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November 4, 2010

Utah football's unsung heroes

The Utes will don their new Under Armour camouflage blackout uniforms this weekend for their highly anticipated showdown with TCU. For two years, Under Armour has been designing military-themed uniforms which will then be auctioned off for a charity organization called the Wounded Warrior Program. The program was established to support and honor America's military and help draw attention to the charity organization itself, which provides services, resources, and programs for wounded soldiers and their families.

In keeping with the unsung hero theme that the Wounded Warrior program represents, UteZone is honoring Utah's own unsung heroes. These players are little known, under-appreciated, but who have sacrificed and contributed much to the success of the Utah football program. Though they are heroes of a different kind and on a much smaller scale, these players are getting a much-deserved nod.

Senior defensive tackle Neli A'asa is a name most Ute fans are unfamiliar with. After all, he has started exactly one game and has 10 total tackles throughout his five year tenure at Utah. Yet, he plays a pivotal role on the 2010 squad, as any Ute player or coach would gladly confirm.

"He's a fifth year senior; he's been a big part of our success here through the years. He is a great kid, great attitude, team guy. All the way. He's been in our system for a lot of years. He's been there, done that," said head coach Kyle Whittingham of A'asa. " He understands our system, what our process demands and requires. That part of it is really invaluable. So he's good for our younger players, he's really been a great mentor for the younger, more inexperienced players in the program."

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake echoed Whittingham's sentiments. "Neli's huge for us. He's been in a lot of battles, a lot of big games for us. He's played all those different positions. There aren't very many people who can say they've played all those positions, and he's one of the most versatile, capable athletes on the team. The bottom line is his team needed him, and he has answered the call in a lot of different capacities without a complaint," Sitake said.

"Because he's done it all, knows the system, from all aspects of the game; offense, defense and special teams is special. So the guys really look to him as an example of hard work and selflessness. He is the ultimate teammate, and that's maybe the most important thing. He is the perfect example of how to be a teammate for the young guys," Sitake continued. "He doesn't speak that often, but when he speaks everyone here listens. He leads our [Haka] at pre-game and he's a big-time leader for us, even if people don't know it."

High praise, considering that A'asa has played almost as many positions as years he has been a Ute. He arrived as a defensive tackle, switched to offensive line, special teams, then to tight end, and finally back to defensive tackle. For one glorious play in 2007 against Wyoming, he was on the receiving end of a pass from former kicker Louie Sakoda on a fake punt. A'asa took his lone pass reception 41 yards for a near touchdown, coming down at the one-yard line on a play that would set up an inevitable touchdown.

After battling injury and bouncing around from position to position, or more accurately, role to role, for most of his career, A'asa admits his five year ride has had its ups and downs. Fortunately though, he has experienced more ups than downs and has learned to appreciate his opportunity, despite his struggles and difficulties. In fact, he has even found a way to turn his unsettled situation into a positive.

"It was tough, really tough because I wanted to contribute. I just figured every position, everything I did, God had a plan for," said A'asa. "I figured it would all be of use someday, and it has. Now I'm playing both offense and defense, so it has worked out."

Another reason A'asa was so willing to accept ever-changing roles on the team is his close relationship with his teammates, and his selfless attitude, something that typifies this team down to the player.

"I don't worry about if people know my name, as long as the fans are here to support the Utes, because you know, it's the University of Utah, not the University of Neli," A'asa joked. "I just want to show my dedication to this team. I really do, down from the bottom of my heart love this team. I know it's kind of a cliché thing to say, but I honestly love this team."

Another factor in A'asa's team-first attitude is his genuine humility and gratefulness for "just being here." A'asa refers to the long and winding road that landed him at Utah, earning a degree and playing football at one of the most prominent programs on the national radar.

Born in Pago Pago, Samoa, A'asa recalls memories of playing a game that somewhat resembled football, dreaming someday of being able to play the real game in the states. At age 11, A'asa's family left Samoa and relocated to Michigan where his parents intended to enroll in school. Seemingly a dream come true, A'asa was immediately involved in football once in the states, but it didn't last long.

"When I first got to Michigan, my parents didn't want me running around, and just playing video games, so they actually forced me to play football," he explained. "I quit my first day, but my dad made me go back. So that's how I got stuck with football. I didn't like the running. I still don't like it to this day. Well, in case coach reads this, I better say I like it a little bit," he continued jokingly.

The physical demands of football notwithstanding, A'asa and his family had bigger obstacles to overcome.

"It was a huge change going from Samoa to Michigan, for a lot of reasons. It was a big thing to come from 80 degree weather to -12 degrees in Michigan," said A'asa of his first home in the United States. "It was tough because it was really just a big culture shock. I mean, everything was different. My English wasn't that good, so I just learned as I went. It was really a life-changing, learning experience. For me and my whole family, we learned from dealing with all of that, and we're all doing well and we're just fortunate to have what we have and be where we are."

