Feeling close to home
Hawaii native Ponteras enjoying life with SNC football
By Rich Palzewic
DE PERE – Playing college football and being more than 4,000 miles away from home would probably be tough for anyone.
Going from consistent, 80-degree temperatures to frigid Wisconsin winters might be more of a challenge.
“I’m not quite sure of the weather yet,” St. Norbert College football freshman Payton Ponteras laughed.
“When it was colder at practice, I wore shorts to try and get used to it. I loved the ‘warm’ October and November temperatures. I won’t lie — during some of the cold practices we had, I was freezing, but I’m more used to it now.”
You see, Ponteras is from Wahiawa, Hawaii — a city of about 18,000 in the middle of the island of Oahu and about 20 miles northwest of Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii.
“I’ve not seen snow in Hawaii,” Ponteras said. “I have family in Alaska, so I’ve seen it there.”
Honolulu’s lowest-ever recorded temperature was 52 degrees.
Maui and the Big Island see frequent snow to elevations above 11,000 feet.
Parker Lawrence, a sophomore receiver from Hortonville on the football team, said Ponteras is funny and a good teammate.
“On one of those days at practice when it was like 25 degrees, Payton had shorts on,” he said. “We have several guys from the U.P (of Michigan) on the team, and one of them was bundled up with a hat like it was below zero. We gave him a hard time saying, ‘Look at Ponteras — he’s from Hawaii and in shorts.’ I know it must be tough for him to be so far from home.”
Ponteras also had high praise for his teammates.
“It’s not easy being so far from home, but the guys on the team — and the area in general — are very nice and have helped in the transition,” he said. “They are like big brothers to me. In some respects – besides the weather — De Pere feels much like Hawaii. To keep it fresh in my mind where I came from, I have the number ‘808’ written (on the tape) on my arm — that’s the area code for all Hawaii phone numbers.”
Before St. Norbert
Ponteras has three brothers and went through the Wahiawa Public Schools system during his younger days.
His older brothers went to Kamehameha, a private high school in Honolulu that gives preference to students who are native Hawaiian.
“It’s a good, college prep school,” Ponteras said. “I got into that, so every morning, a bus would bring students from around the island to the school.”
He didn’t play football during his freshman year because he was more into basketball.
“During my sophomore year, I played on the junior varsity (football) team but was called up to varsity for the last game of the season,” Ponteras said. “I played mostly special teams.”
During his junior year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We didn’t have a season, but our coaches teamed up with some coaches in the ILH (Interscholastic League of Honolulu) and we had two scrimmages,” Ponteras said. “That’s when I first got interest from St. Norbert — they had seen some film of me. Before that, I had never heard of St. Norbert.”
Getting ready for his senior year, hardship hit Ponteras.
“We didn’t stop practicing from junior to senior year,” he said. “At the end of training camp my senior year, another COVID outbreak hit, so the state pushed the start of the season back a couple of months. It was more for the public schools, but the private schools could do what they wanted. A week before our first game, I tore the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my left knee — my season was over before it started. I slipped in practice and tore it. I thought my sports career was over.”
St. Norbert still came calling
Despite tearing his ACL and not playing much football for basically two years, St. Norbert still wanted him.
“My parents told me to pray on it,” Ponteras said. “A few things — the high school (named Leilehua) in Wahiawa, its school colors are green and gold — the same as St. Norbert. Next, my brother goes to Arizona State University (ASU), and one of his co-workers told him her mom went to St. Norbert. How weird is that? St. Norbert said they still wanted me because I worked hard during my junior and senior years and never got the shot. I wanted to play football, too, so now I’m studying business management at St. Norbert and playing football.”
He has visited California, Nevada, Alaska and Georgia in the past but hadn’t traveled much east of the Rocky Mountains.
“Before my parents had my older brother, they lived in California for a few years,” Ponteras said. “They were born and raised in Hawaii, so they moved back to raise us boys.”
First year at St. Norbert
Ponteras, a defensive back, played in eight games this season for the Green Knights, who finished with a 7-3 overall record.
He recorded seven solo tackles, assisted on another, forced a fumble and broke up one pass.
“I played a decent amount — more than I expected,” Ponteras said. “I’m happy to be back. I played a lot against Ripon College during our first game.”
Coming to De Pere in early August, Ponteras said he wasn’t scared. “It was a little nerve-wracking,” he said. “I have friends attending school in Illinois and Ohio, so I knew I wasn’t the only one taking a risk. I trust God, and I figured if I wasn’t meant to be, I could go somewhere else after a year. Having said that, I’m enjoying things so far.”
Because he’s so far from home, Ponteras hasn’t gone back to Hawaii since the start of school.
“It’s expensive to fly back, too,” he said. “I’ll go back Dec. 21 during my winter break and will return at the end of January. It will be nice to get a break from the winter.”
The average high temperature in De Pere in January is 25 degrees with a low of 8, while Wahiawa sees an average high of 76 and 61 for a low during the same time.
St. Norbert defensive coordinator Charles Drewek had nothing but praise for Ponteras, affectionately known as “Swaggy P.”
“It was a tremendous pleasure to coach Payton this season,” he said. “Since he showed up here, he’s embodied everything we look for in a Green Knights player. He’s a great player as shown by the amount of time he got as a true freshman, but what I’m more impressed with is how he carries himself off the field with his academics and with his teammates. We call him ‘Swaggy P’ because he’s got that great charisma to him. He has a bright future with us, and I’m excited to see his continued growth.”