Seeing the velocity on his throws in practice, it’s no surprise that Israel Paopao always has been a passer. The FIU freshman quarterback has passing in his genes — “The Throwin’ Samoan” (not the one you are probably thinking of) is a blood relative.
Here’s the curve: His passing wasn’t always on the football field. As a basketball guard, he would rather pass and didn’t like shooting.
“I really didn’t like football,” Paopao (pronounced POW-POW) said. “I loved basketball. My freshman year of high school is when I really woke up.”
He recalls Oceanside (Calif.) High coach John Carroll telling him he had a bright future if he played football. Long before, Paopao’s father noticed his young son’s throwing arm while throwing with him on a family vacation in Virginia. And every time his Great Uncle Joe came down from Canada, he would work the young boy out.
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That’s not just any uncle. Israel Paopao’s Uncle Joe is known to Generation X Canadian Football League fans as Joe Paopao, “The Throwin’ Samoan.”
He followed an 11-year CFL career with 17 years as a CFL offensive coordinator or head coach. (Paopao had more success than his NFL counterpart with the same nickname, Jack Thompson, who spent his 1979-84 career as a backup with Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.)
From 1994-98, Joe Paopao coached in the CFL’s Western Division and tried to outscore Calgary and the Stampeders star quarterback, Jeff Garcia. That’s the same Jeff Garcia who played at San Jose State for current FIU coach Ron Turner, who recalls Garcia as “maybe the most competitive person I’ve been around on the field, at least one of them.”
Garcia told Carroll he had heard good things about Israel Paopao, who threw for 2,458 yards and 22 touchdowns in becoming the San Diego Union-Tribune’s North County Offensive Player of the Year last season. He volunteered to work with Paopao. With a week off before a playoff game last fall, they fine-tuned Paopao’s game.
Despite those stellar senior-year numbers, Paopao remained available. He thought it wasn’t only his grades that caused some Pac-12 schools to back away, but his height, officially 6-1. Garcia could relate to that. His lack of size left him undrafted by the same NFL in which he would eventually play 12 seasons and start playoff games for three teams.
“He called me and said, ‘I’ve got this quarterback I’ve been working with who’s getting overlooked. He’s had one offer, but they pulled it’ because of grades, I think,” Turner said. “Which I don’t understand because he’s a qualifier [good enough grades to play]. He told me all about him as a person, his intangibles. I trust Jeff; I coached him; I stayed in touch with him. He sent me tape; I watched him on tape. Liked what I saw on tape.”
For his part, Paopao first heard of FIU “when one of the receivers (T.Y. Hilton) broke out a couple of years ago.
“When I got out there, it reminded me of home. The beach, the trees, the grass ,” Paopao said.
Thus far at practice, Paopao has worked with the third team behind redshirt junior Jake Medlock and sophomore E.J. Hilliard.
“He’s a good player, got a good arm,” Turner said. “He’s very smart. He handles himself like a quarterback.”