Why Rex Sunahara wanted to be a long snapper at West Virginia

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — When Reed Sunahara stood in the Milan Puskar Stadium stands to watch West Virginia play Kansas, it marked an important family milestone. For the first time ever, he was able to watch in person as his son Rex took the field as the Mountaineers’ long snapper.

That’s a proud moment for any parent, but there was extra meaning for the Sunaharas. Their family path took a series of detours before finally converging in Morgantown.

In the beginning

Reed Sunahara arrived at West Virginia in 2015 for a reclamation project. His task was to turn around a women’s volleyball program that had struggled with the transition to the Big 12.

Rex was still in high school, living with his mother in the Cleveland area as he had since his parents’ divorce a few years earlier.

“When I took the job here, I didn’t even think of it,” Reed said. “I never thought anything like this was going to happen. I was just focused on the job itself.”

Even when it became clear that Reed was good enough to play sports at the Division I level, his path remained far from his dad. The younger Sunahara signed with Rhode Island out of high school, and did so at a position that caught his dad by surprise.

“When he got into Rhode Island and said he was going to long snap I was like, ‘What? Long snap?’” Reed recalled. “I don’t even know how you get into it.”

Rex had excelled at wide receiver in high school, and also starred on the basketball and baseball teams at Bay High. But somehow it was the very niche position of long snapper that called to him. He said the idea first popped in his head when he was still living with his dad in Cincinnati, where Reed coached the Bearcats volleyball team from 2000-’11.

“I went to a one-day youth camp when I lived in Cincinnati,” Rex said. “I saw the Cincinnati long-snapper doing it and I thought ‘Oh. That looks like a cool thing to do.’ And I just picked it up.”

By going to Rhode Island, Rex had the opportunity to remain a multi-sport athlete. But it didn’t take long for him to feel like it wasn’t the right fit. At the end of the first semester, he was already looking to move on.

“He kept calling and saying ‘I don’t think this is my thing here,’ ” Reed said. “I was like ‘No, give it a shot.’ I’m a coach, so I don’t like when kids transfer.”

Rex joined up with Dan Hurley’s basketball team after winter break, and enjoyed his time despite being the last guy off the bench. It was at that point he realized that his best opportunity would be to focus on football.

“That was one of the best times I ever had playing sports,” Rex said. “But I thought football was the way I could be the best at what I could do. That’s why I decided to stick with football.”

Where he decided to play football next caught his dad by surprise.

Coming to WVU

The Sunaharas were on vacation in Reed’s native Hawaii when Rex made his decision. He too would come to West Virginia even though there was no guarantee he’d even have a spot on the team.

The possibility of Rex not making the team — after all, how do you know if a kid has what it takes to be a Big 12 long snapper? — loomed large to his father. Thus, a compromise was struck. If he didn’t make the football team, he was going to be his dad’s volleyball manager.

“I was hoping he wasn’t going to be my manager,” Reed said. “But, I had to have a plan just because I didn’t want him to think if it didn’t work he was off Scot-free.”

Making it work

Rex made sure it worked.

The day before his tryout, he stayed with his dad instead of at his dorm.

“I asked why and he said ‘I don’t want to be late,’ ” Reed said. “The tryout was at 6 a.m. He wanted to be there by 5:30, so I woke him up and drove him there.”

The set of wheels was the most influence Reed exhibited in the process. The football coaches liked what they saw from the younger Sunahara and invited him on the roster as a walk-on.

After two seasons as an understudy to Nick Meadows, Rex earned the spot as West Virginia’s starting long snapper this year.

Naturally, his first home game ended up being every long snapper’s nightmare. A miserable band of rain poured over Morgantown throughout the game against Youngstown State, immediately putting Rex on the spot. But thanks to Meadows, he was prepared.

“Nick was big on making sure we were prepared for literally everything,” Rex said. “Last year, there was a Sunday night where it was pouring rain. After practice, we went outside for like 30, 45 minutes and started snapping balls in pouring rain. I think that helped a lot.”

A unique view

Rex’s role on the team is unlike that of anyone else. He views the world through an upside-down lens, making sure the ball gets to the holder or the punter in orderly fashion.

It takes a different type of mentality to embrace the position, and Sunahara has it.

“I like it all, but running down there and getting a tackle, that’s a lot of fun,” Rex said. “Being a part of actually scoring points, too. You’re a physical part of Evan [Staley] kicking it through. That brings me joy, too.”

Perhaps no one has been brought as much joy as Reed Sunahara. His younger son, R.J., plays basketball at Fairmont State. The boys don’t live under the same roof as him, but you’d never know.

“They eat all my food and do their laundry,” Reed said. “It’s good. The boys get to hang out and bond and be together.”

After years living away from both sons, they are now a major presence in his life in a place none of them had ever lived just a few years prior.

“It’s wonderful. It’s unbelievable. I never thought this could happen,” Reed said. “By faith, I guess, it did.”

Twitter: @bigahickey

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