From Leilehua Mules to the NFL to Breast Cancer Survivor, Paul Dombroski Proves a Champ
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
I remember it so clearly.
It was a Sunday morning and the NFL Oakland Raiders were playing the New England Patriots. Dad and I were glued to the television set because Paul Dombroski — Dad’s nephew, my cousin — was playing defensive cornerback for the Patriots. His job that day was to defend against Cliff Branch, the Raiders’ three-time First Team All-Pro wide receiver.
Paul’s going up against Branch attracted the attention of sportscaster “Dandy” Don Meredith. He introduced Paul to the millions of viewers by saying: “Paul’s claim to fame is that he is the only NFL player with Okinawan heritage.”
The hoots and hollers from the Nakasone ‘ohana and the Wahiawā community could be heard throughout our Central O‘ahu community. We could not have been prouder of Paul in that moment. Not only was he playing in a big game against a big name — his pride in his Uchinanchu heritage had just been made public on national television.
Paul’s mother was my father’s sister. They were both born and raised in Wahiawā.
The Uchinanchu with Wahiawā roots didn’t just play the game that day — he marked it with an exclamation point! Near the end of the game, Paul caught Raiders’ quarterback Jim Plunkett’s glance at Branch, who was in a running pattern toward the end zone. Anticipating the pass, Paul made the interception. The game ended with the ball in the Patriots’ possession. If Paul had hesitated for even a split-second, Branch would have been in the end zone with a touchdown. That huge play helped the Patriots win the game that day.
Rising to the highest level in any sport takes natural athletic ability, a can-do attitude, mental toughness, and game preparation, both physical and intellectual. Other factors played into Paul’s mix: his upbringing and life experiences and the coaches who helped him to excel in the sport.
There was another key factor: his family’s history, or more precisely, his DNA.
“You have to have heart to play the game at this level,” Paul told me during a recent visit home. That’s something you can’t learn — you’re born with it.
“I would see top draft picks join the team and it didn’t take long before I could spot the players who didn’t have the heart.” Those players generally did not last long in the National Football League.
In Paul’s case, however, as with many of us, DNA turned out to be a double-edged sword with both positive and negative traits. The positive characteristics he inherited proved to be a formidable defense when he needed them most.
A Strong Foundation
Paul was endowed with the strong character traits of his mother, Jean Shizuko Nakasone. Nisei family members described Shizuko, whom they called “Shi-chan,” as “feisty and tough.” She was all of that and she proved it in spades from a very young age.
Shi-chan was the oldest girl in her family. At 13, she was forced to quit school to manage the household and care for her three younger siblings: Fumie, Sueno and Satoru. Her older brother, Seiei (my father), was 15 when he, too, was forced to leave school to help his father, Jiro, at his barbershop in Wahiawā.
Their mother, Kamei, was seriously ill with tuberculosis and was about to be hospitalized at Leahi Hospital in Kaimukï. As the car carrying my grandmother pulled away from the curb, Satoru, then just 5 years, began crying and running after the car. Shi-chan and her sisters chased after him and brought him home.
Throughout their mother’s four-year-long hospitalization, the children were not allowed to visit her due to the seriousness of the disease. Shi-chan became the mother figure in the home. That kind of responsibility for a girl her age is unimaginable today. But Shi-chan rose to the challenge.
Her mettle was tested again when Satoru was about 5 years old and being bullied at school by an older boy. One day, he came home crying. Shi-chan, then 15, stormed over to the boy’s house and chewed him out. The boy never bullied Satoru again.
Shi-chan was tough when she needed to be, but also very caring, especially when it came to her siblings.
She was also perceived as a “rebel.” “Mom was radical, but in a good way. And she was the ‘black sheep’ of the family,” said Paul’s brother, Mark, the eldest child.
Shi-chan did not fit the stereotype of an Asian woman at the time. She was outgoing, followed her heart and did what she felt was right, regardless of what others thought.
Case in point: In 1949, Shi-chan took a federal job in Okinawa to try to find out what had happened to her younger brother, Junichi, who, with her sister Yoshino, had been taken to Okinawa as children by their grandfather and raised there by their grandparents. Junichi was only 3 years old, Yoshino was 5. When war came to Okinawa in 1945, Junichi was conscripted into the Japanese imperial army and never seen again.
Despite her best efforts to find Junichi, or to at least learn what had happened to him, Shi-chan was unsuccessful.
She did, however, meet and fall in love with Eugene “Gene” Dombroski, an Air Force officer who was stationed in Okinawa. They were married in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Shi-chan’s marrying a Caucasian man did not sit well with her mother. In fact, interracial marriage was illegal in several states until 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court made it the law of the land in America. Shi-chan’s and Gene’s love for each other would not allow a taboo to get in the way of their happiness.
