How a leap of religion led Tyrone Taleni from Samoa to USC for a sport he by no means performed


Till his cousin, Bernard Afutiti, visited from the mainland almost 5 years in the past, the notion of taking part in faculty soccer had by no means occurred to Tyrone Taleni. And why would it not? Taleni didn’t know soccer. He’d neither performed nor spent any time watching the game. Positive, soccer may be ingrained into the cultural cloth of close by American Samoa, however on his residence island of Savai’i, the western-most island in unbiased Samoa, rugby was nonetheless king.

When it got here to rugby, Taleni was a pure. In his small mountain village of Vaiola, they performed most days when faculty was out and the chores have been executed, sending punt after punt hovering over unspoiled paradise. Over time, his household had carved out their very own slice of this island oasis, dwelling off the land, tending to rooster and cattle and pigs on a household homestead, the place cacao, taro, bananas and mangoes grew plentifully.

His connection to the village ran deep, however after spending two years on a mission in Arkansas, Taleni returned to Vaiola in 2017 unsure of his subsequent steps. That’s when Afutiti and his spouse, Crystal, got here to the island for a go to.

It was Afutiti, a former faculty soccer participant, who first floated the concept, planting a seed that might ship Taleni careening down an unlikely path in an unfamiliar sport. Afutiti figured his cousin’s rugby expertise would possibly translate. By no means in his wildest goals did he imagine that dialog would, years later, lead Taleni to USC.

He knew Taleni had designs on changing into a health care provider, to assist convey higher medical entry to Samoa. However pursuing that plan meant leaving the island for a better schooling within the States, and faculty was pricey. “He didn’t need to put any extra burdens on his mother and father,” Afutiti says.

So Afutiti instructed soccer: “I instructed him it was in all probability his finest technique to earn a free schooling,” he mentioned.

Taleni instructed his cousins he would pray on it.

A couple of weeks later, Taleni boarded a airplane to California. He hasn’t been again to Samoa since.

“I used to be all-in,” Taleni mentioned. “I didn’t know a lot about soccer on the time or how the schooling system works out right here, or something like that, however simply the concept of him saying, ‘Come out right here and take a look at faculty, strive soccer, you by no means know what would possibly occur,’ I used to be very excited. … I assume, you could possibly say it was a giant leap of religion, leaving the whole lot and never realizing what may occur.”

A couple of extra leaps of religion can be required earlier than Taleni discovered himself sitting throughout from Lincoln Riley in his workplace final January, together with a giant one from USC’s coach. Taleni was not precisely a confirmed commodity. He performed fewer than 100 snaps of Energy 5 soccer over two years at Kansas State, the place Riley first noticed him when he was Oklahoma’s coach. One thing in his movie had given Riley religion.

“While you began to analysis him, the employee, his journey in soccer, it type of made sense. The snaps he did play, we noticed some issues that we thought have been intriguing,” Riley mentioned. “However the extra we came upon about him, we have been assured within the type of child we have been bringing in right here.”

Sitting with the coach and her cousin in Riley’s workplace, cousin Tutasi Asuega-Matavao may barely comprise herself. She requested the coach if she may snap a selfie to commemorate the event, a lot to Taleni’s chagrin.

Their complete household had grown up as avid USC followers. Now Taleni was a Trojan? Severely?

“It nonetheless blows our thoughts,” Asuega-Matavao mentioned. “Like, how is that this child doing this?”

That unbelievable story begins at Mt. San Antonio Faculty, a neighborhood faculty 25 miles east of downtown L.A. in Walnut, the place Taleni confirmed up sooner or later, approached the coach and requested for a shot. He figured, why not?

Bob Jastrab obliged. The crew wanted our bodies, and in his almost 20 years as coach, he’d seen a number of longshots like Taleni thrive.

“It’s on their very own dime,” the Mt. San Antonio coach mentioned, “So we give everybody a chance. Each as soon as in whereas, there’s a man the place it’s like, ‘The place have you ever been all of my life?’ ”

However that wasn’t Taleni — at the least, not at first. His athleticism was obvious, however he struggled initially to get comfy in his uniform. He didn’t just like the shoulder pads, the cleats, the mouthguard. The helmet felt awkward. He ripped out as a lot of the leg padding as potential.

It took time to get acclimated. At residence, the whole lot was totally different. On the soccer subject, the whole lot was new. He grayshirted that first season at Mt. SAC as he realized the finer factors of taking part in on the line of defense, a place he took on purely as a result of coaches put him there. Although Jastrab almost modified his place after watching Taleni punt at follow.

