By Mark Janzen
At its essence, the mixed plate is fairly standard.
Typically, it’s a variety pack that features two scoops of white rice, mac salad and an assortment of meats. It’s good. Order a plate lunch from one of Zippy’s 24 locations scattered around the Hawaiian Islands and you might even start to feel a little bit like a local on a lunch break.
It’s quintessentially Hawaiian.
So is Psalm Wooching.
“My story is kind of like a mixed plate,” Wooching admits.
Two days after an interview, on a sweltering mid-May afternoon in New Orleans, the San Diego Legion flanker made a try-saving tackle in second-half stoppage time, taking down NOLA’s Scott Gale inches in front of his team’s try line. Thirty seconds later, NOLA knocked the ball on, and Wooching collapsed onto his back in exhaustion. His 13 tackles and 14 carries helped lead San Diego to a win over NOLA Gold, sending the Legion to the top of the Major League Rugby table. Wooching would be named Man of the Match. He was still catching his breath in the post-match interview.
Cool. For sure. There’s no doubt Wooching enjoyed the moment (after pealing himself off the grass).
But all that stuff – the stats, the wins and the accolades – is just rice.
On Wooching’s plate, there’s so much more.
Sitting on an airplane on his way home to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Wooching was less than a week removed from scoring his first try with the USA Eagles in a victory over Uruguay in the 2018 Americas Rugby Championship. He had come off the bench in the 62nd minute to earn his third cap. Fourteen minutes later, he dotted the ball down.
The win secured the ARC title for the Eagles. Yet, Wooching was going home in an entirely un-celebratory state of mind. Outside the lines, his personal life had stumbled into a wobbly spin cycle. He had excused himself from a previously signed contract with Italy’s Rugby Viadana, and instead of launching a rugby-playing career abroad, he was returning to the Big Island.
“I got into a deep hole of depression and anxiety that I’ve never dealt with before,” Wooching says. “I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if I’d ever play rugby again.
“I wasn’t myself. I needed to go back home. I had to re-find myself. I needed to find my faith.”
From an outsider’s perspective, Wooching had it all going on. Here’s where the mixed plate gets spicy.
Growing up in Hawaii, he had learned to play the ukulele, the guitar and the piano, he had mastered the art of spinning the fire knife (more on that later, but he’s incredible), he was a surfer and a fisherman, he had the good looks to go with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound physique and he’s still on posters at the University of Washington from his playing days with the Huskies football team. From an outsider, Wooching seemed ‘made’. He wasn’t.
“I went back home and I had to rebuild Psalm from the ground up,” he says.
His full name is Psalm Fa’afoisia Pulemagafa Wooching. From his Samoan heritage, his name means “to restore.”
Returning to Hawaii, he was in search of restoration – personally, spiritually and athletically.
The fire knife encompassed all three.
Growing up on the Big Island, Wooching’s family was involved in Island Breeze Ministries, which, in part, was an avenue to express cultural performances. Wooching was on stage as a young child, and by the time he was a teenager, he was spinning the fire knife at local luaus. While in high school, playing with fire in front of an awestruck audience was his part-time job.
(Stop. Now is the time to quickly go to his Instagram @psalmwooching and see him doing his thing).
Legion and Eagle teammate Nate Augspurger is quick to suggest the effects of the fire knife are evident on Wooching’s paws.
“Honestly, his hands are like bear claws,” Augspurger says. It helps when juggling a flaming stick.
Coming home in the spring of 2018, returning to the fire knife was part of Wooching’s restoration.
“It’s like riding a bike,” he says. “Just like playing music, like fishing, like being in the ocean, spinning the fire knife was another way to escape. It’s my way to worship.”
And, for Wooching, his story and his return to the pitch is about just that: worshipping in his own way.
In a recent post on Instagram, Wooching admitted to his struggles.
“May is Mental Health Awareness month. “It’s okay not to be okay.” I’ve dealt with major Anxiety and Depression over the years, but what I’ve found out that helps me the most is knowing “you’re not the only one.” There is a way out of the darkness just keep pressing through. Gods got you!! #BreakTheStigma #MentalHealthMonth”
Indeed his family was everything in those moments. Of that, there is no doubt. But beyond his family, Wooching reflects on his connection with Tiger Hill and Blake Casteel, who work with an organization called Respect the Corners.
