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October 25, 2019 - Image 11

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The Michigan Daily

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Shaun Nua knew something was wrong.
A hard cast stretched from his hip to his foot, but
beneath it, the swelling had become unbearable.
A few days earlier, he had been in the back of a
coach’s Toyota pickup truck, speeding from foot-
ball practice to the nearest hospital.
This was the reality of American Samoa in 1998.
Nua is careful to note that it’s not a third-world
country. Food, as his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame
attests to, was never short. But life there is simple.
When he attempts to describe the islands to an
outsider, the first comparison his mind drifts to is
the show Survivor, before acknowledging, “it’s not
as bad.”
So by 1998, when Nua was 17, few modern medi-
cal advancements had reached the islands. A pick-
up truck was the delivery method of choice for
incoming hospital patients and, more importantly,
there was no way to diagnose a torn ACL — Nua’s
“I had no idea what an ACL was or what any of
that was,” Nua told The Daily. “I was just like, ‘My
leg is broken.’ It was a numbing, burning feeling so
they put me in the back of a truck and took me to
the hospital.”
Leaning into a black leather chair inside Schem-
bechler Hall’s second-floor lounge — 21 years and
7,000 miles away from Tafuna High School —
Nua can’t remember who asked him the question
that changed his life: “Don’t you cast only broken
bones?” What he does remember is his response.
By that point, Nua knew he hadn’t broken his leg.
So with the pain becoming unbearable, he came
up with his own remedy: boiling a pot of water,
pouring it on his leg and cutting the cast off.
Seven years later, he won the Super Bowl.
“Man,” Nua said. “I’m telling you, my story’s

By his senior year of high school, football con-
sumed Nua’s life. Growing up with his grandpar-
ents, he discovered the sport on a trip to go see
his parents on Tutuila, American Samoa’s main
“I wanted to watch Smurfs sometimes, but (my
dad) would turn on football,” Nua said. “Football,
football, football. And that got ingrained in my
head. I was like, I want to play that sport.”
In American Samoa, though, there’s no Pop War-
ner or Little League football. The game, in its offi-
cial form, starts in high school.
Immediately, it was all Nua wanted to do. He
hadn’t yet committed to a position, playing quar-
terback, tight end and defensive line, but going
into his senior season, the Division I interest had
started to arrive, awed by his imposing frame.
Then came the injury.
“It was probably the darkest time in my life,” Nua
said. “Cause that was everything to me, was trying
to get a football scholarship. I wanted to play Divi-
sion I football. I wanted to play football, period.”
So, even with his leg boiling beneath a cast, Nua
couldn’t let the game slip away.
After a year of hobbling around on crutches, he
graduated and moved to live with his aunt in
Hawaii, where he could get a proper diagnosis and
surgery. Six months later, he continued on to Ari-
zona to live with his sister.
That’s where he thought his football career would
take off. But the early results didn’t cooperate. It
didn’t matter where he tried out — Scottsdale
Community College, Phoenix Community Col-
lege, Mesa Community College — no school would
take him.
“It was discouraging, but I was so convinced that
I was meant to be a football player,” Nua said. “So
convinced, like nothing was going to stop me from
becoming a football player. The only question was

when was the opportunity going to come. And
that’s when Tom Ellsworth came in.”
Twenty years later, Ellsworth — a renowned ath-
letic trainer in the Phoenix area — is only willing
to accept credit for three of his patients’ athletic
careers. Nua is one of them.
An aunt whom Nua lived near in Phoenix put him
in contact with Ellsworth to continue his ACL
rehab. Within three weeks, it became clear he
needed a second surgery. The problem is, this was
in late February 2000. His surgery was the first
week of March. Football season starts in August.
That’s not a timetable that usually lines up.
By early April, Ellsworth had a sense Nua was the
“When you get around (elite athletes), you just
know,” Ellsworth said. “You know when some-
body has it. He’s athletic, he’s huge and he’s hun-
gry. And he wants to play football.”
Ellsworth worked his contacts, calling Scott
Giles, the head coach at Eastern Arizona College,
a small-town community college 160 miles east of
After one glimpse of Nua, Giles was swayed.
“I knew he was a Division I athlete just based on
his physical presence,” Giles said. “He is just a
mountain of a man.”
For most players, the first drive to Eastern Arizona
is a moment of reckoning. It’s a three-hour drive
from Phoenix, through a canyon, an Indian reser-
vation and very few traces of civilization.
The only things emerging from the desert land-
scape are a Walmart and a few Mexican restau-
rants. There used to be a K-Mart, but that’s closed
since Nua left.
“Even a place like Thatcher was still — it had still
modern stuff compared to where I came from,”
Nua said. “Like the Walmart was like, ‘Wow’ to