In time, Shi-chan’s mother had a change of heart and came to love Gene. He was a kind and soft-spoken man, who, as a “full-bird” colonel, had a distinguished air about him. Shi-chan and Gene also blessed her mother with five hapa, or mixed-race, grandchildren: Mark, Mary, Paul, Ingrid and Beth.
Three generations of the Nakasone family in Wahiawā welcomed Gene into their ‘ohana.
Paul described his father as a man of few words when it came to discipline. Sometimes a stern look was all his children needed to realize that they had done something wrong. And when the look was not enough, their dad’s “few words” — more a challenge than a scolding — did the trick.
“You are better than that” is how Paul interpreted his father’s words. As a competitive person, that was all he needed.
Paul described his parents as “yin and yang” with parenting styles that ‘complemented each other. From both parents, Paul inherited character values that served him well through the twists and turns his life would take.
Paul was born in South Carolina. As a military family, they moved often, living in Virginia, Texas and, in Hawai‘i, at Hickam Air Force Base. When Gene was deployed to South Korea, Hawai‘i became home base for Shi-chan and the five kids. They rented a house in Wahiawā so they would be close to her family.
When Gene was ready to retire, he asked the kids where they wanted to live. The vote was unanimous: Wahiawā.
Paul was in the eighth grade when the Dombroski family finally put down roots in Wahiawā. The future NFL player earned his stripes as a bona fide “Wahiawā boy” by working three summers picking pineapple.
“Some of my dearest memories are of the ‘hanabata days’ with all my Nakasone cousins,” he told me recently. “I felt we were all close, not only in age, but in spirit. There was never a shortage of activities to share in. I never felt a sense of being an outsider because I was hapa.
“The Nakasone clan had a true sense of who they were and where they came from. All my uncles gave me a sense of pride in being part of the Nakasone family,” said Paul, conceding, though, that he appreciates the pride they instilled in him more now than when he was younger.
“Circling back to my Okinawan heritage, I more closely identify with it because of my formative years in Wahiawā around the Nakasone ‘ohana,” Paul said.
He believes his upbringing in Hawai‘i afforded him a “neutral view of people’s color.”
“I was exposed to so many different mixes of cultures that there were never any prejudices seeded in me.” That difference, he said, helped him learn to “listen and see people without preconceptions . . . most of the time.”
Path to the NFL
Paul was throwing around the football from the age of 7. His parents also signed him up for baseball, basketball and tennis, and he excelled at all of them. But he really loved football.
He credits his coaches and fellow players for his successful journey to the NFL. At Leilehua High School, where Paul played for the highly respected Coach Hugh Yoshida, he held several positions: quarterback, defensive back and punter, which meant he was on the field for much of the game.
Paul said he was greatly influenced by Yoshida’s efforts to instill in his student athletes a level of excellence on and off the field. Yoshida believed that the lessons his players learned playing football would help them succeed in life.
“I didn’t realize it at the time because I was so focused on playing football. But, later in my life, I’ve come to realize how much Coach Yoshida really cared about each one of us,” Paul said.
Yoshida held the dual role of head football coach and athletic director at Leilehua, which, in 2004, named its football stadium in his honor. Yoshida’s career also included a stint as executive secretary of the Oahu Interscholastic Association. From there he rose to become the athletics director for the University of Hawai‘i — America’s first Japanese American AD in Division 1 athletics.
Yoshida remembered Paul as being “intelligent and analytical,” and “a quick learner.”
“When we asked our players to do something new, he would analyze it until he fully understood what we wanted to accomplish,” recalled Yoshida.
“Paul was independent; he had a positive attitude and great athletic ability,” Yoshida recalled. “You knew he was going to play at the higher level. Paul was a couple of notches above the rest as an athlete and as a person. He was a great role model for our younger players.”
In Paul’s senior year at Leilehua, University of Hawai‘i football coach Larry Price recruited him to play for the ’Bows. After his first season at UH, I remember Paul telling me that between his studies and football, he had too many distractions. That’s when he decided to transfer to Linfield College in Oregon, Coach Yoshida’s alma mater. There, he roomed with his close friend and former Leilehua teammate, Wendell Say, who has been ‘Aiea High School’s head football coach since 1992.
At Linfield, Paul earned his bachelor’s degree in education. He played football under Coach Ad Rutschman and was named a small college All-American.
With degree in hand, he returned home and took a campus security job while also helping to coach football and basketball at Leilehua. Sensing that Paul was not living up to his potential, his dad sat him down for “a few words” about his future.
Paul had previously expressed his desire to play in the NFL. His father’s “few words” helped him shift desire into action.
