There was a time, midway through the San Mateo County high school football season, when Serra senior Sitaleki Nunn seemed mortal.
That time came in October, following a dramatic 41-40 overtime victory against archrival St. Francis, after which Nunn missed three weeks due to a back injury. Once he returned to action for Serra’s regular-season finale — a 48-13 victory over Bellarmine to secure a share of the West Catholic Athletic League championship — Nunn proved Serra’s superman.
Not only was Nunn the lifeblood of Serra’s Northern California Division 2-A championship season — the first in program history — the senior quarterback was the most entertaining one-man show in the county while doing so, making him a runaway choice for the Daily Journal Football Player of the Year.
“Some of the plays that look funky are actually scripted plays,” Nunn said. “For some plays that do break down, because my coach trusts me to make things happen … they know that when I’m in trouble I know where to be when that happens.”
Nunn’s signature moments came when he was making miraculous gains out of nothing, often scrambling out of the pocket to break off chunks of yards when the Padres needed them most. But his multi-faceted talent is reflected by his place in the Serra record books. Actually, make that “places” — many of them.
The record numbers defied Nunn’s missing three weeks due to injury with a fractured L5 vertebra and a ruptured disc, an injury he sustained in Week 2 against De La Salle, but soldiered through another four weeks before hitting the shelf.
Due to Serra’s postseason run, he still played in 12 games, setting Serra’s career passing record with 4,266 yards and climbing to fourth all-time in career rushing yards with 2,713 in the process. In his senior season alone, Nunn gained 3,027 total yards, powering the most productive offense in Serra history with an all-time team record 6,034 total offensive yards and the most points in a single season with 574.
“That’s basically what it comes down to,” Nunn said. “Once I touch the field and I’m there with my offense, I know I can score against anybody … and then I try to do it as much as possible.”
Nunn and Serra’s high-powered offense impressed far beyond the numbers though, even numbers as impressive as those. The 5-10 senior — who has offers to play in college from San Jose State, Sacramento State and West Point, but has yet to commit — attributes the Padres’ success to the chemistry of a core group that has played together since they were 6 years old with the Bay City Bulldogs.
Notoriously a small kid — Nunn said he used to put pennies in his socks to meet Pop Warner weight requirements — he grew up playing on teams with his younger brother Patrick, now a sophomore at Serra, and Padres running back Isiah Kendrick, among others.
“Overall, just looking up knowing that they’re there, it’s just warming because I’ve had days that are the lowest of lowest … but they’ve always been there,” Nunn said. “Even through Pop Warner, they’ve always been there.”
Calling Nunn a one-man show is not to say Serra’s offense was a one-man show, not by a long shot. While Nunn rushed for 1,055 yards this season, he actually ranked second on the team after Kendrick’s varsity debut with 1,200 ground yards. Junior slot receiver Shane Villaroman set the program’s single-season receiving record with 1,055 yards.
And while Nunn passed for 1,972 yards this season — ranking fourth on the all-time program list — he and sophomore quarterback Luke Bottari actually paired to break the record for single-season team passing yards with 3,186.
Bottari spelled Nunn while the senior was injured, and the sophomore led the Padres to three straight wins. But it was Bottari’s ability to get the job done at the drop of a hat that impressed Nunn most, like he did in the Northern California championship game in Sanger, coming off the bench to throw one pass and one pass only, a crisp 45-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Quinn.
“He’d come in and start throwing daggers,” Nunn said.
That Dec. 10 night in Sanger, before the craziest football environment anyone in Serra blue had ever experienced, Nunn also did what he does best. He racked up a career-high 450 total yards — 289 yards passing and 161 yards rushing — but it was the way he did it that best personified what Nunn’s game is all about.
Twice in the game Nunn was faced with seemingly impossible blitzes to escape. Each time the breech came from his blindside. Each time it was multiple defenders in pursuit. Not only did Nunn break free both times — once throwing for a 55-yard touchdown to Quinn, and another eluding being sacked for a safety and scrambling for a first down — he did so by turning into the blitz and jetting right past the rushers to do so.
This was a theme time and again throughout Nunn’s career. While successful offenses typically win the day by avoiding the best defenders on the other side of the ball, Nunn was tactical and tenacious in identifying the best players on opposing defenses and running the ball right at them.
“Honestly, I respect all opponents but I’m not going to fear anybody, even if they’re good,” Nunn said. “If they’re good, I’m going to test them to see how good they are.”
Therein lies the legacy of Sitaleki “Leki” Nunn, a human highlight reel who — by virtue of his even-keel demeanor and field vision, coupled with the heart of a gladiator by leading the Padres to their first-ever State Championship Bowl — portrayed the stuff of superheroes week-in and week-out on the San Mateo County gridiron.
“I think leadership and overall ability to make plays, I think that made him the great player he is,” Villaroman said. “He really stepped up through injuries and through the misery he had. … So I think he was a huge part in us going to state.”