A Home Away From Home
It didn't take long for Sala McKenzie to know Cal was the right place for her son. The mother of Stanley McKenzie, one of the Golden Bears' top recruits in the 2020 class, remembers the deep conversation she had with head coach Justin Wilcox during Stanley's official visit.
"Respect and accountability are a big deal in our culture," said Sala, who is of Samoan heritage and along with her husband, Tony, raised Stanley in Honolulu.
"Coach Wilcox explained to me that he believed in the same things I did. He is a standup guy, and I just had a feeling this was the right place for Stanley. Student-athletes get the best of both worlds at Cal because you get to play football at a high level and you're also surrounded by a coaching staff that is second to none. I love that that they are there for more than just football. They also care about you as a person."
Another person responsible for much of the caring is the team's Director of On-Campus Recruiting Benji Palu. A former football student-athlete for the Bears, Palu graduated from Cal in May of 2017 and then stuck around the program as an operations and recruiting volunteer for about a year before being hired full time as the assistant director of recruiting in 2018. A year later, he was promoted to his current role that includes setting up and hosting official visits that will begin again in June after a hiatus of over a year due to COVID-19.
A jovial and energetic Tongan native who grew up locally in San Mateo, Palu gives Polynesian families someone with whom they can immediately connect.
"Benji played a huge role in my recruitment," Stanley said. "He works really hard and is always encouraging the guys. Whenever myself or my parents needed help or had questions, there was zero hesitation on his end. He's a big brother to me, and I know all the guys feel the same way."
"Benji is the man!," Sala added with joy and energy in her voice. "In our culture, we're born to serve. Benji has a heart of serving and that's exactly what he does for these kids. He wears his heart on his sleeve and gives you 100% percent every time. He's the best at his job. I'll put Benji up against anybody at any school. He played a huge part in Stanley's recruitment. He just made us feel like he was Stanley's big brother, and that he's there for Stanley. And I know he makes every kid feel that way."
"We're fortunate to have Benji on our staff," Wilcox said. "He is as genuine of a person as you're going to find and makes everyone around him feel right at home."
Palu plays a vital role in connecting the Cal football and Polynesian cultures.
"What we are doing at Cal relates to a lot of the stuff in Polynesian culture," Palu explained. "As a people, we are about faith, family and football, and that's exactly what we are about at Cal. We try to create a family atmosphere in everything we do. We have a family bond, and we trust one another and hold each other accountable. You can always count on Coach Wilcox or anybody on the staff because they're viewed as family members and not only coaches."
"A lot of our values in the Polynesian culture stem from being really family-oriented," added Palu's former Cal roommate and teammate Hamilton Anoa'i. "When Coach Wilcox came in, you could tell how genuine he was about being a close-knit team with family values and that was similar to what we leaned growing up."
Palu and Anoa'I, a 2018 Cal graduate who is now the operations manager at San Francisco's Moscone Center, are just two of the many success stories of Polynesian student-athletes who have played in the Cal football program.
"I am a proud Samoan and to be able to embrace my culture, play football at a high level and receive the quality education that Cal offers helped solidify my decision to attend Cal," said Stanley, who is one of eight players of Polynesian descent on the team's 2021 roster along with Kekoa Crawford, Patrick Hisatake, Fatuvalu Iosefa, Muelu Iosefa, Keleki Latu, Ieremia Moore, Orin Patu. "I know Coach Wilcox committed himself wholeheartedly to the program and that speaks volumes of the type of person he is. I'm proud to say that he's my head coach."
One other thing that is part of the Cal football culture and beloved in Polynesian cultures is celebration, and in addition to smaller gatherings throughout the year, one event the entire team always looks forward to is a Polynesian-themed BBQ during training camp (which hasn't taken place since 2019 because of COVID-19).
"Everybody loves a good BBQ," Palu said. "It's a time to bring everyone together to eat and listen to some good island music, and it's also a great opportunity to bring a little piece of home to our Polynesian players. That's a huge deal."
On a map, Berkeley may be a long way from many of the islands where the Polynesian football players that come to Cal descended from or were raised. But in their hearts, it feels a lot like home.