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Father’s spirit guides brothers

She reads her sons text messages and smiles though the tears. Their love for each other. Their respect. Their kindness. Their compassion.

She suggests that when walls begin to close in and emotions begin to stir and something happens to remind them of him, their father, their hero, their best friend, their biggest fan, they take long walks and just talk.

"I'm so proud of them," Penina Nacua said. "They have each other to lean on, to cry with, to talk about him and how much they miss him ... Game days are the hardest, the most emotional.

"He was always sitting up there in the stands, where they could look up and see him. They can't any longer, and that is hard on them."

There is a passage in "A River Runs Through It" that talks about the haunting instincts one brother has to protect another, that such a feeling can't be broken, that it will always pull them closer together.

It will not let go of Kai and Isaiah Nacua.

A Division I high school state football champion will be crowned Saturday afternoon at Sam Boyd Stadium, where Bishop Gorman engages Liberty and two brothers continue to fulfill the dream their father held for them for years before passing away in May.

The ironic part: Kai is a senior quarterback for Liberty; Isaiah is a junior defensive lineman for Bishop Gorman.

Lionel Nacua was a large but gentle soul, a man who adored his family unconditionally and who hoped like anything to one day see his sons play college football. He was 45 when dying unexpectedly of complications from diabetes.

The void he left was massive, a basin of sorrow in the hearts of his wife and seven children.

"Lionel was the happiest guy you could ever know," Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. "A really big, Polynesian guy who might have looked intimidating, but was a teddy bear. He was everything to his children, to his boys, and they looked up to him beyond belief. To watch the love they had for him. ... Each child got up at the funeral and said something about him. It was heartbreaking. It was very hard to see.

"I know since it happened Kai has played as if he's almost possessed. He plays for his dad every single play, every game. I'm sure he has an angel on his shoulder out there with him on the field."

The boys don't talk much football during the week. They are 14 months apart in age and share a bedroom, where on one side you will find laundry piled with Liberty gear and on the other that of Bishop Gorman.

For years on the fields of youth football, Isaiah played in the shadow of his big brother and with it came inescapable comparisons. He sought a different path, his own journey, when choosing to attend Bishop Gorman with friends he had made on those youth teams.

Liberty and Bishop Gorman met in a playoff semifinal last year, when the Gaels prevailed 56-34 after twice overcoming first-half deficits. They went on to win a third straight state championship and are heavily favored Saturday to become the first Nevada team to capture four consecutive titles since the early 1950s.

Liberty is 12-1 and has enjoyed another terrific season, but with this final game comes an entirely different level of opponent.

"No matter the outcome, our family will celebrate afterward," Kai said. "Bishop Gorman is a great team. It would have been nice to play high school football with (Isaiah), but he made his decision, and we all supported it. ... My dad just wanted the best for both of us when it came to football. I think one thing we miss most is seeing him after games, having him tell us what we could have done better, knowing he just wanted us to be the best we could be. Just being able to talk with him.

"It has been really hard. This is one thing he wanted most, for us to play each other in a state championship. But we know he will be watching."

Penina isn't yet sure which side of the field she will sit, but the family is having T-shirts made to support each team. It will mark the end of Kai's prep career and yet merely pause the time when brothers are on the same field. The next time it happens, they will be wearing the same uniform.

It was few months before his death when Lionel took his sons on a recruiting trip to Brigham Young, where he met the coaches and saw the place he felt in his heart would be the best for them to attend college and once again play together.

A month after Lionel's passing, in the office of BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Penina sat with her sons as they fulfilled their father's dream by verbally committing to the Cougars. It was as an emotional moment as you can imagine.

"My dad was the kind of guy anyone could approach and talk to, who wanted to take care of others," Isaiah said. "He loved his family more than anything, and it was his dream for Kai and I to be together, to always have his family close. It has been a blessing, having an older brother like Kai to be there in times like this. To lean on.

"Now, we will be together in college. We will have fulfilled our dad's dream."

On Saturday, they will fulfill another one.

No matter the outcome, they will celebrate a game, their love of family and the memory of a father whose passing has strengthened those haunting instincts one brother has to protect another.

And maybe, just maybe, they will take a long walk and just talk.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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