Honestly, like deep down, I always knew that I was capable of playing D-1 football. I just needed an opportunity. —Paul Toala
SALT LAKE CITY — When fatigue and frustration threaten to unravel what Utah Ute football player Paul Toala has earned, the junior offensive lineman finds motivation in three words: for the boys.
“There are some days where we are just gassed,” he said. “Today we were gassed. Yesterday we were even more gassed. But I look around and I just say, 'For the boys' because they’re the reason why I continue. Honestly, I would have a way worse attitude if I wasn’t next to my boys.”
The realities of college football can be so grueling that without a desire to play for the men who line up alongside him, he’d find it easier to let the dream slip away.
“It wouldn’t be worth it,” he said after practice last week. “I wouldn’t be playing.”
Toala’s path to the University of Utah is unconventional, littered with heartbreak, love, disappointment, spiritual edification and long-time friendships that led to the realization of a childhood dream.
The massive man with an easy smile stood before those 'boys' who inspire him, choked back tears, and then thanked the family that built him, especially the one person he couldn’t call.
“Last year, I came up here and I introduced myself, and I told you guys about my mom, how she passed away when I was on my (LDS Church) mission,” and then he pauses, “We did it, Mom!”
It may have seemed an unlikely moment to outsiders, but Toala said he and his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Samoa with his two older siblings, always believed this was possible.
“Honestly, like deep down, I always knew that I was capable of playing D-1 football,” he said. “I just needed an opportunity.”
Toala may not have the sturdy foundation of faith and family upon which he’s built his own marriage were it not for the bold confidence of another young missionary, his father, and an open-minded Catholic girl with a crush, his mother.
“When I met (Rosalina), she was three weeks away from going to Rome to become a nun,” said Leuo, Paul's dad, who was playing in a band after returning from an LDS mission in Fiji. “I play keyboard, and I saw her looking at me. I thought, ‘I’m going to talk to her.’ So I did. I introduced myself, and I said I’m a returned missionary. She said, 'Well, you’ve met the wrong person because I’m going to be a nun.'"
He, however, felt this chance meeting was far more meaningful and told her so.
“I don’t know why I say it,” he said laughing at the memory, “but I say, ‘Too bad, you’re not going to go.’ She was laughing.”
He persuaded her to spend some time with him, and then reconsider her decision. Eventually, she converted to his religion, and they married and started their family. With two children, they decided those babies would have more opportunities in America, so they moved to Utah then California and, eventually, Washington.
The noise Paul makes when asked to describe his mother indicates the enormity of his affection and admiration.
“Oh, amazing,” he said. “And she is, as well as my father, they are just amazing people. She was beautiful, her smile, her personality. She was the most caring person I knew.”
Leuo’s description echoes his son’s.
“She was a really family-oriented person, a really loving person,” Leuo said. “Helping people, that’s the easiest thing to say about her. She was such a caring person.”
And as for their four children, of which Paul is No. 3, she wanted “only the best.”
“Education was her mindset for the kids,” Leuo said. “Every time we have family home evening, every time we have family council, it’s me and her, we were really united on their future. Her favorite things were church and school.”
Paul said his mother had made it clear where her priorities were and eventually saw the wisdom and joy in her choices. He left Dixie State, where he played football in 2012, to help care for her after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but eventually, he submitted his LDS mission paperwork and was called to serve in Mexico.
As Paul was preparing to leave for the mission she’d helped him prepare for, doctors told her that her cancer was incurable.
“He was leaving on November 20 and he was getting ready to leave and my wife was getting worse,” Leuo said. “They told us there was nothing we could do. Paul ask her if he should stay, and she said no, she wanted him to go.”
He was in Provo at the MTC awaiting a visa to Mexico when his mother passed away on Dec. 27, 2013.
He flew home on a Friday, attended her service that night and her burial the next morning. That afternoon, he flew to Mexico City to continue his mission.
While on his mission, Toala exchanged letters with a family friend, Justin Ena, who had just been hired by Utah as an assistant coach. Toala said he prayed about what he should do after his mission and asked Ena about coming to Utah as a preferred walk-on.
“It was an answer to prayers,” he said of arriving at Utah last fall and participating on the scout team.
Offensive line coach Jim Harding said he really didn’t get to know what Toala was capable of until spring football when graduation and injuries gave him an opportunity to compete with the first- and second-string players.
“He was able to step up and come in and take advantage of the opportunity,” Harding said. “He continued to work hard in the offseason, and then, we see what he’s doing out here in fall camp. He’s definitely in the mix for being in the top five, and without question, he’s in the top 10.”
Harding said Toala’s story illustrates just how far hard work can take a player with the right attitude.
“He’s extremely humble, and he’s done everything we’ve asked of him, including learning to snap,” Harding said. “You see the end result for a kid like that, and it makes you really happy for the kid. He’s a perfect example of a kid, who with dedication, can earn a scholarship.”
Toala went from scout team to scholarship athlete who was in the running to replace starting center Lo Falemaka when he was injured in the second week of camp. While Falemaka wasn’t seriously hurt, Toala proved both his ability and his willingness.
He said the adjustment from walk-on to possible starter has been difficult and exhilarating.
“It’s interesting,” he said of the difference. “It was a little confusing at first. I had a mix of emotions for sure (when Lo was injured), but at the end of the day, whenever my teammates need me, whenever my family needs me, my job is to be there.”
Toala said he never struggled with his faith, even when he was mired in agonizing grief.
“The first two weeks of my mission,” he said of the worst time. “Every single day for the first two weeks. It was just pure grief at that point. I never doubted my faith; I was just sad. I’ve always been a huge mama’s boy, so I just missed my mom.”
He said his admiration grew for his father and what he went through after he got married last December.
“I don’t know how he did it,” he said. “It must have been so hard for him.”
Toala said he finds comfort in knowing his mom would be proud of him, but it doesn’t ease the loneliness of living without her.
“I’d be lying if I told you that it’s not hard,” he said. “It’s hard. You know, every day. I have a picture of her in my locker, in my house, everywhere. But I feel like I’m trying to honor both her and my family every time I’m on this field.”