PROVO — Sione Takitaki is on a nice little post-college career run.
In the beauty pageants that are the East-West Shrine Game and Saturday’s Senior Bowl, the BYU linebacker is turning heads and building his résumé for NFL draft experts.
This week, the former BYU linebacker received a late invite to Saturday's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. This comes on the heels of a three-tackle, one tackle-for-loss performance in the East-West Shrine Game, where he gained a following during practices. Practice sessions tend to be more important than the actual games. The Senior Bowl is a greater stage where NFL draft expertspeek at 2019 prospects.
True to form, his cousin in Fontana, California, Petelo Hifo, whom Sione lived with when he was in the eighth grade, didn’t know anything about the Senior Bowl invite on Wednesday when I talked to him via phone in California. Takitaki doesn’t like to bring attention to himself, and he didn’t bother to tell a lot of his close friends and relatives.
Petelo’s son is Aleva Hifo, a junior receiver for the Cougars prominently used in Jeff Grimes' jet sweep attack this season.
“It that true?” said Petelo. “That’s just awesome.”
Petelo was an early witness to the bottled-up energy that propels Takitaki. A construction worker in Southern California and Utah County, he was a substitute teacher and one of Takitaki’s football coaches in high school. Petelo took Sione into his home for six months right before he lost his father to cancer in the summer of 2009.
“Sione is one of the nicest young men you will ever meet. But when he’s on the field, he turns into a completely different person. He is very competitive,” said Petelo. “If you get him in a competitive situation, a switch just turns on inside him. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“I remember back when he played All-American Junior League football and they’d be doing tackling drills, he was so intense he would make kids cry. They’d line up and when it was time to face Sione, they would move to the back of the line so they wouldn’t have to face him.”
This energy was on full display in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl when Takitaki’s 19 tackles were more than that of any other player during the college bowl season, and a personal record. As a Cougar, he finished his career with 241 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks.
Petelo remembers back in high school when Heritage High was playing in the finals of the CIF championships and was down 20-0. “People were giving up, quitting. Sione and his cousin Limihai refused to back down. They never came off the field, playing on offense, defense and special teams.
“During the game, Sione was challenged by an opposing lineman, a Tongan who was going to sign at UCLA. Sione reacted by just playing harder. He kept telling the guy, ‘I’m coming, I’m coming.’ On offense, he kept saying, ‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ and he ripped off a 20-yard run.”
According to Petelo, because of Sione and Limihai’s passion and determination, Heritage High’s entire team turned things around and ended up winning the game 33-32 in a dramatic comeback. When the team celebrated its title on the field, Sione, who told the UCLA-bound kid he was going to look for him after the game, was nowhere to be found. Petelo had to hunt him down and tell him to return to the team and the locker room.
“He isn’t a person to start a fight, but if you challenge him, he is not going to back down. That’s how he is wired,” said Petelo. As it turned out, the UCLA recruit who’d ticked off Sione that night was a distant relative of the Takitaki family and Petelo.
The aversion to being in the limelight has always been an issue for Takitaki. On the day kids at his school signed NCAA national letters of intent, Takitaki refused to go to the hat ceremony. Instead, he was outside the building where Petelo took him the papers to sign and he then returned them to the principal.
“Sione’s father was a hard-working construction worker who taught me the business, how to do my best and put in the hours on the job. He was a good father who wanted his son to go to BYU. Like many Polynesians, he grew up being a BYU fan, as did I.”
After Sione’s father died, Petelo helped Takitaki sift through the recruiting process. His first offer came from Gary Andersen at Wisconsin and a second followed from Mike Leach at Washington State. BYU was the fourth school to make an offer.
Sione’s father’s wishes weighed heavily on Takitaki’s college decision, although he wasn’t sure if he could adhere to the honor code and he hated school, said Petelo.
“I told him he only had to deal with the honor code for three years and that wasn’t that hard and he could get used to doing the school work. I promised him that being around the BYU atmosphere and good people would help him grow as a person. I told him he could get the football experience elsewhere but not what BYU provided. I promised him he would likely meet someone to marry. And I told him he would someday influence a lot of people as an example.
“All of those things have come true,” said Petelo. “He did get suspended for a year at BYU or he would have finished on time. He is a good person and I’m happy for what he’s got going for him.”8 comments on this story
In Boise, Takitaki was on fire that day. He chased down running backs and receivers and got in the backfield. He was decisive, inspired and played at full speed the entire four quarters. He was everywhere on the field making tackles and disrupting Western Michigan’s offense.
In short, no college defender had a better day of tackling in the bowl season.
It appears that momentum is carrying over for Takitaki in January’s college football pageant. The Senior Bowl is where former BYU lineman Ziggy Ansah earned MVP honors and where BYU’s Fred Warner excelled a year ago.
All Takitaki needed was an invite.