DeForest Buckner was glued to the window. The first-grader's eyes widened, fascinated by the images of his first journey to the United States mainland that came long before he'd become a first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. As he looked down from the plane, he saw thousands of tiny cars move through the streets of cities that looked nothing like his home of Waianae, Hawaii on the island of Oahu.
"Look mom, we're in Toyland," Buckner told his mother Maria.
The ultimate destination was Knoxville, Tenn., in order to visit the family of Buckner's father George. After being born in Tennessee, George moved to Hawaii and met Maria. This particular family reunion provided DeForest with far more than a meet-and-greet with distant relatives.
Everything looked different from his home on the islands. For starters, the lack of beaches was troubling for Buckner. But beyond the aesthetics and the geography was the contrast of the people who called the mainland home.
"The way everything was moving, it felt so fast-paced," Buckner said.
Even at such a young age, the overall anxiety level was readily apparent. Where was everyone going and why did they need to get there so quickly?
Things move much slower on the islands. That's not to say that people are lazy or unmotivated, but it speaks to the emphasis placed on being present and, most importantly, enjoying the people surrounding you in each moment.
Time already flies as is, so what's the point in trying to speed up the timeline?
"Everything here is so on the go," Buckner explained his impression of the continental U.S. "Everyone is always going. People don't take the time to slow down and really enjoy the moment. You're thinking about what happened yesterday or what's going to happen tomorrow. Back home, we are all hardworking people, but we always find time to enjoy the moment."
Long to-do lists are replaced with mid-week get-togethers. We're not talking just immediate family, either, but an extended family that goes well beyond bloodlines. Every elder (which is really just loosely defined by a person older than oneself) is referred to as either "auntie" or "uncle" in Hawaii.
"That's just how it goes. It was a big difference coming to the states. I'd call someone's parents by their first name. I felt like I was being disrespectful. It was an adjustment for me. Oahu is such a small island, it's kind of like everyone knows everyone."
Events of all kinds were extravagant, especially in regards to the culinary spread. Nobody ever came empty-handed, and most gatherings featured enough food to feed a small army.
For example, when kids in the mainland play sports growing up, it's customary for one parent to bring postgame snacks. In Hawaii, everyone pitched in. So instead of orange slices and a Capri Sun, Buckner grew up with spreads that consisted of chicken katsu (his favorite), fried rice, poke and kalua pork along with several other dishes. The same went for graduations, birthday parties and all other celebrations.
Never lost in the extravagance is the purpose behind the feast – to spend quality time with cherished loved ones.
"Family is everything," Buckner said. "It's been instilled in me from such a young age, and I'll never forget that. Whenever you have a chance to take care of a family member, I'll go out of my way to take care of them."
DeForest proved that when he was just 13 years old. George was the victim of a motorcycle accident that left him fighting for his life. DeForest recalled the anxious moments in the hospital waiting room, linking arms with family in prayer as his dad underwent heart surgery.
"The initial impact was I thought I was going to lose my dad," Buckner said. "He was always there for me, my brother and my sister at any event we had. He was always in the stands at every game. I'd always know where he was sitting. When I was playing basketball, I'd hear him from the court. It was a scary moment."
Thankfully George pulled through, but not without long-term ramifications. George went through a lengthy rehab period and remains in a wheelchair to this day. That put added pressure on Buckner to mature faster than most teenagers. Make no mistake, "DeFo" was never a problem child, but it was still an adjustment.
"I made sure I wasn't a problem for my mom and my dad. I made sure they didn't have to worry about me or what I was doing."
DeForest also took a much larger role with his younger brother. They were always close, but he had to be much more of a mentor rather than just a best friend. Buckner would make sure that his brother stayed out of trouble and kept on top of his schoolwork.
Buckner's responsibilities around the house changed as well. DeForest became a teenage handyman, landscaper and house cleaner all in one. All the while, he continued to emerge as an elite athlete, starring in football and basketball.
He accepted a full ride to play football at the University of Oregon in 2012. But moving to the mainland away from home and family was a big adjustment. Buckner admitted he was homesick during his freshman year. Luckily, he was surrounded by several other players from Hawaii, namely Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Those players took Buckner under their wing and made him feel closer to the island that he missed so dearly.
"I had that crew," Buckner said. "I knew I had those guys who were from where I'm from. If I got homesick, I always had them. Being around those guys helped me get through those times. It was a big adjustment."
Fast forward to 2017 and Buckner is in his second season with the 49ers. When San Francisco drafted him in 2016, he opted to stay home with friends and family rather than travel to Chicago to attend the draft in person. There's a lasting image of Buckner buried eyes-deep in leis with George and Maria on either side of him. A local Hawaiian news outlet caught the celebration on camera when the 49ers selected Buckner with the seventh-overall pick.
Buckner is still a kind-hearted family man, which contrasts his physical dominance at the line of scrimmage. He's already developed into one of the premier interior defensive lineman in the NFL.
Buckner shared that he talks to his parents at least twice a week over the phone. He now has the financial means to help his family as well, even from afar. Over the past two offseasons, Buckner has taken a group of his 49ers teammates to his home in Oahu. His family is growing, and it's only right that those worlds collide.
On those trips, his time is spent as it always is – on the beach, surrounded by his loved ones and without a care in the world. There are no autographs to be signed or photos that need to be taken. His primary residence may be in "Toyland" now, but Waianae will always be home.
"There's no better feeling that knowing you're home," Buckner said.