Padecky: SRJC coach sharing lessons learned from ‘Biggest Loser’

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SRJC defensive line coach Koli Palu lost 215 pounds as a contestant on NBC's "The Biggest Loser" in 2010. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

SRJC defensive line coach Koli Palu lost 215 pounds as a contestant on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” in 2010. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

It’ll be three years this May 24 since the television show. Almost three years since Koli Palu stood in front of 5 million viewers, having shrunk to a mere wisp of a man at 188 pounds. The memory of what he did, having lost those 215 pounds in six months, it should be faint, if it exists at all. Rapid-fire technology has saturated us, if not numbed us, with information.

“If I go out, I still get recognized,” Palu said of his experience on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”

Like how often, I asked. Once a week? Once a month?

“If I go out,” repeated Palu who lives in Rohnert Park, “I still get recognized.”

SRJC’s defensive line coach, Palu shrugged. Fame, what he never wanted, travels with him daily. Palu nods to someone — “Yes, I am him” — will stop long enough to have his picture taken and then he’ll move on. Palu largely moves with his celebrity in silence. He’s proud of what he did in 2010, doesn’t regret a minute of it, but doesn’t wear it like a badge. Truth be told, he is most comfortable with it in only two places.

To the people who come to him through the Rohnert Park Community Center, Palu shares his knowledge of eating properly and exercising. He runs a 90-day fitness program, a logical extension of the change he underwent. It’s also a logical curiosity for people who want to see and learn from the man who went from 403 pounds to 188 pounds, who lost 53.5 percent of his body weight, the third-highest percentage of weight loss in the show’s 14-year history.

The other venue? SRJC’s football team. Some of his players on the defensive line know his story before they meet him. Others find out overhearing conversation. All of them end up watching Palu on YouTube. They read about his story online. They see his before and his after pictures. They know with stunned clarity how their coach worked out eight hours a day five-to-six days a week for six months. They know a foolish question even as they ask it.

“Coach, I got a bad blister. I may have to sit this practice out,” said one player to Palu. It might have been a tease, just to get a rise out of him.

All Palu said was this: “Blister?”

The player looked down and, without a word, went back on the practice field.

Players don’t whine around Palu. It would be inappropriate. It would be disrespectful. Respect in sports, it is earned in different ways. For a man to go through what he did, it is the stuff of awe. Palu never played in the NFL, never played at a Division I college, only played one year at SRJC, and yet he commands respect. Intelligent, articulate, a football scholar as it were, Palu nearly beamed when he spoke of the effect the television show had on his coaching and his personality.

“Before (the show) I deferred if someone pushed a discussion,” Palu said. “I was intimidated. Not anymore. I speak with confidence. I know what I am saying makes sense. I know I can make a kid who comes here a better football player than when he arrived.”

Palu coached three kids who will be playing Division I football this fall: Mike Tuaua (Texas Christian), Garrett Guanella (San Jose State) and Chris Smith (Old Dominion).

“It’s the mental strength I developed,” Palu said. It’s the mental strength he needs. He has gained back 97 pounds, back up to 285, and the assumption would be that he has lost control of his eating. To the contrary.

“When I got down to 188,” Palu said, “I felt emaciated. I was weak. I didn’t feel good. But I did it for the show. I still feel light at 230. What I have learned through all this is my ideal weight — 250 pounds.”

Palu, 32, has to pay attention each day to what he eats, how he exercises. It is a lesson he passes on to his players.

Said Palu: “I tell them, ‘You want to play D-I? OK. Then every day, with every decision you make, you either get closer to your dream or you divert from it.’”

Football is courage, he’ll say. Can’t play football without it. If they ask, Palu will tell them about courage.

In October 2009, when the network announced Palu was one of 24 candidates out of 500,000 applicants who made “Biggest Loser,” NBC told him his first weigh-in would have to occur locally, on the field at Rancho Cotate High School, where he played football.

“No way!” Palu said. “I wasn’t going to do it. I’m not going to take my shirt off! To stand there in front of my family and my friends? In my shorts? Being filmed? No way!”

Rancho announced over the school’s public address system the NBC filming would occur that night and all the students should attend to support one of their own. Ouch! Palu felt even more reticent. Now there’s 400-500 people, most of them strangers, although Rancho’s head coach, Ed Conroy, would be there.

Under the lights, with his shirt off, at 403 pounds on his 6-foot frame, Palu stood there and took it.

“I knew in the long run,” Palu said, “this would make me a better person. What’s a little embarrassment?”

So when Palu tells his players to be focused, that they can overcome doubt, that they can handle bad times, they never say, “What do you know about determination?”

“It’s not about how I look,” he’ll say. “It’s about what I know.”

And it’s also about what they know, that Koli Palu is a big, big man and it has nothing to do with his weight.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

Comments are closed.