“He may actually rocket it,” Jastrab mentioned. “It was like, ‘What are you doing taking part in the road? You may play on Sundays as a punter.’ However that didn’t final lengthy.”

Quickly sufficient, Taleni would settle in alongside the defensive entrance. By the tip of his first full season at Mt. SAC, his potential was shortly changing into clear. Provides got here in from colleges corresponding to Western Illinois, Robert Morris and Texas El Paso. Then got here the provide from Kansas State.

“I requested my cousin once they referred to as, what do you consider Kansas State?” Taleni recalled. “I had no thought.”

“We have been shocked,” mentioned Ula Matavao, one other of his cousins. “Like holy cow, a Energy 5 faculty recruiting you after one 12 months?”

Taleni dedicated that February. A couple of months later, he moved 1,500 miles east to Manhattan, Kan.

Kansas State defensive end Tyrone Taleni sacks Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels during a game in October 2020.

Kansas State defensive finish Tyrone Taleni sacks Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels throughout a sport in October 2020. (Peter G. Aiken / Getty Photos)

This time, the space would put on on him. The pandemic made the transition even harder. “It was a very lengthy 12 months,” Taleni remembers.

The bitter chilly of a Kansas winter was one more adjustment, made worse when the bike he’d purchased to journey round campus was stolen.

“Nonetheless,” Asuega-Matavao mentioned, “he by no means as soon as complained.”

He introduced an identical angle to soccer, and the work began to repay. He appeared in three video games throughout the 2020 season, then seven in 2021. The progress was palpable, however the distance was nonetheless weighing heavy when he returned to California after that season. A go to from his sister, whom he hadn’t seen in a number of years, additional solidified these emotions.

Taleni contracted COVID-19 simply earlier than he was scheduled to fly to Texas for Kansas State’s bowl sport, and within the second it felt like an indication. He selected to enter the NCAA switch portal, setting his sights on a vacation spot nearer to California.

But there have been no ensures within the portal. His expertise was minimal, his manufacturing restricted. He’d notched simply 5 tackles and two sacks over two seasons. The portal was full of equally unproven prospects in search of a brand new residence.

“I knew there was an opportunity of not getting picked up,” Taleni mentioned.

“It was one other big leap of religion,” Afutiti added.

However once more, his religion can be rewarded.

The decision got here nearly instantly.

Not many may comprehend Taleni’s journey fairly like Shaun Nua, USC’s new line of defense coach. He’d left American Samoa to stay with household in Arizona, the place his faculty profession started at a junior faculty. He grew into an all-conference participant at Brigham Younger and a Tremendous Bowl winner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and as an assistant faculty coach within the years after, Nua grew to become a staple of the Samoan soccer neighborhood. A lot in order that Taleni’s household knew precisely who he was upon listening to he reached out.

Nua and the remainder of USC’s workers would go above and past to make Taleni really feel at residence, his household mentioned. When he visited the campus, USC laid out a smorgasbord of acquainted meals — piles of rice with teriyaki beef and rooster, kalbi beef alongside creamy macaroni salad.

Sitting down with Riley, the coach recalled Taleni’s efficiency as a reserve defensive lineman in a sport towards Oklahoma two years earlier.

“Let’s be on the identical facet now,” Riley instructed him.

His household warned Taleni to not make the coach wait. So that they arrange a name for Nua to talk with Taleni and his mother and father over Fb Messenger. Chickens from the household farm squawked within the background as Nua spoke to Taleni’s mother and father of their native language.

“Having somebody who is aware of my mom tongue, who is aware of the place I got here from, having him discuss to my household, it was a really particular second, one I’ll all the time keep in mind my complete life,” Taleni mentioned.

Nua had no thought Taleni deliberate to commit throughout the name. For Taleni, it was an ideal likelihood to lastly convey his mother and father into his budding soccer profession.

They’ve nonetheless by no means seen him play the game he picked up nearly 4 years earlier. Pandemic journey restrictions have remained in place for the island, making touring to and from Samoa at any level over the previous two years not possible.

“It’s my dream to convey them out right here,” Taleni mentioned.

He and his household have religion it gained’t be lengthy earlier than that day arrives. And religion has definitely served Taleni properly.

“That’s the day all of us are ready for,” Asuega-Matavao mentioned. “The borders will open, and we’re going to throw the most important celebration USC has ever seen.”

This story initially appeared in Los Angeles Occasions.



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