Excerpt from 'Cougar Converts': The LDS conversion of Sete Aulai
Jason Olson, Deseret News
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the book "Cougar Converts: Life-Changing Stories from BYU Athletics," by Talo Steves, Jedd Parkinson and Matt Hodge, published by Totalbluesports.com.
Originally from the small village of Vailoa on the island of Savai'i, Samoa, Sete Aulai grew up in a Christian home in Carson, Calif. Located on the southwest border of Compton in Los Angeles County, Carson had its share of problems with gangs, drugs and violence. Growing up in the area shaped Aulai, and like the streets of Carson, he became tough. That toughness, along with exceptional physical strength, made Aulai a natural football player.
By the time he reached high school, Aulai was performing well on the football field and in the classroom, garnering numerous accolades in the process. Coaches from the top football programs on the West Coast were soon aware of the young offensive lineman. The recruiting attention increased as Aulai approached his senior season.
“I went to Carson High and I started two years on varsity,” Aulai recalled. “In my junior year, I made second-team All-Area and first-team All-Marine League. I got invited to the USC camp, the UCLA camp and the Nike camp. My senior year, I made first-team All-Area, first-team All-League and I made the All-Regional Team. I made Scholar Athlete with a 3.1 (GPA) and the National Honor Roll. I’m not the smartest kid in the world but I try.”
However, despite his success in the classroom and on the field, Aulai never received a coveted scholarship offer from the Pac-10 schools that were courting him at the time. “I got letters from everybody, but nobody offered,” Aulai said. “I got letters from just about everyone from the Pac-10 like SC, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington and Washington State, but nobody offered.”
Undeterred by the lack of a Division I scholarship, Aulai was determined to continue his football career at the next level. Rather than walk on at a Division I school, he opted to go the junior college route, signing with El Camino College in neighboring Torrance, Calif.
Soon after strapping on the pads for the El Camino Warriors, the big offensive guard began to build an impressive football resume that once again attracted the attention of Division I coaches.
“My freshman year at El Camino, I played all 11 games and made Honorable Mention All-Conference,” said Aulai. “It’s the toughest conference in the U.S. Trust me. Going into my sophomore year I was voted Preseason All-American. At the end of the season I made first-team All-Mission Conference, first-team All-State, second-team All-American.”
Aulai also received El Camino’s Helmet Award, given to the team’s top offensive lineman each season. While he started at guard for El Camino, Aulai also played some fullback, a testament to his exceptionally quick feet. He capped off his numerous awards by being named a Junior College Athletic Bureau first-team All-American.
As the scholarship offers began to roll in during his sophomore season at El Camino, Aulai knew he had an important choice to make. Brigham Young University was one of many schools that had offered him a scholarship, but he didn’t know a lot about the BYU football program or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which sponsored the school. He decided to learn more and scheduled an official recruiting visit in late January of 2005 to see things firsthand.
The visit to Provo went far better than he ever expected. “I tripped out here to visit this past weekend and I just loved it,” Aulai said in an interview with Total Blue Sports the weekend after his visit. “It was nothing like I imagined. I loved it up there! It was like nothing else and nothing like from where I’m from.”
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.
The nickname and beard card added flavor and character to stories about the likeable Aulai, but his dominating play on the field would become his trademark and legacy at BYU. Aulai and his fellow offensive linemen blocked for an offense that averaged 466 yards a game in 2006, good for fourth in the country. BYU finished the season with an 11-2 record and a 38-8 Las Vegas Bowl victory over the University of Oregon. Aulai allowed only one sack on the season, an amazing accomplishment considering the Cougar quarterbacks attempted 448 passes in 2006.
At the outset of the 2007 season, Aulai was selected as a team captain by his teammates. He and his fellow offensive linemen continued their strong play as the Cougars produced another 11-2 record and again won the Las Vegas Bowl, defeating the UCLA Bruins 17-16. Aulai continued to develop and perform well on the field, but he was also going through some changes away from football.
After taking over as head coach, Bronco Mendenhall began a tradition of holding several team firesides each football season. During these firesides, a few players were chosen to speak to local LDS congregations in the cities where the team was playing. One such fireside was held in San Diego the week of the Cougars’ final 2007 regular season game against the San Diego State Aztecs. When Aulai got up and humbly spoke about his faith in Jesus Christ and his role as a disciple, many in the audience were surprised to learn that he was not a member of the LDS Church. In the preceding months, Aulai had experienced a spiritual awakening of sorts and the fireside talk was one of many steps he would take along a spiritual journey that would dramatically change his life.
