PROVO — In some ways BYU defensive lineman Russell Tialavea is exactly the same. In other, more significant ways, he's completely different.
Tialavea is back from his two-year LDS mission to Santiago, Chile, with the same abilities that led to three straight starting seasons for the Cougars, but with a completely new attitude and outlook.
Borrowing from one of coach Bronco Mendenhall's famous catch-phrases, the Oceanside, Calif., product wasn't exactly "fully invested" in the football program through his first four years. He often sported a bad attitude while doing just enough to get by. Given his extraordinary talent, just enough was more than enough to contribute heavily to the football team.
"Big Russ (Tialavea), he didn't like practice much at all, that's what I remember about him," said fellow defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna. "He'd complain a lot and not always put forth his best effort, but he was so talented that he was able to get by with that."
Tialavea would often cut out of practice early — avoiding reporters at all costs, not wanting to talk about being part of a program he didn't completely buy into.
"I was a prideful little punk," says Tialavea. "My attitude was horrible about most everything we did here. I'd find excuses to get upset during practice then drop an (expletive) and get mad at other players or coaches for no reason. I just had a terrible attitude."
Tialavea was set to finish out his final season in 2010 with that same bad attitude before experiencing what he defines as "his conversion."
Through four-and-a-half years in Mendenhall's program, Tialavea was consistently encouraged by teammates to get more involved with the unique vision and goals the team had. He was also encouraged to serve an LDS mission, although he had no intention of doing so from Day 1.
Leading up to the 2009 season, however, Tialavea started reading the Book of Mormon, but in a bit of an unusual way. He would place a daily phone call to his mother Robyn, who teaches seminary, and they'd read from it together.
After about a month, Tialavea found himself halfway through reading the entire Book of Mormon and with a burning desire to do something he never intended to do — serve an LDS mission.
"Nothing else mattered when it hit me," said Tialavea. "I knew I had just one more year to play and that the timing wasn't good at all, but I didn't care about anything else. I felt it so strongly about it that it wasn't really a hard decision. I knew that as a priesthood holder that it was my duty to serve a mission."
Tialavea shortly after informed his mother and Mendenhall about his decision.
"My mom — seeing her reaction and how happy she was — that was probably the highlight of my life," said Tialavea. "I then told coach Mendenhall and seeing him cry tears of joy after hearing about my decision, man, it was a moment I'll never forget. It just proves that he is what he says he is. Sure, he's a football coach that wants to win, but seeing those tears of joy, that's proof right there that he cares about us as players and our own happiness more than anything."
Tialavea filed his mission papers shortly after the start of the 2009 season and left for Chile the following January. When asked to describe his mission and what it was like, Tialavea gave what is largely a typical response from most returned missionaries.
"It was the best two years of my life," he said. "I know people say that a lot, but there is no question that it was the best thing I ever did. Words can't really express the joy I felt and still feel because I served a mission. I have a completely new view on life and about BYU and the football program here now."
His teammates have noticed.
"Russ is still kick-back, relaxed and funny like he was before, but he's so much more mature now," said Manumaleuna. "He's a lot more happy I think, and he has his goals and he's doing everything he can to achieve those goals. He's a great example to me and everyone on the team now."
With just one year remaining to play college football, Tialavea's goals have gone from being largely selfish to completely unselfish.
"I want to show the younger players on this team the right way to do things," said Tialavea. "It took me almost seven years to go about things the right way here and I don't want any of these guys to take as long as I did because they'll be so much better and happier if they learn it early on. That's my biggest goal now."
Of course Tialavea also aims to contribute as best he can on the field of play. After shedding quite a bit of weight from his early days, he looks well on his way after sitting out spring due to injury.
"I'm starting to remember stuff — getting my hands into the right position and all that stuff — it's feeling more natural every day," said Tialavea. "I played at almost 330 early on in my career, but playing at around 270-275 feels much better. I feel I'm quicker than I've been and hopefully I can really help the team this year."
"He looks really good," added Mendenhall. "He's fast, he's quick, he's agile and he works so much harder than he ever did prior to his mission. He's a good leader, he's positive in the locker room. He was always a good football player, but now he's impressive (all-around.)"
Tialavea has started every year that he's been in a Cougar uniform, but will largely be playing a backup role as the fourth rotating defensive lineman behind fellow seniors Ian Dulan, Romney Fuga and Manumaleuna. It's a role he's more than happy to fulfill.
In fact, Tialavea is happy about most everything these days. While not wanting to share much of anything with anyone in the past, he's anxious to share his story with everyone — anxious to share his happiness.
"Before I'd question and not really understand anything that coach Mendenhall said or did," said Tialavea. "Now I completely understand why he does the things he does and why he's the way it is. I'm just mad that it took me seven years to get there. But the important thing is that I did get to the point I'm at now, I guess."
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