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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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Clockwise from top right: J.J. Whittaker, King Holder, Osmond Nicholas, Jake Fely, Rene Siluano. Kenny Galea'i is not pictured.

Ring of Fire

Oceanside recruits prove SDSU has plenty of gridiron talent in its own backyard.
By Jennifer Coburn


That’s the word that came to J. J. Whittaker’s mind when he first met fellow Aztec defensive back King Holder at football practice.

Whittaker knew he’d overthrown a pass, but that didn’t stop Holder, his receiver, from turning on the speed, nabbing the ball, and scoring a touchdown. 

"The way we’re working, we’re going to get that championship."

Aztec linebacker Jake Fely mentions a similar recollection of the first time he saw defensive back Rene Siluano in action. 

“He was always the guy making the big play,” Fely recalls.

It’s been almost a decade since those first impressions. The four Aztecs met as 12- and 13-year-olds playing for the Oceanside Pop Warner football program. They moved on to Oceanside High School where they became fast friends with teammates Osmond Nicholas, now an Aztec wide receiver, and Kenny Galea’i, a defensive lineman.

While always seeking out top players from across the country, SDSU Athletics recruiters never lose sight of the talent in their own backyard, and they’ve come to expect especially great potential from Oceanside.

“They’ve been a powerhouse, and they have a great coach in John Carroll,” says Aztecs head coach Rocky Long. “These players have a real impact on our season because they came to us with a love of the game and solid fundamentals.”

Legacy of talent

As most San Diego Chargers fans know, Oceanside High is famous not only for its impressive record of undefeated seasons and state titles, but also as the training ground of legendary Charger linebacker Junior Seau. 

The NFL great, who died May 2 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, played college ball for the University of Southern California, but his influence remains strong at San Diego State. He was a mentor to Siluano, with whom he shared a Samoan heritage, and his nephew, Micah Seau, is now a freshman linebacker for the Aztecs.

Aside from their outstanding high school training, the Oceanside Aztecs share an additional advantage—Fely’s grandmother, Doris Robison. “Grandma Merte,” as the guys call her, is their No. 1 fan, attending every home game plus many practices.  Now 69, Robison attended San Diego State in 1975 while working toward a master’s degree in career and vocational education. Her daughters, Cindy Fely and Paula Robison, are also SDSU alumnae. 

Even before her grandson joined the current Aztec team, Grandma Merte has been a den mother to many of the young men from Oceanside who came to play football on the Mesa, often opening her Clairemont home to them.

“I love it when they come in and give me a big hug, and we all sit down at the table together,” Grandma Merte says.  “It’s a lot of fun.  It’s life.”

Nicholas, now a junior, also stepped up to support Oceanside players, hosting the younger guys during campus visits as prospective Aztecs.

“When they saw what a good time I was having, and they saw that SDSU was on the come-up, it was a no-brainer,” he says now, with a winning smile. They knew this was the best place to be.”

Bonds of brotherhood

The six Oceanside “Pirates” currently represented on the SDSU football roster make up the largest block from any single high school. Not surprisingly, they say they feel more like brothers than friends. Combining their proven strengths, they hope to forge a formidable Aztec legacy.

“We’re all about having a winning record all the time,” Fely says on behalf of his longtime teammates. 

Their goal this season: to win the Mountain West Championship before SDSU moves into the Big East Conference next year, in 2013. 

“The team we have is fast,” Fely adds, “and the way we’re working, we’re going to get that championship.”