Excerpt from 'Cougar Converts': The LDS conversion of Sete Aulai

By Talo Steves

By Jedd Parkinson

By Matt Hodge

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

When asked what it was about Provo and the BYU campus that had made such an impression, he said, “I liked the facilities over there and everything was topnotch and state of the art. I want to be in a clean environment and that’s where I like to be at and not a dirty place.”

Aulai was so impressed by his visit that he placed a phone call to Coach Bronco Mendenhall the day after his official visit. “I verbally committed,” Aulai said. “I did that on Sunday to Coach Mendenhall. My parents support me 100 percent and they’re happy. I chose BYU because I like the clean campus and environment. I got to know the players and the coaches really well. I like the coaches and the players.”

As a Samoan, Aulai was also excited by the number of Polynesian players on the BYU roster. “Another reason why I chose BYU is because I like to be around (Polynesian),” Aulai explained. “I just feel comfortable being around people like me.”

Aulai was excited to begin his career at BYU, but there was one remaining hurdle that he still had to overcome: cutting his hair to comply with the BYU honor code. “The only bad thing I didn’t like is I had to cut my hair and it was almost to the middle of my back,” Aulai said. “It was down past my shoulders. That was the only bad thing, but other than that it’s all good.” Within two days of his on-campus visit and commitment to sign with the Cougars, Aulai sheared his Samoan locks and was anxiously preparing for his move to Provo. “Oh, you don’t know how much I’m excited,” he said. “I want to come back to BYU already. I want to play.”

When Aulai arrived at BYU prior to the 2005 season, the football program was struggling. Bronco Mendenhall had recently taken over as head coach and the Cougars were looking to bounce back from a string of losing seasons. Aulai figured to be a part of that turnaround. After redshirting in 2005, he moved from his junior college position of guard and became the starting center for the Cougars in 2006.

Aulai was known for working especially hard in the weight room and he soon became one of the strongest players on the BYU football team. Fellow offensive lineman Travis Bright, nicknamed “The Hulk” after breaking numerous weight room records at BYU, was one of Aulai’s lifting partners, along with Jake Kuresa and Eddie Keele. Aulai credited his teammates for helping him achieve success in the weight room.

“Jake is my big uso (Samoan for brother),” said Aulai. “I look up to him and I watch everything he does. My lifting group was me, Jake, Travis and Eddie, and ever since I’ve been lifting with those guys, I’ve gotten stronger. Because of those three guys, I’ve gotten a lot stronger. Lifting with the three strongest guys on the team has really helped me out a lot. Now I’m right behind them. I’m number four — the fourth strongest on the team because I’ve been lifting with those guys.”

Aulai was very popular among his teammates, and during spring camp of 2006 they dubbed him with a fitting nickname. Sitting on a bench just outside the locker room doors after a full contact scrimmage, Aulai was catching his breath when his nickname was born.

“That’s The Rhinoceros right there,” said defensive end Kyle Luekenga while pointing to Aulai. “Sete 'The Rhinoceros' is probably the quickest offensive lineman we have. He has quick feet like a d-lineman. I think he did a lot of jump roping when he was growing up.” ...

Aulai gained additional notoriety when he arrived for the first day of fall camp in August of 2006 with a full beard, sporting what was famously described as the “Samoan lumberjack look.” Inquiring media members immediately asked him about the facial hair, a rare sight at Brigham Young University. Aulai explained that he had been diagnosed with razor bumps, allowing him to receive one of the ever-elusive BYU beard cards. The long hair from his junior college days was long gone, but Aulai was allowed to play out his BYU career with a beard.

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