Dino Kahaulelio never missed a day of practice.
Not when his mom started to feel mysterious pains last spring, not when she was diagnosed with cancer last spring, not when she started using a wheelchair and not when she was too weak to come out to the football field.
The day Toni Guanella- Kahaulelio died, Jan. 22, Dino, a three-sport standout in his junior year at Cardinal Newman High School, showed up for school.
No one who knows Dino Kahaulelio was surprised.
“He wants to be a strong leader,” Cardinal Newman football coach Paul Cronin said of the first player in his tenure ever to start every game since his freshman season.
Cronin has known the Kahaulelios for years. He knows what Toni and her family were going through. He told them to just say the word and Dino could take all the time he needed.
It never happened.
“Just knowing his mom and dad, I think they felt he was blessed that he was out there,” Cronin said. “Toni was a very competitive athlete. I always looked at like this is where they thought he should be.”
It’s a lot to ask of a boy of 17 to manage the academic rigors of junior year, starting duties for the North Bay League champion football team, the move from the junior varsity to varsity basketball team, all while witnessing the biggest cheerleader in your life battle cancer.
Add to that enormous load the stress of the wildfires in October that closed Newman for months and displaced students, and you have just about every reason in the world to skip a practice here and there, miss a class, or drop out a little bit.
“If I were to stay home, I’d get in trouble with my mom,” he said.
“I know she was going through pain, but the way she looked at me and the way she would act was completely different than anything I’ve ever heard someone going through chemo would be,” he said.
If she were going to be strong, so would he.
“What would she want me to do? I was working to get better for her,” he said. “All she wanted me to do was succeed and make me a great person.”
By his way of thinking, taking a practice off would run counter to what his mom wanted him to be.
“He’s an old soul,” Cronin said. “He was raised so well. Even when he was in sixth grade, you felt like you were dealing with a senior in high school. He’s a very mature young man.”
So Dino showed up every day like he always did and worked out, watched film, hung out with his team and showed the way forward by being the same guy he’s always been. He starred on the Newman football team, tying for No. 1 in solo tackles on the squad.
He never asked for anything.
“I think his mom and his father, they didn’t want any special treatment,” Cronin said. “They want to make sure you’re OK. It was almost like Dino didn’t want to burden his team or other people.”
By the time basketball season started, Toni was struggling.
Cardinal Newman basketball coach Tom Bonfigli, like Cronin, told Kahaulelio to take the time he needed. But Bonfigli saw what his team meant to Kahaulelio.
Four days after Toni died, the basketball team wore shooting shirts with “Team Toni” emblazoned on them before the game against Santa Rosa High. The student section was urged to wear purple, Toni’s favorite color.
“He’s got a lot of support here. Newman is a good place,” Bonfigli said. “He’s in a good place.”
Dino’s dad, Suki Kahaulelio, agreed.
“He was hurting just looking at her,” he said. “Practice meant being around his friends and keeping him busy.”
“It was hard for him,” he said.
“I think it’s better for him to practice, it takes his mind off it,” he said.
Dino Kahaulelio missed only two of Bonfigli’s practices: the day Toni died and the day of her funeral. He was there at every other workout.
“He’s got everything in the right focus,” Bonfigli said. “He’s got everything in the right balance.”
But it hasn’t been easy. Toni Guanella-Kahaulelio was a fixture at Cardinal Newman. A graduate and athlete at Ursuline High, Toni was at every one of Dino’s games. Dino described his mom as almost an ambassador for Cardinal Newman.
“She loved our team,” he said.
A competitive athlete, Guanella-Kahaulelio knew sports and was never afraid to share her opinions. At her funeral service Jan. 27, she was described as “feisty,” which elicited knowing chuckles.
Even from a loud cheering section, her voice stood out from the rest.
“I wouldn’t sit with her. She was too loud,” Suki Kahaulelio said with a small laugh.
Sometimes Suki didn’t have to make that choice because she wasn’t in the stands.
“She wouldn’t sit in the bleachers, she would run up and down the sideline,” he said.
So when Toni started being unable to travel to Dino’s sporting events, he knew. When she wouldn’t make an appearance when his friends were over to their house on Llano Road, they knew. But she would never say it. Dino said he never heard his mom complain.
“She had her days when it was really hard for her,” he said. “She thought I saw her as the strongest woman ever and I did. I still do.”
This fall, there were times Toni would only stay for half the game.
She and Dino would trade knuckle bumps before the kickoff and then number 56 would run onto the field.
But when the Cardinals made the playoffs, Suki Kahaulelio brought a portable heater and blankets and made his wife comfortable so she could stay through the whole game.
“I knew she was hurting but she stayed,” he said.
Like Dino never missing a practice, those who know Toni said that seeing her on the sidelines, as weak as she felt, was no surprise.
At her funeral at St. Rose Catholic Church in Santa Rosa, at which scores of Kahaulelio’s teammates showed up, it was standing room only. Dino said the support that day “took my breath away.”
Attendees were asked to call out words that describe Toni.
All true, Dino said. He said his parents taught him to be fiercely competitive but not to be afraid of losing, because in every loss there is a lesson, no matter how painful.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”