Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Mama, Smith, Talamaivao take bond to SC
By Blair Angulo
Viane Talemaivao and Damien Mama are longtime friends, and they picked up John "Juju" Smith and Toa Lobenhahn along the way. All four will attend USC.
They don’t wear friendship bracelets or bust out a secret handshake, but the bond shared by USC signees Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), John “Juju” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial) is unmistakable.
Recruits often talk about how stressful the process is. College coaches stay on their minds with attractive pitches. Fans tug at their hearts with promises of eternal glory. Sometimes, all the noise is overbearing.
Mama, Smith and Talamaivao, though, had each other.
“They're great kids from great families,” said Smith’s father, Lawrence Smith. “Damien and Viane have been a big help to my son during this process. They always call or text each other. They compare notes on their recruiting trips and, sometimes, they just talk about other stuff besides football. I think through this process, for Juju communicating with those guys, it helped him a lot knowing that those guys go through the same things he does. And now he has a special bond with these guys.”
Their friendship played a big role in why they signed with the Trojans, but family was the major reason why the group decided to stay close to home for college. Talamaivao, a 6-foot-2, 330-pound offensive guard, after realizing he wanted to be able to look up to the stands and see his parents, decommitted from Alabama after watching USC stun Stanford at the Coliseum in the fall. Mama and Smith accompanied Talamaivao on an official visit to Alabama on Nov. 8, largely because they thought about playing with their good friend, but the trip served as an epiphany for them, too.
Aside from Alabama and USC, which the friends saw together the weekend of Jan. 24, Mama took visits to Wisconsin, Notre Dame and BYU, while Smith checked out Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oregon. They logged plenty of miles and saw unfamiliar places before swinging by the USC campus to meet with new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian. And one underlying thought prevailed.
Home was home.
“They’re family kids,” said Talamaivao’s uncle, Pene Talamaivao. “They’re all about family and they’ve bonded over that. If you notice, the decisions they make are based on family. That’s how they run.”
Smith, after announcing his selection during a live telecast, embraced his mother, who appeared to sob on his shoulder. The No. 3-rated athlete thanked his family for the love as a large group of supporters stood behind him at the podium.
“The new coaching staff was great,” Smith said of USC. “Coach Sark came in with a great coaching staff. It’s a great program; I love it. USC has been my dream school since Day 1, and my family are USC fans and I love them to death.”
There was some history before they became highly coveted prospects. Mama and Talamaivao were friends at a young age, playing youth football together and attending the same high school as freshmen. They each transferred to their respective schools, but their early bond only grew as they developed into elite recruits. Then Smith, also of Polynesian culture, came into the picture, as did USC mid-year enrollee Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra), another ESPN 300 offensive lineman.
The quartet grew close last year and was seemingly inseparable at The Opening, where talks of playing together at the next level began to surface. Mama even made the 14-mile drive to Poly for Smith's announcement immediately after his own ceremony.
“There’s a respect thing there,” said Lobendahn’s father, Vince Lobendahn. “When they got to different events, neither one of them knew each other very well, but they built relationships off that. For instance, Toa and Damien went up against someone at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and they bonded over that. They all have to have similar goals. They have a vision of playing a physical style together and would like to carry that out together. In that sense, their vision has been laid out as a group.”
With the stress of the recruiting process now behind them, Mama, Smith and Talamaivao have their sights set on contributing early at USC.
They’ll hope to do so with family members looking down from the stands and their friends by their side.
“They are like anybody else -- they love to have fun,” Pene Talamaivao said. “They are jokesters. But when it comes down to business, they have love for the game. A lot of it is the family influence.”