It was in Thatcher that the big-
ger names started to come calling.
According to Eastern Arizona’s then-
defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake
— now the head coach at BYU — Nua
had offers from Pac-10, Big 12 and Big
Ten schools.
But in Thatcher, Nua had found
something comfortable.
Eastern Arizona had established
itself as a feeder school for Polyne-
sian players not yet ready for Division
I football. In any given year, Giles
estimates they had five to eight play-
ers from the islands — a significant
number for the smaller roster sizes
of JUCO.
“Any time you’re around people with
the same mindset and the same cul-
ture, it makes everything easy,” Nua
said. “You eat the same food, you
cook the same way, you dress the
same way. And the communication,
you have someone to talk to. It makes
it easy.”
As a born Tongan who moved to
Hawaii when he was eight, Sitake
quickly developed a unique player-
coach relationship with Nua.
“From the beginning, being both
islanders, we knew each other’s cul-
ture and ability for us to share and
hang out and really connect, it was
not even a problem,” Sitake said.
“Once we met, it was like it was
meant to be. He’s like a little brother
to me.”

Nua didn’t convert to Mormonism until later, but
Sitake had graduated from BYU a year earlier and
knew it would be a good fit. At the time, it was
among the schools on the forefront of Polynesian
recruiting, creating a similar environment to what
Giles — another BYU graduate — had fostered at
Eastern Arizona. That, combined with the unique
ability to focus on football, pushed Nua over the
“We just talked specifically about the distrac-
tions,” Sitake said. “He came from the islands and
then when he went to Arizona, he was in Thatcher
so it’s not like there were a lot of distractions there
either. And he flourished. So we talked about it
quite a bit and he knew.”
Five years after graduating to an NFL career in
2004, Nua found himself back at BYU, back in a
stats class, back in a world he had left behind.
This time, it was to be a graduate assistant coach
on Bronco Mendenhall’s staff.
Through a stroke of good fortune and his own pre-
paredness, that’s where Ken Nuimatololo found
him. Nuimatololo, Navy’s head coach, had a son at
BYU at the time, allowing him to watch the Cou-
gars practice. He was there simply to be a dad, but
football coaches have a hard time compartmen-
talizing that. Nua’s enthusiasm on the sidelines
immediately brought his coaching side out.
“I loved his energy, I loved the way he coached,”
Nuimatololo said. “… He kinda stood out to me as
I was watching practice so I watched him a little
more and I remember just telling my wife … ‘If I
ever get an opportunity to hire a D-line coach, I’m
gonna hire Shaun Nua.’ ”
For Nua, it was the perfect opportunity. Nuimato-
lolo is the only Samoan head coach in Division I,
continuing the trend of comfort in familiarity that
began in Thatcher a decade earlier. He gave Nua
someone to confide in as he adjusted to his first
full-time coaching job as a Samoan in a profession
devoid of them. “I feel like a proud dad,” Nuima-
tololo said.
In their six years together at Navy, the two devel-
oped a special bond, discussing their family mem-
bers back on the islands and even making a trip
back to American Samoa together for a Troy Pola-
malu coaching clinic.
“Any time you’re from a small group of people, the
pride that you have for each other is that much
stronger,” Nua said. “Cause you’re representing a
small group of people so you don’t want to disap-
point them.”
At Navy, Nua developed into one of the most
sought-after young defensive line coaches in the
country, even turning down an offer to reunite
with Mendenhall at Virginia to stay on Nuimato-
lolo’s staff.
When Arizona State came calling in 2018, though,
the Sun Devils offered something none of those
previous offers could — proximity to family, allow-
ing Nua to limit his trips to see family to annual
visits back to the islands. A year later, he had to
leave that behind to come to Michigan, an offer
that he called “too good to turn down.”
These days, he coaches in front of a crowd near-
ly twice the size of the island he came from. But
even when he’s back home, in the 32-family village
where he grew up, he doesn’t see himself as any
more than a kid who made it out.
“You always want to have the mindset that you
don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m a role model,’ ” Nua said.
Then, he paused, staring into the oversized block
‘M’ adorning the wall in front of him.
“Maybe I am a role model,” Nua said. “I just hope
I’m a good one.

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