PULLMAN – Every few minutes, the commotion behind Pene Talamaivao hits a loud crescendo.
The junior college football players he’s watching over bust out in laughter, pierce the room with their shrieks or roar collectively. Pandemonium is stirring, testosterone is jumping from one wall to the other and every audible sound made during a midafternoon lift inside the weight room at Riverside City College can be picked up over the phone without much trouble.
But Talamaivao is still able to stay on track. This conversation is important to him. The subject of it, even more so.
Earlier in the same day, Riverside’s seventh-year defensive line coach agreed to carve out some time for a call, even if it did conflict with a prior commitment to the team he coaches in the east Los Angeles suburb of Riverside.
“I can sneak in a few for Misi!” Talamaivao responded in a text message. “That kid’s story should be a movie.”
Behind the longest name on Washington State’s roster is one of the longest journeys in Power Five football – both in actual miles traveled and figurative hurdles cleared.
For those still parsing the syllables at home – and don’t worry, Mike Leach is too – try this: “Missy-OH-nah / EYE-oh-loo-poh-tey-ah-bay-ee.”
The name may take awhile to master – a lazy commentator once resorted to “Pei” but couldn’t even get that right, spewing out something that sounded more like “Pie.”
And the story takes some time to recite, if it’s done properly.
The 13 characters stitched to the back of the jersey worn by Washington State’s senior nose tackle are just as important as the 7,200 miles Aiolupotea-Pei covered from Australia to Riverside to fulfill his version of the American dream.
“Literally, it has everything from a movie about this kid,” Talamaivao said. “Came here, nothing, his family put in the work, he grinded it out, he put his heart and soul into it, he made sure everything was done.”
If Aiolupotea-Pei’s story were adapted for a major motion picture, there would almost be too many supporting actors to cast. If the film won an award, the defensive lineman would be run off the stage by music while delivering his speech – too many thanks to go around. If Aiolupotea-Pei were permitted to bring 100 people down to the field for Senior Day festivities Saturday against Oregon State, he might have a hard time trimming the list down to that many.
“It’s definitely a dream,” Aiolupotea-Pei said. “But feel like it’s a dream that wasn’t meant to happen.”
Or, on second thought: “This dream was meant to happen, because when I came to America, everything fell in place.”
There were distant family friends who sacrificed for Aiolupotea-Pei once he arrived in the U.S, turning over an apartment so he had somewhere to sleep.
There were junior college coaches who worked overtime to drill mechanics, because the former rugby player came to RCC with raw athleticism but not much technique.
There were churchgoers back home in New Zealand who pooled together their money to alleviate the financial stress Aiolupotea-Pei would face while pursuing a college football career.
There were compliance directors fighting on the player’s behalf, because even when Aiolupotea-Pei got to Pullman, there was still no certainty he’d play a snap for the Cougars – a “50/50” chance, he put it.
And don’t get Aiolupotea-Pei started on his parents, unless you have a pack of tissues handy.
“People don’t understand. I can’t even talk about my parents, I always get choked up,” Aiolupotea-Pei said. “My parents do so much for me. They support me 100 percent. When things get rough, that’s who I rely on.”
Alex and Amanda Aiolupotea-Pei, of Wellington, New Zealand, will be there to celebrate their son’s finest hour – they’ve been here since September, but more on that later – and, along with a girlfriend and uncle, they’ll escort WSU’s nose tackle to the middle of the field Saturday night at Martin Stadium as 14 seniors are recognized.
If those 50 yards seem short, it’s no wonder.
“This whole journey is very emotional for me, because we sacrificed time, money and everything,” Alex said. “We only have one trial and I’ll always say, money can’t buy time. But just to be there, standing on the sideline and he knocks his head and I knock my head, he knows we’re there.”
For Aiolupotea-Pei, nicknamed “Misi” or “Meese” by Washington State coaches wishing to cut out a few syllables, discovering American football is a story that begins with bypassing the family trade.
Planting a volleyball net on any hardwood surface might be the best way to gather the Aiolupotea-Peis and their close relatives. Misi’s father was a respectable volleyball player, but probably not as good as his brother, and Misi’s uncle, Vai Aiolupotea-Pei, who represented Samoa’s national team. A first cousin, Alex, played for his state team in Australia, then the national team. A second cousin, Camilla Time-Taotoa, played for New Zealand’s national team.
“I’m like the dark horse of the family when it comes to sports, because all my family played volleyball,” Misi said. “… That’s our family sport, but I was too rough for that. I like hitting people.”
