Notre Dame teammates pay tribute to Kona Schwenke's generosity and heart
Kona Schwenke is survived by his stories.
There are so many of them; they are crumpled in the bottom of old backpacks and posted in solemn tributes on social media. They are fingerprints, left behind by a 6-foot-4, 304-pound Hawaiian who picked a ukulele on the back of buses and dyed colorful streaks into his curly black hair.
On Sunday, Schwenke died suddenly at age 25. His agent, Jerry Marlatt, tweeted that the former Irish defensive lineman passed in his sleep, but the cause of death is still unclear.
He finished with 30 tackles in a four-year college career, then made fleeting cameos on a trio of NFL practice squads. This month, he participated in The Spring League — a developmental league for professional football hopefuls — even sacking former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in a game on April 7.
Last week, Schwenke went through a workout with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Now he’s gone, and there are so few suitable answers.
Just stories. So many stories.
For now, those will have to do.
Marquis Dickerson’s favorite Kona Schwenke story even came with a souvenir.
In Aug. 2013, during the second week of Dickerson’s first fall camp at Notre Dame, the defensive lineman from a tiny town in Arkansas was submerged in the Irish scheme. Like so many other freshmen, he was drowning in the details — play calls, stunts, audibles, checks.
He was “so overwhelmed, I didn’t even know how overwhelmed I was.”
Luckily, Dickerson — now the assistant defensive line coach at Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep — was assigned a senior roommate.
“I remember asking Kona a question about a front or something like that. He broke down the entire playbook for me in about an hour and a half,” Dickerson said on Monday.
“He wrote down every front, every stunt and every check that we had, and he quizzed me on it. In that instant, everything stuck. I think that was a turning point for me, being able to get everything down with the playbook and helping me focus on different things throughout practice.”
On Sunday morning, while searching for something else in the bottom of an old backpack, Dickerson stumbled upon Schwenke’s five-year-old cheat sheet.
Later the same day, he heard the news.
“It was after curfew. We probably didn’t get done until 1 a.m.,” Dickerson said of the impromptu study session. “It was one of those sacrifices he didn’t have to make, but that was something he was always willing to do.”
Justin Utupo’s favorite Kona Schwenke story could be heard from around the corner.
“We were in the same recruiting class. There wasn’t a lot of Polynesians walking around campus,” said Utupo, a defensive lineman from Lakewood, Calif. “The first day I met him in the summer (of 2010), I actually heard him playing on the ukulele in his dorm room. That’s what got me to walk over to the room. The door was wide open.
“He said, ‘Come on in.’ We instantly became brothers.”
For four years, the Samoan teammates were inseparable. They played together. They ate together. They won together and lost together.
For Utupo (and everyone else), the door was always wide open.
“I love Kona, man. That was my brother,” said Utupo, currently the head football coach at Millikan High School in Long Beach, Calif. “Kona definitely brought the island with him to South Bend.”
Jarrett Grace’s favorite Kona Schwenke story — if he’s being honest — isn’t much of a story.
It’s a feeling. It’s a gesture.
“I was still finding my way at Notre Dame,” Grace said on Monday, “and that was one of the best moments of my life.”
It was the spring after his freshman season in South Bend, and Schwenke invited Grace to watch the NFL Draft with fellow Hawaiians Manti Te’o and Robby Toma in his dorm room in Dillon Hall. and really, that’s all they did. They watched TV. They cracked jokes. They stayed up a little later than Brian Kelly would have wanted.
It was innocuous.
But, for a timid freshman linebacker, it also meant a little more.
“He looked after guys,” Grace said. “No one could say a bad word about him. Ever. Nothing. You never heard negativity come out of this man’s mouth — not on the field when times were hard, whatever it was. He had that goofy grin on his face, that crazy hair.
“You’d see him and he’d dye his hair with different-colored streaks in it, and he looked scary. But he was the biggest teddy bear.”
Robby Toma’s favorite Kona Schwenke story isn’t so easy to narrow down.
Not when you’ve known a guy since you were seven. Not when you played together on all-star basketball teams in Laie, Hawaii, and later hosted him on his official visit to Notre Dame.
Toma — a former Irish wide receiver, who still lives in Laie — last exchanged text messages with Schwenke last Tuesday, when the latter was returning home from his tryout with the Atlanta Falcons.
“We said we’d get together when he came home,” Toma said. “We were really tight. I got a chance to tell him I loved him.”
But by Sunday, he was gone. Toma posted a heartfelt tribute on social media. His teammates piled on, each successive story fanning the flame.
“I just saw the way the news rippled through all of our teammates, when everyone reaches out to each other to try to figure out what’s going on and offer condolences,” said former Irish offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr.
“We built something that’s so lasting together at that place. Being a part of that same brotherhood, you never lose that. During these times when tragedy hits, you get to turn and rely on each other to get through it the only way you can, which is to be together and support his family and the people that knew him best.”
So they’ll cherish the memories … and tell some stories.
There are plenty of those to go around.