As the saying goes, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” And Paul got lucky when Punahou grad and then-Kansas City Chiefs running back Arnold Morgado entered his life at the 1980 Pro Bowl in Hawai‘i.
Morgado had arranged for a scout from the Chiefs’ organization to audition some local football talent at the UH field. Paul was one of 250 players who tried out that day. He ended up being one of only two selected to attend a football camp in Kansas.
During the preseason, he made three interceptions, earning himself a spot on the Chiefs’ roster. Morgado and Paul became teammates.
In November of 1981, Paul headed north to Massachusetts to play for the New England Patriots. He found himself playing with another athlete from Hawai‘i — Punahou grad Mosi Tatupu, whom he had played against in the 1973 state high school basketball tournament. Tatupu was a Patriots running back and had played in a Pro Bowl. He invited Paul to live with him and his family until Paul moved in with another player the following year.
The Hawai‘i players in the NFL supported each other, said Paul, adding that his friendship with Morgado and Tatupu gave him the confidence he needed to know that he could play at that level.
While with the Patriots, Paul met his future wife, Caron Caetano, a Patriots cheerleader. They have been married for 36 years and live in Florida.
While with the Patriots, Paul was twice named Player of the Year and was also nominated for the Pro Bowl team. He was later traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In 1985, after six seasons with the NFL, Paul closed out his football career. He had seen players forced out of the game with career-ending injuries and Paul wanted to leave the game while he was still healthy.
During a trip home for his niece’s high school graduation a few years ago, I was surprised to learn that at age 38, he was attending cosmetology school. From the NFL to a hairdresser? On second thought, it made sense. Paul was getting into a profession that would allow him to spend more time with Caron. Today, they co-own a salon, The Style Council, in New Tampa, Fla.
In a way, Paul is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Jiro Nakasone, who owned and operated a barbershop in Wahiawā. A photo of our grandpa cutting a customer’s hair in his Nakasone Barbershop hangs in Paul’s and Caron’s salon. Grandpa would be so proud.
A “1 Percenter”
My reference to the “1 Percenter” isn’t about billionaires. It does, however, refer to the percentage of men who are diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2013, Paul became a 1 Percenter.
According to 2020 information from the American Cancer Society, roughly 276,480 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, while 2,620 men — roughly 1 percent — are expected to receive the same diagnosis this year.
Paul willingly shares his experience, hoping to help others.
Sitting on a couch in 2013, he yawned and ran his hand across his chest. Suddenly, he felt a lump under one of his nipples. Paul froze. Memories of his mother’s battle with breast cancer flashed before his eyes. He knew immediately it was cancer.
Paul knew this was no time for machismo. If anything, he had to “man-up” to what is generally considered a woman’s disease. He took charge of the situation and got it checked out a few weeks later after tending to some important family matters in Hawai‘i.
The surgeon confirmed the diagnosis: invasive ductal carcinoma. A knot formed in his gut. Two seconds later, though, he shifted into football mode and began thinking of his cancer as if it were a football injury that he needed to overcome so he could get back on the playing field as soon as possible.
Paul had a mastectomy. Four lymph nodes were removed during his surgery. He then began an extensive treatment regimen.
Like his “rebel” mother who lived 25 years after surviving breast cancer, Paul is now a six-year, going on seven years, cancer “thriver.”
When compared to women, men make up a small fraction of the people diagnosed with breast cancer. But, they have a much higher mortality rate due largely to a lack of awareness about the disease in men. Early detection and intervention is key to survival, because it can be an aggressive disease.
Paul’s NFL career and his having survived breast cancer have given him a valuable platform to advocate for breast cancer awareness for men and women. He has become a spokesperson for breast cancer awareness. He gives talks and has appeared on both local and national television to advocate for breast cancer awareness.
During Cancer Awareness Month last October, Paul appeared on “CBS This Morning” with host Gayle King to talk about his brush with breast cancer. He also chairs a committee that is raising funds for the AdventHealth Carrollwood Breast Centre in Florida. AdventHealth was previously known as Florida Hospital, where Paul received his cancer treatment.
“If you suspect something, please get it checked,” he advises.
“Having experienced breast cancer and now as an advocate, throughout this journey, I have heard many statistics and facts that need to be discussed and clarified,” he said. “The primary ‘fact’ that has been overused and misunderstood is that male breast cancer is rare.”
“Rare” is a word that should be removed from the conversation, he says.
“In my journeys and conversations with many affected men, every man touched by this disease, although uncommon, is a father, a brother, a son and a husband. Their lives are no less meaningful to those who love them . . .”
To learn more about Paul’s life and career, visit his website: www.pauldombroski.com or malebreastcancercoalition.org. To learn more about the Breast Centre, visit: https://www.adventhealth.com/…/adventhealth-carrollwood-foundation.
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and most recently served as a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.