Rugby, not as big among the Aiolupotea-Peis but wildly popular in New Zealand and Australia, seemed like a natural pivot for a boy who’d also tried his hand at basketball, cricket and track and field. Aiolupotea-Pei was born in the Wellington area of New Zealand, but he moved to Australia so his father could study theology, returning to New Zealand at the age of 11 or 12.
But when an opportunity arose to kick-start his rugby career at a prominent academy in Australia, Keebra Park State High School, Aiolupotea-Pei was on the move again – this time without family.
“My parents were iffy at first,” he said, “but they became supportive in that, so they let me go over.”
Aiolupotea-Pei played as a wing, which best compares to a football wide receiver – in Leach’s Air Raid offense, the “X” or “Z” outside receiver. Wings are typically faster players who gather the ball on the edge and knife downfield with the help of blockers.
“I loved running the ball as well, loved hitting people, jamming up on people. So when they’d pass it, I’d hit a guy inside of me. I loved being physical,” he said. “I always felt like I wanted to try to make it a career or gain something from sport, ever since I was a young kid. I’ve always wanted to use sport as an avenue to open other doors.”
Keebra Park didn’t offer Aiolupotea-Pei the opportunity he’d been seeking – “the coach overlooked Misi,” his dad said – and one more attempt at rugby was unsuccessful. But by that point, he’d already caught wind of another game.
Aiolupotea-Pei and a cousin were having a conversation with a few other friends when one claimed to have a full-ride football scholarship to the University of Colorado.
Unbeknownst to Aiolupotea-Pei at the time, that wasn’t true, but he still thought to himself, “Damn, if this guy can get a scholarship, we can get a scholarship.”
His football knowledge limited to Adam Sandler and “The Longest Yard,” Aiolupotea-Pei earned a spot with the Gold Coast Stingrays of the Queensland Gridiron League. When he was selected to compete in an all-star-type event called the Down Under Bowl, Aiolupotea-Pei was noticed by a couple of American coaches who liked how the former rugby player hit and ran.
One of those was Dan Hawkins, the former Colorado and Boise State coach who’s now at UC Davis.
“I had a girdle. I didn’t know how to put it on. I had to have guys help me out to put it on,” Aiolupotea-Pei said. “I was wearing rugby cleats. I was all over the place. All I knew (is Hawkins) was American and I liked the way he talked, so it was pretty cool.”
Aiolupotea-Pei earned the tournament’s “Das Hammer” award, given to the hardest hitter. Hawkins suggested he pursue the sport in America. Greg Glasser, an ex-Marine who coached Aiolupotea-Pei on the Stingrays, was also instrumental in connecting his player with the people who lined up his move.
For nearly a year, Aiolupotea-Pei trained. When he didn’t train, he worked. Aiolupotea-Pei and his father are immediate relatives, but they’re also business partners who run a landscaping company called A&M (Alex and Misi) Tree Care. Trimming trees and hauling branches reinforced why Aiolupotea-Pei wanted – needed – to escape.
“There was one day I was working with my dad and my uncle and I was using a pick,” he recalled. “I was hitting the ground. I was thinking, ‘Man, I’d rather be breaking my back doing something I love like football, than breaking my back doing something like this.’ ”
For months, it was a constant game of tug-of-war between Aiolupotea-Pei and his parents, as the aspiring football player tried to convince Alex and Amanda to let him move across the globe.
Because of his international status, Aiolupotea-Pei wouldn’t qualify for financial aid in junior college. Expenses – tuition, rent, food and everything else – would be upward of $50,000 for two years. He urged his father to reach out to an old volleyball pal, Fred Toailoa, because he knew Fred’s brother Mila was living in the Riverside area.
“I said, ‘He might say no,’ ” Alex said. “So I said to him one day, ‘I’ll call, you listen. I’ll put it on speaker.’ ”
Without hesitating, Fred responded, “Brother, pack your family, get ready to come.”
Aiolupotea-Pei was originally planning on attending West Hill Community College in Coalinga, California, but a family friend put him in touch with Talamaivao, who’d gladly have him at Riverside under a single condition.
“Coach Pen called in Australia,” Alex recalled, “and said, ‘Misi, if you’re a lazy bugger, don’t even think about getting on that big bird. But if you’re a hard worker, get on that big bird and see how hard you can work.’ ”
The “big bird” took Aiolupotea-Pei from the Gold Coast to the Golden State, where culture shock set in almost immediately.
“I hadn’t seen a black person before,” he said. “I hadn’t see a Hispanic person before.”
