Tyrone Taleni had never considered playing college football until his cousin Bernard Afutiti came to visit from the mainland nearly five years ago. And why should it? Taleni didn’t know football. He had neither played nor spent time watching the sport. Sure, football may be rooted in the cultural fabric of nearby American Samoa, but rugby was still king on its home island of Savai’i, the westernmost island in independent Samoa.
When it came to rugby, Taleni was a natural. In his small mountain village of Vaiola, they played most days after school was out and chores were done, sending boat after boat across the untouched paradise. Over the years his family had created their own piece of this island oasis, living off the land and herding chickens, cattle and pigs on a family farm where cocoa, taro, bananas and mangoes grew in abundance.
His connection to the village ran deep, but after spending two years on a mission in Arkansas, Taleni returned to Vaiola in 2017, unsure of his next steps. It was then that Afutiti and his wife, Crystal, came to visit the island.
It was Afutiti, a former college football player, who first came up with the idea and planted a seed that would send Taleni down an unlikely path in an unfamiliar sport. Afutiti thought his cousin’s rugby talent might translate. Never in his wildest dreams would he have believed that the conversation would lead Taleni to USC years later.
He knew that Taleni planned to become a doctor in order to provide Samoa with greater medical access. But pursuing this plan meant leaving the island for higher education in the States, and college was costly. “He didn’t want to burden his parents any more,” says Afutiti.
So Afutiti suggested football: “I told him it was probably his best option to earn a free education,” he said.
Taleni told his cousins he would pray for it.
A few weeks later, Taleni boarded a plane to California. He has not been to Samoa since then.
“I was all in,” Taleni said. “I didn’t know much about football at the time or how the education system works here, or anything like that, but just the idea that he was like, ‘Come out here and try school, try football, you never know what might happen,’ me was very excited. … I guess you could say it was a huge leap of faith to leave everything behind and not knowing what might happen.”
It took a few leaps of faith before Taleni sat across from Lincoln Riley in his office last January, including a huge leap of faith from the USC coach. Taleni wasn’t exactly a proven commodity. He played fewer than 100 Power Five football snaps over two years at Kansas State, where Riley first saw him when he was Oklahoma’s coach. Something in his film had given Riley confidence.
“When you started researching him, the worker, his journey in football, it kind of made sense. We saw some things in the snaps he played that we thought were fascinating,” Riley said. “But the more we found out about him, we were sure what kind of kid we were going to bring here.”
Cousin Tutasi Asuega-Matavao sat in Riley’s office with the coach and her cousin and could hardly contain himself. She asked the trainer if she could take a selfie for the occasion, much to Taleni’s chagrin.
Her entire family had grown up avid USC fans. Now was Taleni a Trojan? Serious?
“It still blows our minds,” Asuega-Matavao said. “How does this kid do it?”
This unlikely story begins at Mt. San Antonio College, a community college 25 miles east of downtown LA in Walnut, where Taleni showed up one day, approached the coach and asked for a shot. He thought why not?
Bob Jastrab committed. The team needed bodies, and in his nearly two decades as a coach he’d seen a few longshots like Taleni flourish.
“It’s at your own expense,” said the Mt. San Antonio coach, “so we’re giving everyone a chance. Every once in a while there’s a guy who’s like, “Where have you been all my life?” ”
But that wasn’t Taleni – at least not at first. His athleticism was evident, but he initially struggled to feel comfortable in his uniform. He didn’t like the shoulder pads, the cleats, the mouthguard. The helmet felt uncomfortable. He ripped out as much leg padding as possible.
It took time to acclimate. Everything was different at home. Everything was new on the soccer field. In that first season at Mt. SAC, he wore a gray shirt as he learned the intricacies of playing on the defensive line, a position he only held because the coaches put him there. Although Jastrab almost changed his position after watching Taleni punch in training.
“We were stunned. Like a sacred cow, a power five school recruiting you after a year?”
— Ula Matavao, on his cousin’s meteoric rise
“He could really blow it up,” Jastrab said. “It was like, ‘What are you doing to play the line? You can play as a player on Sundays.’ But that didn’t last long.”
Taleni would soon establish himself on the defensive front. By the end of his first full season with Mt. SAC, his potential was quickly becoming apparent. Offers have come from schools such as Western Illinois, Robert Morris and Texas El Paso. Then came the offer from Kansas State.
“I asked my cousin when they called what do you think of Kansas State?” Taleni recalled. “I had no idea.”
“We were stunned,” said Ula Matavao, another of his cousins. “Like a sacred cow, a power five school recruiting you after a year?”
Taleni celebrated this February. A few months later he moved 1,500 miles east to Manhattan, Kan.
The distance would bother him this time. The pandemic made the transition even more difficult. “It’s been a really long year,” Taleni recalls.
The bitter cold of a Kansas winter was another adaptation, made worse when the bike he bought to ride around campus was stolen.
“Even so,” Asuega-Matavao said, “he never complained.”
He brought a similar attitude to football and the work started to pay off. He appeared in three games in the 2020 season, then seven games in 2021. The progress was noticeable, but the distance still weighed heavily when he returned to California after that season. A visit from his sister, whom he had not seen in several years, further cemented these feelings.
Taleni contracted COVID-19 just before he was due to fly to Texas for the Kansas State bowl game, and at the moment it felt like a sign. He chose the NCAA transfer portal and set his sights on a destination closer to California.
Still, there were no guarantees in the portal. His experience was minimal, his production limited. He had recorded just five tackles and two sacks in two seasons. The portal was filled with similarly unproven prospects looking for a new home.
“I knew there was a chance of not being picked up,” Taleni said.
“It was another big leap of faith,” added Afititi.
But even here his faith would be rewarded.
The call came almost immediately.
Few understood Taleni’s journey as well as Shaun Nua, the new USC defensive line coach. He had left American Samoa to live with his family in Arizona, where his college career began at a junior college. He went on to become an all-conference player with Brigham Young and a Super Bowl winner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in the years since, Nua has become an integral part of the Samoan football community as a college assistant coach. So much so that Taleni’s family knew exactly who he was when they heard he came forward.
Nua and the rest of the USC staff would do anything to make Taleni feel at home, his family said. When he visited campus, USC provided a smorgasbord of familiar foods — heaps of teriyaki beef and chicken rice, kalbi beef alongside creamy macaroni salad.
Sitting down with Riley, the coach recalled Taleni’s performance as a reserve defenseman in a game against Oklahoma two years earlier.
“Let’s be on the same page now,” Riley told him.
His family warned Taleni not to keep the bus waiting. So they set up a call for Nua to talk to Taleni and his parents on Facebook Messenger. Chickens from the family farm screeched in the background as Nua spoke to Taleni’s parents in their native language.
“Having someone who speaks my native language, who knows where I come from, to have them speak to my family, that was a very special moment that I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Taleni.
Nua had no idea Taleni planned to commit during the call. For Taleni, it was a perfect opportunity to finally bring his parents into his budding football career.
You’ve never seen him play the sport he picked up almost four years ago. The island remains under pandemic travel restrictions that have made travel to and from Samoa impossible at any point in the past two years.
“It’s my dream to bring her here,” Taleni said.
He and his family firmly believe that it won’t be long before that day comes. And faith has certainly served Taleni well.
“This is the day we are all waiting for,” Asuega-Matavao said. “The borders will open and we’ll throw the biggest party USC has ever seen.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/story/2022-06-27/tyrone-taleni-rise-usc-college-football-samoa Tyrone Taleni took a football leap of faith from Samoa to USC