Scholarship awards

Suirong Cao, second from left, and Paul Pohahau display their Redbird Scholarship awards with Redbird Scholarship founders Derrick Tucker, far left, and Michele Tucker, far right.

Derrick Tucker’s sister was known for athleticism, contributions to her community and for her academics.

Nicknamed ‘Redbird,’ she passed away several years ago but on Oct. 31, Tucker and his wife Michele helped surprise two Laguna Creek football players whose contributions to their team and beyond exemplified the high standards of the first-ever Redbird Scholarship Award.

After the Cardinals’ team dinner, Suirong Cao and Paul Pohahau were surprised by being named winners of the award, which was created by the Tuckers and is the first-ever parent/alumni-associated football scholarship in Cardinal history.

The seniors were given the $1,000 awards for their “passion of the sport, true sportsmanship, being a team player, and exhibiting compassion for their school and family,” according to Michele Tucker, whose son graduated from Laguna Creek in 2008.

Both senior captains on Laguna Creek’s varsity football team, Cao and Pohahau were humble and thankful after receiving the award, which capped off the night one day before the Cardinals would win their seventh game of the season.

“I’m just sort of emotional. I worked so hard. I’m so grateful for this opportunity I got. I’m feeling extremely happy right now,” Cao said after being congratulated by the Tuckers, Cardinal head coach Ryan Nill and Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly inside Laguna Creek’s cafeteria.

Pohahau echoed his sentiments.

“As soon as he started describing the person, I knew it was me and I just broke down, I couldn’t hold it in. I’m extremely emotional for all the work. All the hard work with my brothers on and off the field, it really just turned out great. It’s such a blessing to receive this award and to get acknowledged from my coaches and my brothers.”

Seeing the reactions of Cao and Pohahau but also the appreciation their teammates expressed may have been the highlight for Derrick Tucker.

“I got all choked up. Just to see the joy on their faces, they were totally surprised. I guess that helped a lot,” Tucker said. “The biggest thing I got from this was the reaction from their teammates. Their teammates were so happy that they got that award. In this day and age to see other people root for other people was almost more than I can tell you. I wish them the best in the world.”

Both players were with the program when the Cardinals went 1-9 last season and this season, the Cardinals started off the year with back-to-back wins and would go 7-3 in a breakout season that had them contending for the Metro League Championship right up until their last game.

“It’s definitely physically challenging. We made a big step toward a great direction. I couldn’t be more blessed to get this opportunity to play for this great team my senior year,” Cao noted.

The turnaround in the Cardinals’ season was helped by players’ efforts on the field and off and seemed to have also been sparked by new head coach Nill and his coaching staff.

“There are no individuals. We all play as a team in one unit. I think that’s what really pushes us to be the best that we can,” said Pohahau. “[There are] a lot of kids finally committing to the team, we have a lot of kids coming on time again, numbers increased. It’s a good program being built here, being rebuilt.”

Nill said that once Michele Tucker reached out to him about choosing players for the Redbird award, he immediately knew who to choose.

“She talked about the requirements for it. I said, I have two wonderful young men that would qualify for that and luckily they picked both of them and it was a great night. It was one of the coolest things I’ve dealt with as a head coach,” Nill said of the Oct. 31 presentation.