top. He's so outgoing and fun. There's always a smile on his face."

The smile was there as a young boy in American Samoa, where Olive (pronounced Oh-Lee-Vay) would help his mother, Martina, coach high school softball. Martina, who hit cleanup and played catcher for American Samoa in the South Pacific Games, had Olive demonstrate sliding and base running. She put him in catcher's gear to show the players not to be afraid of the ball. During games, he served as bat boy. "The girls loved him," Martina said.

Olive brought his smile stateside at age 9 when his family moved to California, where Martina, an agent for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had taken a new job. There was some initial resistance. When Olive walked up to strangers at Safeway and introduced himself, some recoiled. One woman grabbed her purse when Olive asked if she needed help.

Despite people's reactions to Olive, his mother told him never to change.

"'Even when people don't say hi, you can continue to say hi,'" she told Olive and his brother, Osias. "'They're just not used to it. So we're going to make them used to it.'

"'We are going to bring aloha to a place where there is no aloha.'"

Wisconsin isn't a place bereft of aloha, but Sagapolu added to it when he arrived in 2015. Despite offers from Pac-12 programs that had rosters full of Polynesian players, he picked Wisconsin and stuck with the school through a coaching change from Gary Andersen to Paul Chryst. He had never been to the Midwest before but soon took to the cold weather and warm people. Friendships spawned with teammates like Arrington Farrar, Chris Orr and the Lyles brothers, Kare and Kayden, whose family home 20 minutes from campus has become a gathering place every weekend.

"In Hawaii, you call it Mr. Aloha. He's got that free spirit. He's got that personality. He fits into any group."" Wisconsin defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield on Olive Sagapolu

Sagapolu's social circle stretches beyond the athletic complex, too. Those studying in Wisconsin's school of human ecology, and specifically the community and nonprofit leadership major, likely know him.

"We will go down State Street and every other person who walks by he will acknowledge them and talk to them because he knows them," said Karé Lyles, who recently announced he is transferring from Wisconsin. "That's one of the jokes: Olive knows everybody."

Part of it is cultural. Polynesians are known to be friendly and family-oriented, but Sagapolu takes it up a few notches. Martina remembers a young Olive befriending the kids at the playground who didn't have friends. When he started playing football, he brought non-athletes to the lunch table and encouraged his teammates to expand their social horizons.

He has the same philosophy at Wisconsin.

"If I walk around campus, people say I look scary, but if I smile at them, it reminds me that I'm not," he said. "I like to laugh a lot, I like to smile. I'm a goofball."

Added Martina: "They see he's a gentle giant."

In a way, Olive is continuing what Martina tried to start with her own college experience. Martina spent most of her childhood in American Samoa but left to play volleyball at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

"It was an opportunity to see that side of the world and bring some of our culture," she said.

Martina struggled with the transition. Her coach made the team run in and out of the cold during practices, and she often got sick. She also grew frustrated at the lack of awareness about American Samoa -- how Americans didn't even know it was a U.S. territory.

After a year, she left Iowa for Hawaii and finished her degree at Chaminade University.

"I didn't tough it out like Olive," she said, later adding, "He's really become a great ambassador for the Polynesian culture."

Music helps him connect. If you see Sagapolu around town, odds are he'll have his ukulele with him. He was only 6 when he began playing with his cousins and soon tried to learn every song he could.

"[Ukulele] is my break from everything: school, football," Sagapolu said. "Everybody knows me as playing, just walking around. I play it in the locker room, I play it in my house. I wouldn't say I'm great, but I'm decent enough."

Said Kare Lyles: "Olive thinks he's going to audition for 'American Idol' in a couple years."

Sagapolu isn't all smiles and songs. He's serious about the game and takes pride in how much film he watches, noting that he's not the strongest or fastest player but strives to be the sharpest. Breckterfield said when he and Sagapolu meet to review practice film, Sagapolu already has watched it three or four times.

Despite primarily playing offensive line at Mater Dei, Sagapolu's combination of size and athleticism fit what Wisconsin wanted in its nose tackle, a position coordinator Jim Leonhard calls "one of the most important we have." As Breckterfield watched Sagapolu learn the techniques of the position days into his first fall camp as a Badger, he knew Sagapolu would become a significant contributor. He enters his senior season as Wisconsin's only returning line starter.

"I told him, 'This is your group now,'" Breckterfield said.

Sagapolu's size is his signature trait as an athlete, but it also has created obstacles. When he first started playing organized football in California, he had to shed pounds to meet the youth league weight restrictions. So Martina and her nephew put Olive through rice runs, which meant if he wanted to eat rice, one of his favorite foods along with Spam and fried chicken, he had to run.

When he finally got on the field, he didn't know his own strength.

"The first kid he laid flat. He's very softhearted, and the kid did not get up," Martina said. "He was in tears. My nephew, who was with him, said, 'You can't cry.' And [Olive] said, 'But I hurt him.' And [Martina's nephew] said, 'No, this is the sport. Either you knock them down or they knock you down.'"

These days, Sagapolu brings the power at around 335 pounds, down from 345 earlier in his career. Breckterfield wants Sagapolu down to at least 330 by the season, ideally 325, so he can use the senior in more nickel situations.

Sagapolu aspires to play in the NFL and has the bloodline. Cincinnati Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko and former NFL offensive lineman Tupe Peko are both cousins of Martina's. Leonhard, who spent a decade as an NFL safety, said he thinks Sagapolu can make the jump.

"There's great, talented, big players, but you add the flexibility to it and you see him doing the splits and things like that, that's impressive," Leonhard said. "He takes so much pride in taking care of himself, whether it's the way he eats, how he trains, and he really wants more information.

"There's no secret of why he continues to get better."

Asked about his legacy at Wisconsin, Sagapolu talked about being a hard worker on the field who was never entitled and always willing to help. He'll also be remembered for doing backflips and aerial splits, playing the ukulele and brightening the days of everyone he meets.

"For me, Mr. Aloha means someone who's great to have around," he said. "It's a person that people kind of draw to because that's just how they are. I don't know how else to explain it."

His head coach doesn't need a explanation. He understands that Sagapolu's size and agility make him unique, but his soul makes him special.

"There's a spirit within him," Chryst said of Sagapolu. "He's going to choose to be happy and maximize his experiences."