I mostly grew up in Oahu, Hawaii, in a town called Waipahu, and my dad would always try to get my brother and me to just go to school, come home and read a book. We could never be outside playing with the other kids. Anything I could play had to have something to do with PE or recess, so I didn't actually start playing football until sixth grade, when I was 11. Growing up, I was always one of the tallest kids, and so when football came around, I played linebacker. At that time, kids would bring their own shoulder pads and helmets to school, and everyone would be like, "Whoa, that's so cool. Can I try on your helmet?" That's really the only reason I ever tried out. I just wanted to be the "cool" guy.
The middle school days
Because money was short in our family, we kept moving to and from California, Hawaii and Samoa. My freshman year, at St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, Calif., I ran track and field, the 100-meter dash and the 4x100-meter relay. I ran sophomore and junior years, too, but I just wasn't as committed to it as I was to football. I would run here and there, but then I'd miss practice.
The high school years
I really started to focus solely on football my junior year at Eureka [Calif.] High School. At the end of my sophomore year, I began getting letters. I remember talking to Nick Saban, who was then the head coach at LSU, and he was like, "We want to offer you a four-year scholarship." Two days later, I got the FedEx, and I thought, "Wow, these are the national champions!" I hoped everything would work out with my SATs and that my mom and dad wouldn't have to pay out of pocket for college, but my dad was set on me going to USC because of the Polynesian players there. Those were fun times ... my junior year, we went undefeated, just beating the other teams like crazy. After the games, we'd go back to a guy's house, put the game tape on, eat some snacks and just watch. That's when it was fun, when it wasn't all business.
I'd say the biggest turning point in my life, when I realized I needed to make something of myself, was after my dad died. I was 18, and I'd just graduated from high school. I needed him to be there, to show me the way after I'd made mistakes. But he wasn't, and I kept blaming myself and blaming him for his absence. Finally, there was a point where I just said to myself, "I've got my mom left. She's the rock." After that, I knew I had to give football everything I had to give my mom a happy, comfortable life.