Circumstances were that A'asa's parents had opportunities to attend school at the University of Hawaii, where his father played football for the Rainbow Warriors and graduated with a Criminology degree while A'asa's mother would graduate with a degree in Biology. Meanwhile, young A'asa stayed in Michigan with his grandparents who raised him in his parents' absence until they finished their schooling.

At Big Rapids High School in Big Rapids, Michigan, A'asa was a four-year starter at defensive tackle, and is the only freshman to ever play varsity football for the school. A Top-50 recruit coming out of high school, A'asa snagged all-conference and all-region honors in his senior season. He set several school records at Big Rapids including leaving as the all time tackles leader, tackles-for-loss leader, and sacks. Because of his successful career, he would entertain several Big Ten and Big XII offers, including Michigan, Michigan State, Colorado, Colorado State, Utah State, UNLV and BYU.

For A'asa however, Utah was a no-brainer. After his successful visit to Salt Lake City, he ended his recruitment, cancelling a planned visit to Michigan immediately after arriving home. He felt immediately at home in Salt Lake, primarily because of its laid-back lifestyle and large Polynesian community, which made him feel like he was home.

Additionally, A'asa had built a very strong relationship with three Utah coaches, including former Utah defensive coordinator and current Utah State head man Gary Anderson. It was coach Kalani Sitake's Polynesian heritage that struck with A'asa and an instant connection and bond was formed between the two, that still exists.

"We're so fortunate to have him back on the d-line. We had the opportunity to bring him back over, and we jumped on it. We just felt like it was the right thing to do," said Sitake. "He's where he belongs position-wise in my opinion. He is still playing on offense too, so he is playing a big role for us on both sides of the ball. I think it speaks volumes about him that his is a guy that the coaches trust to make those moves and to be able to, physically and mentally, adapt to the all those position changes.He means a ton to this team."

Sitake refers to A'asa playing tight end this season in addition to his duties at defensive tackle. An integral part of the Utes' goal-line "jumbo package," A'asa lines up at the tight end position with the sole intention of blocking for the run. A'asa's lone start of his career was at tight end, against Iowa State on October 9 of this year. Fellow defensive tackle Star Lotulelei also lines up opposite A'asa at tight end in the "jumbo package."

"When we send them in, we make no secret that we are going to run the ball," said Roderick, "Those two are so powerful that we challenge someone to try and block them, and so far no one has really been able to do that. So [A'asa] has been important for us in that package."

A'asa's reps continue to go up week by week and he has earned a place in the highly-publicized defensive line rotation, despite ridiculous depth and talent there. Defensive tackle seems to suit the mild- mannered, well-spoken, team-first A'asa just fine. Quietly going about his business and happy to do the job he's asked to do in order to secure a Ute victory, he asks for nothing. At a position whose value and statistics rarely seem to be accurately quantified or measurable, A'asa may be the ultimate of Utah's unsung heroes, and his teammates and coaches respect him for it.

Still hoping for a shot at the NFL, A'asa is realistic about his odds, particularly having suffered so many injuries in his career. A Mass Communications major, A'asa and his mother agree that he likes to talk, and is "good at it". With that in mind, he plans to utilize his skills and degree in a broadcasting career, most likely on TV.

"Well every mom thinks her son is handsome, so my mom is always telling me I'm handsome," he joked. "So I guess I'll use that and get on TV and talk everyone's ears off."

A'asa's mom recently moved to the Salt Lake area to be near her son, and be able to watch the remainder of his home football games. Along with his little sister, his mother plans to set up an optometry practice and make Salt Lake her home.

As is the case with every Ute on the 2010 team, A'asa likes the team's chemistry, and spends most of his free time with fellow teammates, cooking, eating, playing video games, and going to movies. In fact, A'asa and some of his teammates had tickets to see Paranormal Activity prior to Halloween.

Grateful for the remaining time with his teammates and last few games of his senior year, A'asa isn't focusing too much on the end of a career, but chooses instead to focus on the challenges that lie ahead for them yet, relishing the time they have left, having fun, and doing their collective best.

Passionate, fiery and competitive as anyone on the field, A'asa has overcome enough challenges and paid enough dues that his perspective is very much intact. "Of course we want to win, and we're doing everything we can here to do that," he said. 'It's important for us all, but really, not that in some ways. We've made a family, a safe place, a positive place for everyone. We've made lifelong friends, and if we all do what we're supposed to, we will win, but we'll also win because we'll be leaving here with degrees. In a lot of ways, we've already won."

Only a seasoned, veteran who has had to fight and scratch and battle through his collegiate football career, and really, his entire life, to get what he has could have earned such a perspective. So then, A'asa's struggles have indeed been worth it. It appears for A'asa that anything else that happens this season on the football field is just gravy.



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