But he settled in, thanks to a grand gesture from Mila Toailoa, who vacated his fully furnished apartment in Riverside – with his wife and sick father – so Aiolupotea-Pei had a place to stay.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Alex said. “I’ve written everything down and my goal for this journey, I want to write a book.”
The apartment manager wasn’t friendly to Aiolupotea-Pei at first, bothered by the idea of him taking over an apartment that wasn’t technically his. Over time, Aiolupotea-Pei changed her opinion, sweeping the complex’s hallways, storing boxes, gathering garbage and picking cigarette butts off the ground – for no other reason than to build good will.
Talamaivao heard about it second hand from other Riverside players – “he won’t admit that because he’s that kind of kid.”
Aiolupotea-Pei worked as a security guard and picked up a variety of odd jobs to help defray living and school expenses. Back home, members of his church helped raise funds to fund Aiolupotea-Pei’s dream and offered his parents different money-earning opportunities to make things more manageable.
“So it made him just laser-sharp in regards to focusing on the goal ahead and what he wants,” Talamaivao said.
Still, there were days Aiolupotea-Pei practiced without food in his stomach and lifted weights knowing he may not be eating dinner after. Talamaivao remembers the time his defensive lineman earned $20 and splurged by purchasing 20 hamburgers from a local fast food joint.
WSU’s interim defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Roc Bellantoni, is familiar with RCC’s offensive line coach, Mustafa Johnson, who worked with Bellantoni at Florida Atlantic. California Community College Athletic Association rules limit how coaches can help athletes, but Johnson pitched in when he could.
“(Misi) talked a lot about Mus and how Mus would bring him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when he didn’t have anything,” Bellantoni said.
Aiolupotea-Pei tore his only pair of football cleats and would call his father with mangled feet.
“He used to call me on FaceTime and show me his feet, with all pool of bloods and he tells me, ‘Dad, look at my shoes,’ ” Alex said. “I said, ‘Tape it. Don’t even worry about it. Tape it. I’ve got no money. Keep playing on those shoes.’ And he did.”
Challenges mounted on the field, too. YouTube clips from Australia show a 6-foot-3, 250-pound Aiolupotea-Pei carrying the ball out of the backfield, catching passes downfield, returning punts/kicks and blitzing off the edge, often without any resistance because offensive lines usually consisted of a center and two guards.
But the game was accelerated in the U.S. Everything and everyone seemed to move faster and it was more detail-oriented than he imagined. There were offensive tackles trying to wall him off. Sometimes he’d command double teams, or triple teams.
“You could tell he’s processing the game at a slower rate. He’s thinking too much,” Talamavaio said. “It’s like Pop Warner and all the sudden you’re playing in the NFL, and things are moving at a pace that you’re never accustomed to. … In Australia, they played as if it was a rec league. But in the states, it’s a really competitive sport. It’s a gladiator sport – let’s call it for what it is. The mindset has to be right because some of those kids or players you’re going against are not coming at him nicely.
“I remember the first time he got here, he thought football, DI, all they did was rush the passer, just break through the line. He didn’t understand there were techniques and movement and collaboration that’s required to get to the quarterback.”
Not to mention, junior college football can be a cutthroat business. Every player there is on a mission to leave. Many have already had a taste of Division I football, which makes the environment as competitive as any in American sport.
“We had 37 D-linemen,” Aiolupotea-Pei said, “and we only played a three-man front.”
Eventually, it would all click. Aiolupotea-Pei sat in the front row during team meetings, prodded his coaches with questions and prodded them again if he was still struggling with a concept.
Talamaivao said the breakthrough came in a 2017 game against Mt. Sac, when Aiolupotea-Pei recorded two sacks, five tackles and a pass breakup.
“And you could see the fire just lit,” the coach said.
The following year, Aiolupotea-Pei was named a defensive captain, he finished the year with 41 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks, and was named to the All-Southern California Football Association second team.
Aiolupotea-Pei had boldly chosen the No. 55 at Riverside because it’s the number his idol, Junior Seau, wore during a Hall of Fame career with the Chargers. A coach at Riverside cautioned him, “If you don’t play to the standard, you’re not going to play in that jersey.”
Whatever the standard was, Aiolupotea-Pei exceeded it. The school framed his No. 55, gifting it to the player’s father, while presenting a helmet to Mila Toailoa, whose giant sacrifice made this phase possible.
“The (athletic director) says, ‘I’ve never done it before and I’m not going to do it again,’ ” Alex recalled.
When college recruiters wanted to pay Aiolupotea-Pei a visit, the bidding war went down at the player’s apartment in Riverside. Occasionally, multiple coaches would show up at once, all competing for his time because they recognized his ceiling.
