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October 27, 2011

Faith guides Umuolo through tough time

If you take a quick glance at Alston Umuolo, you'll see a 22-year-old with a shaved head, standing at an imposing 6 feet 4 inches, and a chiseled 240-pound frame that was built over the five demanding years he has spent toiling away in a weight room and going to battle on the gridiron as a tight end on San Diego State's football team.

But if you take the time to look beneath the surface, you'll find a laidback young man who's admittedly "not a yeller," hates scary movies and has a tattoo on his left shoulder that reads, "Keeping the Faith."

In fact, Umuolo's mother and girlfriend always say one of the greatest things about him is his unshakable faith, which was the reason for the tattoo.

"When you shower up and you see that in the mirror, you stop and remember what got you there," the Phoenix, Ariz. native says with a smile. "It's always good to keep that close to you."

But what got Umuolo to this point was not always something he could smile about. In fact, his journey has been a roller coaster ride filled with more than its fair share of pain, sweat and tears.

Flash back to the summer of last year, when Brady Hoke was still roaming the sidelines on Montezuma Mesa and the Aztecs - who were coming off a 4-8 season -- still hadn't won a bowl game since 1969.

Umuolo was entering training camp as the returning starter at tight end, determined to make his senior season a memorable one. The media had tabbed him as a preseason All-Mountain West first-teamer, and the sky was the limit for the talented 22-year old.

But that all changed on the third day of training camp.

Umuolo jumped up to make a catch, and hyperextended his left leg when he landed. He felt a pressure in his left knee that kept rising up the leg. All of a sudden, there was a small pop in his hip.

No big deal, he thought. It was probably just a bruise or something.

"A bruise takes a week, 10 days to heal," Umuolo said. "So mentally I was like 'Oh, I feel great.'"

He finished up camp and played in SDSU's first two games against Nicholls State and New Mexico State, catching only three passes for 30 yards and no touchdowns. All the while, he knew something was very wrong with his hip, which had been giving him problems ever since that day in camp.

An MRI discovered a chunk missing in the back of his left acetabulum, the hip joint connecting the pelvis with the leg. The doctors gave him an inquisitive look and asked, "How are you even running?"

By that point, he could barely even walk, much less play football, and was granted a medical redshirt, shutting him down for the rest of the year. Umuolo was forced to watch from the sidelines as his teammates compiled a 9-4 record and beat Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl in front of 48,049 screaming fans at Qualcomm Stadium, where the Aztecs play their home games. He calls that experience "bittersweet."

"Watching them was great, being able to cheer them on," he said. "But I had to remind myself that I was still a part of the team. Because when you're hurt and you've had such a big role for so long, it's easy to take yourself out of it."

After the injury, he decided to get a new tattoo.

He inked up his entire chest with an image of Jesus praying within heaven's gates, underneath which reads "I Can Do All Things in Christ," which he says kept his resolve strong and his motivation up.

He would need it for what came next.

Rehab, he admits, was grueling. The months of building strength back in his hip and leg felt like years. Although he wasn't 100 percent yet, he decided to suit up for spring ball ("I wouldn't say I did spring ball," he acknowledged. "I'll say I limped through spring ball.") By summer he could run normally again and by August he was feeling great, just in time for the start of the season.

While he was out, Umuolo, the oldest and most experienced of SDSU's tight ends, did his best to mentor the young guys in Gavin Escobar, Bryce Quigley and D.J. Shields, and help them develop.

"But at the end of the day, I wanted to play," he said. "It definitely made me hungry for this year."

Although his rehab was complete and he was cleared to practice again, Umuolo still had to overcome the biggest obstacle of all: Himself.

"It takes a toll mentally," the fifth-year senior says. "I would say it's more mental than physical, because you know you're 100 percent, but you don't know you're 100 percent because you're not in that atmosphere yet. That was probably just as much of a rehab as working out my hip."

Umuolo says that it didn't really take until the first big hit in practice, when he bounced back up with no pain, to get over the mental hurdle. At that point he knew he was back.

This season, with the depth that the Aztecs have at his position and Escobar getting most of the snaps as the big-play, pass-catching tight end, Umuolo didn't get a chance to shine until Oct. 13 against Air Force, when Escobar left midway through the game with a broken hand. Umuolo came in and caught a 27-yard touchdown pass - his first in two years, since before the whole ordeal with the hip injury.

"It definitely took a big burden off my shoulders," he said. "For me personally, I'm such a competitor and put so much pressure on myself that after a while I kind of have to take a step back and relax and play the game I love. When I got into the end zone, it reminded me that this is what I've been doing for a long time. It was a confidence-builder."

His performance against the Falcons also drew the praise of his coaches.

"Nothing changed when Gavin went out and Alston came in," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Alston does a lot of good things and brings a lot to the table and we're going to utilize all of his skills and abilities to the utmost."

With this being his last season donning the red and black, Umuolo can't help but think of the legacy he will leave behind on Montezuma Mesa.

He says he wants to be remembered as one of those responsible for revolutionizing and redefining the tight end position at San Diego State. The Aztecs were known for getting linebackers, running backs, wide receivers and even quarterbacks into the NFL, but there was no talent at tight end when he came in as a freshman. Now, he says, there are four guys that are of that caliber.

But what he wants to be remembered for the most is not anything he does on the field.

"I just want (my teammates) to know that no matter what, I love them and all this is out of love, and whatever happens after here I credit them," Umuolo says. "I credit God and I credit them for sure. Because when I was down they carried me, and vice-versa. That's the mark I want to leave here."

Just like his myriad of tattoos, Umuolo has indeed left a mark on his teammates, who are more than happy to see him back on the field.

"It's awesome to see him come back," said SDSU quarterback Ryan Lindley, who enrolled at SDSU with Umuolo as a freshman. "That was a big surgery to come back from. We're all glad he's back and he's getting back to 100 percent … He's a guy that's always going to bring it. He's going to work hard and being a senior, you want him to do well and you're happy for him when he does."

No matter what happens the rest of the year and beyond, Umuolo knows that he'll be fine. All he has to do, he says, is keep the faith.



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