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Written By: Mark Janzen
Just don’t call it a swan song.
Mike Palefau – a product of Kahuku, Hawaii, a graduate of Southern Utah University, a 7s and 15s star with USA Rugby and now member of the fledgling Seattle Seawolves – wanted to make it clear. His joining the Seawolves isn’t a victory lap.
“I wouldn’t say this is a cap (on my career) quite yet,” Palefau, 36, says with a laugh, cutting off the person who suggested the idea. “I still have some years left.”
Of course he does.
And if his wide-ranging career is a precursor for what’s to come, Seawolves fans will be in for more than a few touches of rugby brilliance from the savvy fullback.
While the former 7s star, who made 28 appearances with USA Rugby on the World Series circuit while also earning 11 caps with the 15s program, has been on the American rugby scene for nearly 20 years, a quickly developing Seattle-based fandom might just be on the precipice of seeing something it’s never seen before.
Indeed the local rugby community will know Palefau – he has lived in the Emerald City for the last six years, playing with a variety of clubs, including the well-established Seattle Saracens and the recently-formed rugby 7s side with the Washington Athletic Club – but for the fresh-faced supporters, the heady back with both a 7s and 15s skills-set could well be a showpiece at Starfield Stadium.
The well-travelled veteran, who previously played professionally with RC Narbonne in France (2006-07) and Petrarca Rugby in Italy (2007-08), is set to make his return to professional 15s rugby as one of the Seawolves leaders in the back three – a fact that will not only excite Seattle fans, but also has Seawolves player-coach Phil Mack quite delighted. A former 7ns star in his own right, Mack has plenty of less-than-fond memories of lining up against Palefau; recollections he’s happy to forget in favour of having the former rival in his own corner.
“I had nightmares about trying to figure out a way to defend (Mike), so it’s refreshing to play with him,” Mack concedes. “He was a player that other teams always talked about to make sure we had good coverage on.
“Mike is an incredible playmaker and has a rugby brain.”
A “Red Raider for Life,” Palefau hails from the football factory that is Kahuku High School – a gridiron giant that, since 1970, has sent 17 players to the NFL. Despite walking the hallowed halls of the Red Raiders, the speedy Palefau, who was also something of a track and field star (finishing second in the 100m at the state championships in 2000), never touched his high school’s football field. Truth be told, from his freshmen year to his junior year, he didn’t play sports of any kind, choosing instead to focus entirely on breakdancing.
However, late in his time at Kahuku, he dabbled with a bit of touch rugby, ultimately sparking what has been a nearly two-decade career in the sport.
While he eventually took to football while at Southern Utah State, his rugby-playing opportunities stole him from football in 2004, when he was given the invite to travel with USA’s 15s team on a November tour to Ireland and Italy.
“I was like, ‘Yup, I’m in,’” Palefau says, recalling his decision to pursue a rugby career. “And the rest is history. That was my first taste of international rugby, and from that moment, I was like, this is what I want to do. I stopped playing football and went straight into rugby.”
Fourteen years later, when Palefau walks onto the practice pitch at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Wash., his rugby experience is pronounced. If there were ever an appropriate time to use the term wily and attach it a veteran of the sport, this would be it. Palefau knows exactly when to pick his spots.
“When I show up, I’m hanging out behind the scenes, sneaking away from the contact drills to try to preserve my body,” Palefau says with a smile.
At 36 years old, that’s just smart. And at 36 years old, he also knows his moments.
“He doesn’t say an awful lot, but when he does people tune in and listen,” Mack says. “He definitely has the respect of the guys.”
And it’s those teammates who are the reason he keeps on stepping on the pitch; the reason he happily took a chance on a fringe career in 2004; the reason this year’s MLR campaign isn’t just one last dance.
“I just love being with the guys and being part of that brotherhood. That’s why I’m playing.”