Taking Wooching on, the cross-fit school that describes itself as a “discipleship and fitness training community” helped set the Hawaiian star back on his path to the Eagles – and to the Legion.
“They got me back into rugby shape and into spiritual shape,” Wooching says. “I always loved rugby – no matter what. But it was knowing if I had the mental ability to go out and play the game with as much passion and intensity as I usually do.”
While Wooching is known in Hawaii for his success with the Huskies, he didn’t come to Respect the Corners as a famous star.
“He’s a big deal here on the Big Island,” Hill says. “But for him, he had to step out of the idea of what people thought of him. It kind of helped that I didn’t really know who he was. We ate meals together. We were real with each other and, as an athlete, he grew tremendously.”
Through the help of Hill, Wooching found his reason for rugby.
After a few months of working together, Hill helped Wooching see his future.
“Rugby is where you’re going to shine and that’s your realm.”
Six months after arriving in Hawaii, Wooching returned to the Mainland refocused and restored.
“When he went back out to play rugby, he went out with a whole different mindset,” Hill says. “He went out knowing that he wasn’t going just for his career but he was going to live his life in a way that would impact other people’s lives.”
After returning to the pitch with the USA Selects in the fall of 2018, Wooching found himself at Soldier Field in Chicago in early November, back with the Eagles playing against the Maori All Blacks. Entering the game in the 66th minute, Wooching’s physicality quickly made it’s mark, as he took a short ball and ran right through Super Rugby star Akira Ioane.
“It sparked my fire again,” Wooching says.
A week later, he and the Eagles faced Samoa.
As a youngster, Wooching would wake up early to watch Samoa play on TV. He has the word “Samoa” tattooed on his left forearm. Brian Lima was his favourite player. He can recall every one of Alesana Tuilagi’s steps from that unforgettable run down the line in Samoa’s upset victory over Australia in 2011. He’s seen the Siva Tau too many times to count. He has cousins and friends who play for Manu Samoa.
Now, as an Eagle, he stared into the eyes of close friend JJ Taulagi as Wooching witnessed the Siva Tau firsthand.
“To see them doing it to me was a surreal moment,” Wooching says. “It was like I wasn’t even there and it was like I was watching it as a kid again.”
Coming into the game in the 67th minute, Wooching was back.
A month later he signed with San Diego.
Five months after that, Wooching, who missed the first few weeks of the MLR season with an injury, has been a heart and soul type of player for the Legion. He’s been named to the MLR’s First XV of the Week three times. His hard-running and hard-tackling style has the opposition on notice and with the both the MLR playoffs and Rugby World Cup on the horizon, coaches aplenty have Wooching’s name in their notes.
“As a teammate, he’s so obviously in touch with the mission of the team,” Augspurger says. “He puts his all into bettering himself every day so he can contribute to the team in the right way. He’s one of our passionate leaders. He’s a guy who’s going to bring a ton of intensity and physicality and we rely on him for that. You can feel his intensity when he’s switched on.”
Augspurger is quick to bring up a recent hit Wooching put on John Moonlight – the former Canadian Sevens star turned Toronto Arrows back rower. Taking on one of the Arrows best – Augspurger goes on to suggest Moonlight might just be the Arrows version of Wooching – the Legion star stopped Moonlight in his tracks with a textbook one-on-one tackle.
“It was a perfect hit,” Augspurger says.
“I always knew he was a great athlete and he was a very physical guy, but once I got to know him more, the way he is as a person really fits the culture and the values of the game of rugby. His relationships and bonds with people is a brotherly love. So, I knew he was going to have a great opportunity to be successful with his rugby career.”
There was a time when all the articles about Wooching pertained to his leaving football behind.
But there’s a reason his Huskies days are barely mentioned here. For sure, he was great and for sure, he is still a proud Dawg. But Wooching is rugby.
“It’s just something that’s very unique,” Wooching says about the one sport that has long had a clutch on his heart. “You’re absolutely trying to destroy the opposition but right when that whistle is blown and the game ends, you have a rugby bond. It’s a brotherhood. Everyone needs everyone. It’s a bond that’s worldwide.”
For Wooching, rugby is his platform. But you need every ingredient – all of it – to make a proper mixed plate.