FOXBOROUGH — You begin the tongue-twisting trip with a bit of deception posed by the silent ‘H.’ From there, the navigation of Michael Hoomanawanui’s polysyllabic Polynesian surname is not unlike an unchartered trip to the South Pacific — phonetically speaking, of course.
After dealing with the tricky silence of the first consonant in the Patriots tight end’s 12-letter last name, you are surprised by the double vowels that follow. It produces an ‘uh-oh’ moment. The next step is a cliff diver’s leap of faith into ‘ma-na’ before making the final splash into ‘wanui’.
When you finally master its pronunciation, and can get it to roll off your tongue mellifluously, you almost cannot help but conjure a trip to a tropical paradise, replete with swaying palm trees, shrieking gulls, and a gentle surf rolling up on a sun-dappled beach.
“Our last name means, ‘To be patient,’ ’’ said Hoomanawanui’s father, Isy, a Hawaiian native who played football at Illinois State and was his son’s position coach at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, Ill., where Michael played as a freshman on the varsity at tight end and defensive end.
“Things happen for a reason, so you just have to be patient,’’ Isy said.
While Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the household names among the Patriots’ tight ends, Hoomanawanui, a 6-foot-4-inch, 263-pounder in his third pro season out of the University of Illinois, has had to bide his time. He has toiled in relative anonymity as the fourth tight end — except for his last name.
“I still have to double-check myself when I say it,’’ said George Godsey, the Patriots tight ends coach.
To his phonetically-challenged teammates, Hoomanawanui has become known, simply, as “Hoo-Man.’’
“I’ve had a couple of nicknames over the years,’’ said Hoomanawanui, whose football acumen and position versatility enabled him to create a niche with the Patriots, even with Daniel Fells third on the depth chart. “It’s obviously not an easy name to pronounce, so any way they can shorten it up and help everyone out is OK. It’s been cool. A lot of guys have played with a bunch of Polynesian players before and they come up and look at the name and they get it the first time.”
Originally drafted by St. Louis in the fifth round (132d overall) in 2010, Hoomanawanui made 20 catches for 229 yards and three touchdowns (all in his rookie season) over 16 games (11 starts) in his two seasons with the Rams before he was released Sept. 2.
Three days later, the Patriots signed Hoomanawanui as a free agent.
“He’s just a young tight end with a lot of flexibility,’’ Godsey said. “He’s worked in the backfield, he’s worked as an in-motion tight end, he’s worked on the line at the point of attack, and he’s worked in the slot, so he’s just another flexible tight end, which we try to do as much as we can with them.’’
Hoomanawanui’s transition from St. Louis to New England was smoothed by his familiarity with the concepts of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who had the same job during Hoomanawanui’s time with the Rams.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride ever since I got let go by St. Louis,’’ Hoomanawanui said. “Coming in here and having a little familiarity with the system already after having Coach McDaniels last year made it kind of easier once I got back into it.
“Now I’ve added a kind of a new role, playing fullback, and it’s been fun. So anything they need me to do or want me to do, I’m up for it. Whatever helps us win.’’
Hoomanawanui made his first start for the Patriots at fullback in a 31-30 setback at Baltimore Sept. 23 and made his first catch, a 4-yarder. The following week, with Hernandez on the shelf with an ankle injury, Hoomanawanui started at tight end opposite Gronkowski.
“Gronk and Aaron, being who they are and what they can do, you’ve got to find a way to help in this offense,’’ Hoomanawanui said. “So anything I can do, whether it be on special teams or playing fullback, I’m going to try and do.’’
Hoomanawanui suffered a concussion in Week 4 at Buffalo and was inactive for the next two games before he returned in a limited capacity for the 29-26 overtime victory over the Jets.
With Hernandez inactive and resting back home, Hoomanawanui was pressed into service against – of all teams – the Rams in London, where he had his number called on an 18-yard reception, in a 45-7 romp at Wembley Stadium.
“Any time you can contribute to a win, you feel a lot better than sitting on the sidelines,’’ said Hoomanawanui. “But that’s just the competitive nature we all have as professional athletes, so it was definitely nice to be in there and to get that opportunity.’’
Did he realize he was an option for Tom Brady when the quarterback called the play in the huddle?
“Oh, yeah, every play you’ve got to have that mentality, because the play you don’t [expect] is the play it’s going to come to you and you’ll be on ‘C’mon Man’ or something,’’ Hoomanawanui said, referring to the lowlight segment on ESPN’s NFL studio show. “It’s just the mentality and the preparation that you put into it.’’
Said Godsey, “I think, with Tom, if you’re not looking for the ball, you’re going to get hit in the head with it. He’s looking at all five options and those guys need to be aware that the ball could come at them at any moment.’’
When Hoomanawanui seized upon his moment in London, it triggered an immediate reaction stateside among family and friends.
“Usually if Mike does something good on the TV, then my phone just goes off,’’ said Isy, whose cellphone was bombarded with text messages after Michael’s 18-yard catch. “We get one after another from all over. We get them from Florida, New Mexico, Hawaii, they all start coming in. We got people watching from all over.’’
Said Michael, “It makes you realize how big this game is. Even guys who aren’t Patriots fans watch us because I played with them in high school or college.’’
They all have a rooting interest now in the Patriots tight end with the tongue-twisting last name who remains eager to earn his place – and make his name — in New England.
“It’s a lot for a first-year player in this system to learn,’’ Godsey said of the challenges facing Hoomanawanui. “I think it’s just a gradual process that continues to improve, at least from our impression. I think as the next half of the season goes, we’d like to continue to see it improve and I think he would, too.’’