Although he still wasn't a member of the LDS faith, Aulai attended a singles ward with a few of his teammates, viewing it as a social function rather than a spiritual one. Over time that began to change. “After that I kind of developed a small testimony and it just started to grow from there,” said Aulai. “I went to church with Ray (Feinga), Fui (Vakapuna) and Manase (Tonga), but it was more just to go to church. After going for a while with them, I really started to investigate the church. I was like, 'Alright, let’s see what the LDS faith is really about.' ”
At BYU, Aulai roomed with a Cougar walk-on defensive tackle from San Bernardino by the name of Mark Fitu, who wasn't on the team very long due to injury. Fitu invited him to attend the priesthood session of general conference in October 2007.
“It all started with President (Gordon B.) Hinckley,” Aulai recalled. "I went to his last priesthood session before he passed away. Mark was going and got me an extra ticket, and I really enjoyed that last priesthood session and will always remember that last talk he gave that day. The topic was anger, and I kid you not, I thought he was talking directly to me because I have a short temper. I'm pretty sure people remember that out on the football field." Soon, Aulai became more involved with the church, even as a non-member.
“Then, and this is kind of funny, I became a home teacher and I wasn't even a member of the church,” said Aulai with a laugh. "Can you believe that? I was in this single student ward at BYU, the 136th Ward. I was going there for a little bit and they asked me if I wanted to be a home teacher, and I was like, 'What the heck is a home teacher?' After they told me about it I was like, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' So I was a home teacher for a little while, and after doing all that and going to church and doing everything that the church teaches, like read and pray and all that, something happened on July 12, 2008." That was the day that Aulai was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"My uncle Tupule Poloa, who was in the bishopric up here in Salt Lake City, is the one that baptized me,” said Aulai. “I didn't do it because of some girl or for my friends. I did it because I wanted to, and I'm not going to lie, there were so many people that attended my baptism. It was like a stake conference because that's how many people were there. There were so many players from the team that were there, all the coaches were there and even (athletic director) Tom Holmoe was there. All the people from my singles ward were there, and they had to open up the overflow for the gym up because there were so many people there.”
Having his BYU coaches there for his baptism was a special experience for Aulai. “One thing I remember was Coach (Paul) Tidwell was so happy to see that I was baptized that he was lost for words," Aulai recalled. "He didn't say much, but you could just see it in his face, and Coach (Lance) Reynolds was there and he was so happy, too. All the coaches were just so happy. They really didn't say much, but you could see it on their faces. Just by the look on their faces, that said everything. Coach (Steve) Kaufusi never would have thought that day would come, but things happen for a reason.
“You know, looking back from the time I played football at El Camino Junior College to now, my life has changed drastically. There has been such a change with me and I'm pretty sure you can tell from when you used to talk to me back then to when you talk to me now. Even Coach Kaufusi has seen the change in me. He said it's night and day from the Sete that first came to BYU to the Sete now after BYU. He said it's night and day, and I saw the change too.”
In the year following his baptism, Aulai again donned a helmet and pads as a member of the Utah Valley Thunder of the American Indoor Football Association, along with former BYU players Chris Bolden and Dustin Rykert. The team finished the season 11-3 and made the Western Division playoffs, but the highlight of 2009 for Sete Aulai came away from the football field. He met a girl from Washington (Megan Smart), and the two were sealed in the Seattle Washington Temple in November of 2009. ...
“You know, there was this Samoan kid from L.A. who had overcome his old ways, and even my parents have seen the change in me,” Aulai said. "They've see how my life has changed and the man that I've become, and it's because of my experiences at BYU and the gospel. It's had such an influence on me and even before I was baptized, the influence of the gospel had an influence on me because of the example of the players on the team. I saw these really good football players who were tough and dominated on the field but were returned missionaries. Those off-the-field experiences had an effect on my life. ...
“When someone says there is more to BYU than football, I know that's true. I didn't go on to the NFL, but there was something else in store for me and that's the reason why I feel I was supposed to go to BYU. Looking back, it's pretty clear what those reasons were and I'm blessed and grateful for that more than I could ever say.”
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