His father sat back and watched it unfold, stunned every time someone wearing a school polo walked in to meet his son.
“It’s like I’m watching a movie,” he said. “All I do is just cry, because I’ve never experienced this.”
Alex recalls when former WSU linebackers coach and SoCal recruiter Ken Wilson visited. Wilson was selling Aiolupotea-Pei on the Cougars and their “Speed D” when someone started knocking on the door.
Outside, Memphis coach Mike Norvell was waiting: “You’re taking my minute,” he said. “You’re over (your) time.”
Another Pac-12 position coach was on Aiolupotea-Pei’s heels throughout the recruiting process. Joe Salave’a, the former WSU and current Oregon defensive line coach who was responsible for recruiting many of the Cougars’ Polynesian players, had heard about the Samoan-born pass rusher and made a promise.
“Joe Salave’a said to Misi, ‘Tell your dad if you go to Washington and it’s not what you want, I’ve got you. I’ve got your full ride,’ ” Alex recalled.
The highly coveted JC prospect and his father eventually gave Memphis their time, taking an official visit to see Norvell and the Tigers. They sent a Cadillac SUV to retrieve the two and Alex was floored when a man in a black suit offered to take his luggage.
“I’ve never sat in a Cadillac,” he said. “I just cried and (Misi) says, ‘Dad, stop crying.’ I don’t have the words to express my gratitude.”
When they arrived at their hotel in Memphis, Alex checked in and asked for his room key, unaware there were two room keys and two rooms – one for the player, one for his father. When Misi opened the door to his, it was decked out in blue Memphis garb and a big chocolate cake was frosted with a greeting: “Welcome to Memphis.”
Idaho State was the first to make an official offer, but by the end, Aiolupotea-Pei had interest from 17 schools, including Oregon, TCU and Ole Miss. But conversations with the late-arriving schools were only formalities.
“I had already made up my mind that I was coming here,” he said. “So all the real big schools were coming at the end, but I didn’t want to wait for them. I just took Wazzu.”
Aiolupotea-Pei signed with the Cougars in January, but he couldn’t join them until July. A few class credits stood between him and big-time football in the Pac-12 Conference, so a few percentiles were the difference between Aiolupotea-Pei fulfilling a dream and watching it dissolve in front of him.
“If I failed one class,” he said, “I wouldn’t have been able to come for fall camp. … It was real scary, just because it feels like your dreams are right there. The door’s open, but you just can’t go through it.”
Eventually, the door opened and with it, the dream continued.
Aiolupotea-Pei put together an impressive fall camp, working at nose tackle next to Taylor Comfort. The Cougars planted an “OR” between their names on the depth chart, suggesting either could start. Leach praised Aiolupotea-Pei for being “strong” and “explosive.”
But before Aiolupotea-Pei could start tackling the things that mattered, he needed to tackle something else off the field. The NCAA was requesting the player’s transcripts from Australia and needed to confirm he wasn’t compensated while playing for the Stingrays, which would’ve made him ineligible.
On a whim, Alex took a three-hour flight from New Zealand to Australia to collect the documents and shipped them back over to WSU’s compliance department. Even then, it was still iffy, and Aiolupotea-Pei wasn’t eligible to play in the season opener at Wyoming.
“Compliance actually told me there’s a possibility my credit could be gone,” he said. “That first game, I would never play DI football because of issues like that. Transcript issues. So man, that was heartbreaking. Two years sacrificing. I told my parents, ‘You put me through school for two years, I’ll get the last two to three paid for.’
“So they’d done their part and then almost came up short because of some transcript issues. But I kept praying, and luckily it came through.”
Grasping the “Speed D” schemes, learning the unique stunts and stems the Cougars utilize up front and making sense of the playbook took Aiolupotea-Pei some time. Not until the second-to-last game of the regular season against Arizona did he feel settled.
“So throughout the year, I feel like I was playing catch-up the whole time,” he said. “Physically, I didn’t find it too bad. It was just the mental aspect. Trying to grasp the playbook and all that type of jazz.”
But Aiolupotea-Pei finished his first collegiate game with his first sack, pinning San Jose State’s Montel Aaron to the turf for a 7-yard loss in the fourth quarter. His first season at WSU culminated with a win over Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl, which was significant to Aiolupotea-Pei because his father always told his son he wanted a championship ring.
Alex’s memorabilia collection continues to grow. A room back home in New Zealand houses a framed Riverside jersey, a framed WSU jersey, a white football signed by every player from the 11-win team last year, a commemorative Alamo Bowl minihelmet and a bowl ring that rests on a shelf when it’s not fitted on Alex’s finger.
