PULLMAN – There aren’t too many normal days for someone who’s just moved from a humble village in American Samoa to a proud college town in Eastern Washington, but this one in 2016 was fairly normal by Fred Mauigoa’s standards.
Among other Polynesian teammates at Washington State, Mauigoa was relaxing and plugging away on an Xbox when somebody alerted the offensive lineman he had a visitor.
More specifically, “There’s a white guy that wants you to come out and talk to him.”
This was peculiar for a few reasons. One, because the quiet and introverted freshman hadn’t mingled with many of his new teammates yet. Two, because the ones Mauigoa had mingled with were the ones who shared his Polynesian ancestry and spoke in his Samoan tongue.
But Mauigoa obliged, pausing his video game and getting out of his chair to greet the mystery visitor. Standing at the doorway, all 6-foot-5, 270 pounds of him, was Liam Ryan, another offensive lineman Mike Leach and the Cougars had just signed to block for the next wave of Air Raid quarterbacks.
Ryan, a personable, grizzly-looking guard/tackle from Chino Hills, California, had no agenda but figured it couldn’t hurt to strike up a few friendships before getting into the meat of his first college football season.
“I walk out and it was this guy,” Mauigoa said, recounting the story in August as Ryan sat next to him at a cafeteria table at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston. “And we’ve hung out ever since.”
In many ways, that’s been the essence of their relationship – Ryan urging Mauigoa to come out of his shell and Mauigoa confiding in someone he never expected to befriend when he left ‘Ili’ili, American Samoa – population 3,000 – three years ago to play big-time college football in the Pac-12.
Soon enough, Mauigoa had transported his bed to Ryan’s dorm and the two fashioned a bunk-bed arrangement on one side of the room (think Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in “Step Brothers”), while Josh Watson, another member of Washington State’s current offensive line, set up shop on the other side.
“We ended up getting in trouble for that,” Ryan said, “but it was fun while it lasted.”
And more important, it helped two polar opposites attract.
Ryan and Mauigoa never have shared much in common, aside from their mission on the football field: to guarantee the safety of WSU’s record-breaking quarterbacks – Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon among them.
But now they’re inseparable. They’ve shared a three-bedroom house in Pullman and they’ve often spent holiday breaks together. For the last two years, they’ve teamed up to clear throwing lanes for a few of the nation’s leading passers.
“They’re thick as thieves,” WSU offensive line coach Mason Miller said. “One talks all the time and one doesn’t say a word. I just think it’s a testament to what we have as a program.”
Leach said the chemistry between his starting left tackle and center has been brewing since they arrived.
“I think they both elevate each other,” he said, “It doesn’t surprise me a bit. I’ve seen it for years.”
Ryan befriended Mauigoa early. Soon thereafter, he was embraced by the team’s other Polynesian players – recruited by Joe Salave’a, the former defensive line coach who’ll be on Oregon’s sideline when the Cougars visit the 11th-ranked Ducks in Eugene on Saturday.
During Ryan’s redshirt freshman season, and Mauigoa’s true sophomore season, a quintet went in on a house in Pullman. Ryan and Mauigoa shared one bedroom, Frankie Luvu and Daniel Ekuale – respectively playing for the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns now – had another room and offensive lineman Amosa Sakaria, who medically retired after the 2016 season, got his own bedroom.
In most cases, the Polynesian players on a football team make up the minority. In this household, it was Ryan, a Los Angelan by way of Detroit, who was the fish out of water. Four American Samoans lived in the “Poly House” and others of Samoan, Hawaiian or Tongan heritage often came through to hang out.
“I never really had a problem being around them,” Ryan said. “I did feel a little uncomfortable because I’m the only white dude there and they’re all speaking their language, but it’s kind of cool once you’re around them just listening to them.”
Ryan stumbled around trying to learn the Samoan language, picking up various words and phrases from his teammates, or relying on YouTube tutorials.
“I remember that,” Mauigoa said.
Ryan can string a few words together, but not much more than that, admitting, “You can pick up Spanish, like Spanish to English, but their words are just so different.”
The education was mutual, though.
Learning the lingo
While Mauigoa’s English grades out well compared to the other Samoans on WSU’s roster, when the soft-spoken center arrived in Pullman, he occasionally had trouble with certain American phrases and terms. He’d often turn to his Californian teammate-turned-tutor for assistance.
The two were dining at Gambino’s in Moscow when Mauigoa discovered fettuccine alfredo for the first time.
Unsure how to pronounce it, he gave the word a few tries before trying something much simpler.
“I want this,” Mauigoa told the waitress, pointing at the menu.
Various ways to prepare a cut of steak were also a foreign concept to the Polynesian center.
“The first time we went to a restaurant and the server was like, ‘How would you like your meat done?’ I’m like, ‘Huh?’ ” he said.
Ryan pulled out his phone and used a helpful resource, Google Images, to explain rare, medium rare, medium well, and so forth.
Mauigoa still mixes up some words, such as saying “packback” instead of “backpack,” but his relationship with Ryan is so strong, the two have learned to communicate using nonverbal cues.
“Now I don’t even laugh or call him out on it,” Ryan said. “We just look at each other out of the corner of the eye and start busting out laughing.”
“It’s always the side eye,” Mauigoa said.
Line of fire
In October 2016, Ryan posted a photo from his Instagram account showing him and Mauigoa on the sideline, shoulder to shoulder, during a game at Arizona State. Ryan redshirted that season and Mauigoa played sparingly behind starting center Riley Sorenson.
