George Rush remembers the first time he met this season's Bay 6 Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
It was near Christmas 2012 and Rush, the City College of San Francisco football coach, had agreed to meet with a player formerly of Chabot College. Shalom Luani walked through the door, without much fanfare.
“I'd never heard of him, to be honest,” Rush said. “But he said he'd like to transfer, and when I looked at the tape, it became real clear that he had great football instincts.”
Two years later, those instincts have coalesced into one of junior college football's pre-eminent forces. A 6-foot-1, 200-pound blur of a safety with a tendency to dismantle offensive players, Luani has been instrumental in CCSF's stifling defensive efforts all season, as well as a big reason why the Rams ride an eight-game win streak into the state championship game against Mount San Antonio on Saturday.
Luani is second on the team with 61 tackles. He has forced two fumbles, broken up eight passes and picked off four more — returning two of them for touchdowns.
“And with the way he runs with the ball after those interceptions, he'd be our best running back if he didn't play defense,” Rush said.
Rush remembers walking into the coaches meeting that decided this season's conference players of the year, wondering if his colleagues would share his sentiment that Luani had been the preeminent defensive force.
He needn't have worried — it was a unanimous decision to elect Luani.
“It speaks well of what he brings to the team, the way he's performed in big games and his consistency,” Rush said.
Luani is a CCSF co-captain and, like so many of his teammates, a self-starter. Accolades slide off him like would-be blockers.
“He's the same guy I met two years ago,” Rush said. “He's quiet, kind of shy, very polite, very respectful. The success he's enjoyed hasn't tainted any of that. We're real lucky to have him.”
Growing up in American Samoa, Luani played another kind of football. He excelled in soccer, and played for his country in the South Pacific Games. As a teenager, he helped American Samoa earn its first win in a FIFA-sanctioned event, against Tonga. He scored a goal in the game.
But Luani's first love was always the helmet-and-shoulder-pads football, which he has played for six years. Though he has family in Northern California, he hardly knew them when he arrived three years ago, intent upon pursuing his dream.
His guidelines these days for CCSF?
“Coach Rush trusts me,” Luani said. “He wants me to make sure I break up things. No big plays.”
Luani has already visited Oregon State (he's listed as a commit), but he's also scheduled visits to Washington and USC. He'd like to stay on the West Coast for the next stage in his career.
“It's a golden opportunity for a guy that, three years ago, no one had heard of,” Rush said. “The respect he gets when he steps on the field — that's earned, not given.”