“Now I wear that ring,” Alex said. “I only wear it when I go to special occasions.”
Matching rings? It could be another reality for the proud papa.
It’s Wednesday afternoon at Thomas Hammer Coffee in Pullman. College students are plodding through schoolwork in every corner of the downtown coffee house, friends are mingling and locals are popping in and out for a quick cup.
Not far from the cashier’s counter, Alex Aiolupotea-Pei sits back against a chair, rattling off anecdotes from his son’s journey. He’s decked out in school colors, wearing a crimson WSU cap stitched with an Alamo Bowl patch and a gray sweater with crimson letters embroidered across his chest.
A couple of months earlier in Lewiston, during WSU fall camp, Misi sat at a cafeteria table and explained the significance of his tattoos, which are bold, black and visible from just about every seat at Martin Stadium. “Amanda” and “Alex” both own property on their son’s body, and Misi has a traditional Samoan tribal sleeve running from the top of his right shoulder to the middle of his forearm.
He described his dad’s ink, too: “A chief tattoo that goes from your ribs to below your knees.”
Even on a cold day in Pullman, Alex has worn gym shorts to Thomas Hammer, so the artwork is visible if you’re sitting right across from him. It would be easy to spend a full hour studying the black patterns and prints carefully canvassed across his legs. But it’s also hard not to meet the middle-aged Samoan man in the eye, especially as tears spill out while he talks about his son’s impossible journey.
“You look at where Misi is at right now,” he said. “I don’t have the words to explain it.”
When Alex and his wife were contemplating how they’d handle their son’s senior year, they figured there were two options – neither real easy on the wallet. They could either travel to and from New Zealand whenever they wanted to watch their son play out the final chapter of this dream, or they could pick up their life and move temporarily to Pullman, where they wouldn’t have to miss a second of it.
Just to get to the Palouse from Wellington requires a 3-hour flight to Sydney, a 15-hour flight to San Francisco, a 2-hour flight to Spokane and a 90-minute drive to Pullman. That trip can cost up to $4,000 per person, so Alex only wanted to make it once.
“Last year when I was with my wife … I said, ‘Money can’t buy time,’ ” Alex said. “So we work and I said, ‘By the time September comes, I’m out of here. I’m going to be with my son.’
“It’s a lot of money, a lot of mortgage. It’s worth every cent. I can reassure you that. I’m wearing all these gears and I’m proud of it. I’m never proud of anything like I’m proud of the way my son plays.”
Alex and Amanda initially found a room to rent for $600, but sharing a house with six residents wasn’t ideal, especially because the space had just one toilet and one shower. At one point, the toilet broke.
So Misi put out a call on Facebook and found his parents a trailer home in Pullman near Dissmore’s grocery story. Alex and Amanda call it the “Little Home.”
“It’s beautiful and it’s cozy,” Alex said.
Amanda traveled home to New Zealand for her mother’s 75th birthday, but returned Thursday with Alex’s brother, Vai. Misi’s girlfriend, Brenda Lamsam, is also in Pullman from New Zealand for the Cougars’ final two regular-season games.
For every reason that should be obvious, Senior Day festivities will be emotional this Saturday.
But as Misi trots out to midfield, family members in both arms, he’ll also be doing so with the memory of his late grandmother, Punipuao Aiolupotea, who died in April. Misi escaped his football obligations for the service, surprising just about everyone his family when he arrived unannounced at Wellington International Airport.
“Even the night before the service, I said, ‘He can’t come, he’s playing,’ ” Alex recalled. “One of the coaches called him into the office and all the coaches were there and said, ‘You’re going tomorrow.’ So it’s unbelievable.”
WSU footed the bill.
“He’s just a great kid and he plays so hard and does all the right things,” Bellantoni said. “You wish you had 12 guys up front like him. He’s a dream.”
“Really good figurehead, really good leader, really good work ethic,” Leach added. “Just a very committed guy and plus it’s entertaining to listen to him talk, so that kind of elevates the whole Misi experience a little bit.”
The “Misi Experience” is nearly over, just like his parents’ stay in the U.S. They’re only permitted to be here for 90 days, but they’ll return if the Cougars win either of the next two games and claim a bowl berth.
Like WSU at this stage of the season, Alex prefers to take this journey one day at time. Senior Day figures to be overwhelming enough.
“I’m trying to psyche myself out, because I don’t want to talk on a TV or anything like that because I don’t think I’ll do it. It’s too emotional for me,” he said. “Just thinking of that walk, it’s going to be amazing.”
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