Ryan’s photo caption read: “Our time will come. #gocougs”
Mauigoa replaced Sorenson as a sophomore and has started since, earning his way onto the Rimington Award and Polynesian Award watch lists each of the last two seasons.
Mauigoa was the one snapping when Falk became the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer. He was playing center when Minshew broke a school record with seven touchdowns in a single game, and snapped to Gordon when the redshirt senior broke Minshew’s record with nine TDs earlier this season. Saturday’s game at Oregon will mark his 34th consecutive start.
The waiting game for Ryan ended last season, when he inherited the starting job at left guard. The nonverbal communication with Mauigoa became more pivotal, not only to their relationship but to the Cougars’ success on the offensive front.
“When we played guard and center, we know each other,” Ryan said. “We know each other’s playing style and stuff like that.”
“Fred was very steady and consistent early,” Leach said, while acknowledging Ryan was just the opposite. Knowing their history, should that be a surprise?
“Liam was explosive and less consistent, but as he’s become more consistent … I think has really done a great job,” Leach said. “But the difference between last year and the year before last with Liam was huge, so then he had a really good year last year.”
Last year’s offensive line performed better than any under Leach’s tutelage, allowing just 13 sacks in 13 games. Minshew and the Cougars threw the ball 677 times, which means the line allowed one sack for every 52 pass attempts. Ryan was rated the sixth-best pass-blocking offensive guard in the country and second-best screen-blocking guard in the country by Pro Football Focus. Mauigoa earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
As offensive linemen in the Air Raid, part of their success comes from being light on their feet. They also like to maintain a light mood on the field – at least when the situation warrants.
Sitting at the lunch table in Lewiston, they reminisced on the 2018 Apple Cup, when Ryan accidentally yanked a chunk of hair from the beard of Washington nose tackle Greg Gaines.
Last year’s game at Oregon State produced some comedy, too. After WSU’s first play – a 40-yard wheel pass to James Williams – Ryan, who shoveled too many bananas down his stomach beforehand, started to hurl as he made his way down the field.
“So I just start running down the field and we’re all laughing and I just start throwing up as we’re running,” Ryan said. “And (Mauigoa) is … dying the whole time.”
Leach and Miller decided it was best to move Ryan out to left tackle when Andre Dillard graduated – he’d practiced as a backup left tackle in 2018 – meaning he’s on his own island on the end of WSU’s offensive line, while Mauigoa and guards Robert Valencia and Watson are bunched up in the middle.
“We’re all good friends, so I know they’ll do fine on the inside and then I’m screaming on the outside,” Ryan said. “ ‘Come on Fred, you got this. Let’s go.’ Or when Fred messes up, ‘Fred, keep your butt down, keep your head back, you got this.’ Or I’ll question him, ‘Dude, are you serious? Did he really push you down like that?’ Little things like that.”
Two worlds meet
Ryan wears his hair in a bleached mullet and he rocked a pair of black shades to Pac-12 Media Day – an indoor event – while representing the Cougars in Hollywood. He donned bright pink cleats at WSU’s first fall practice. On game day, he likes to smear eye black all over the portions of his face that aren’t covered by brown hair.
Each fashion statement is too loud for Mauigoa’s taste and so is Ryan himself. But then again, that is the beauty of their friendship.
Four years later, Ryan is still coaxing Mauigoa out of his comfort zone. Mauigoa, now and then, is reminding Ryan the importance of being subtle.
“I’ll be like, ‘Fred, talk more. Be out there, get out and know people,’ ” Ryan said. “… Then there’s times I notice Fred just being quiet and I’ll catch myself and I’ll be like, ‘I just need to shut up for a little.’ But it’s a good complement just being around each other.”
“He kind of helped me talk more and I’ll say I kind of helped him talk less,” Mauigoa said.
“He’s mellowed me out a little,” Ryan said.
Over the past four years, Mauigoa has frequently spent his offseasons and holiday breaks with Ryan and his mom, Kristina Daniels, in Southern California. Flying home to American Samoa a few times a year – let alone once every four years – isn’t financially feasible.
When Ryan was making the rounds at Media Day, Mauigoa and Daniels dropped by the Loews Hollywood Hotel to pay him a visit between media obligations.
“Every time I go there, his mom, she calls me her second son, too,” Mauigoa said. “It’s pretty cool, I have another mom here. Another family that really cares about me, and it’s cool to have those kind of people in your life.”
It’s allowed Ryan to expose his friend to other aspects of the American culture. Mauigoa hadn’t been to a professional baseball game until Ryan took him to see Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers. He’d never experienced a roller coaster before Ryan planned a day trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain.
Mauigoa hopes to repay the favor.
The two are tentatively planning on an excursion to Mauigoa’s homeland. It would help if the Cougars made the postseason, because bowl games cover expenses for players who travel home straight from the bowl site. Ryan’s probably greeted Mauigoa’s family on FaceTime a hundred times, but Mauigoa’s parents are relishing the chance to finally shake Ryan’s hand in person and give him a hug.
“My mom gets excited to see him,” Mauigoa said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
If the Cougars, who are 4-3, don’t qualify for a bowl game, there’s still a chance Ryan would open up his wallet to pay for a trip to ‘Ili’ili. He said he’s been saving money since the eighth grade.
“When we have free time next year, he’s going to be training (for the NFL),” Ryan said. “So just get out there while me and him can see each other one more time and before we all split our ways and meet up whenever we’re done with football.”
Ryan and Mauigoa get at least five more games in the trenches together, but they know they’ve built a bond that has a much longer lifespan.
“College is pretty tough,” Mauigoa said. “You meet good people during tough times, and I don’t think I’ll forget about (Liam).”