Manase Jesse Sapolu was probably one of the first ethnic Polynesian stars in the NFL. He grew up in Samoa and then Hawaii, and went to its university, then was chosen by two Bay Area teams in the 1983 drafts: the USFL’s Oakland Invaders picked him in the 17th round, and the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers picked him in the 11th round. Whether at guard or center, Sapolu was a mainstay on the Niners’ offensive line for a very long time: he retired only after the 1997 season, winning the last four 49er Super Bowls to date. Off the top of my mind, he seems to be only 49er to have those last four rings.
At age 5, Sapolu got an hearrheumatic fever-that is, an infection that damaged the aortic valve of his heart. In a 2005 profile, he explained: “I remember my joints were all swollen and I couldn’t walk. My dad would carry me onto the bus and take me to see a masseuse, not knowing that what I really needed was medication.”
Sapolu wasw diagnosed with aortic regurgitation in Hawaii in 1971: his left ventricle had to work overtime to make up for the faulty valve. He ignored doctors’ orders and started playing football as a ninth grader, then kept his condition quiet until the end of 1996, when an EKG diagnosed him with severe weakness in his heart. He underwent the Ross procedure and came back for one more season. He’s now living in Orange County and serves as the head alumni coordinator for the 49ers.