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Football was never a game Will Latu fell in love with.
He didn’t attend games as a kid, even his big brothers’.
He had no gridiron heroes, and can barely name any of the Buccaneers.
He didn’t even play in high school, until his senior year.
But after three years together, on a remarkable and improbable journey that has taken Latu from St. Petersburg to Aberdeen, S.D., to Santa Clarita, Calif., the former and heretofore utterly unknown Gibbs Gladiator will finally admit this about the game:
“I think we’ve grown on each other.”
Sunday afternoon, Latu, an affable, wild-maned 6-foot-5, 315-pound Tongan and exceptional left tackle, orally committed to West Virginia University.
From his apartment down the street from the campus of the College of the Canyons, where he completed only his second year of organized football last season, Latu carefully chose the Mountaineers from 13 suitors, including the likes of Boise State, Oregon State, Rutgers and USF.
His mother, Folau, cried.
His father, Pete, cried even more.
“We are blessed,’’ he said, over and over again.
Everyone’s prayers had been answered.
Will Latu didn’t have any options coming out of high school except one:
It was Pete who first encouraged his youngest son to play football. But that didn’t go so well, because Will weighed too much for the local pee wee leagues, and decided right then he would never play football, even though his brother and cousins did, flashing then what would become his signature streak of independence.
Pete tried again his son’s freshman year at Gibbs, and again his sophomore year.
“I told you, Dad, I’m not playing football,” Will would say each time.
Junior year “he got mad at me” for asking again, Pete said.
Will, however, had an epiphany when he saw the colleges that came calling for his cousin and inspiration, Jon Halapio, who was at St. Petersburg Catholic and eventually signed at Florida.
He decided he’d see if it could get him into college as well.
“In my heart,” said Pete, “I thought it was too late.”
The first time Yusuf Shakir laid eyes on Latu, “I said, dang, that cat is huge.”
The former Gibbs coach asked what everyone asks a 6-5, 300-pound kids walking around high school hallways: “You don’t want to play football?’’
Latu told Shakir, “Nah, I’m good.’’
When Latu finally showed up the summer before his senior year, he had missed the spring, a crucial period when college coaches and recruiting analysts had been stopping by.
Shakir thought maybe, because he was such a big boy with great feet who did not shy away from physical contact, Latu might get lucky and draw the attention of a college.
“They would come in, look at his tape and say wow … then, sorry we’re all filled up,” Shakir said. “He kind of fell through the cracks.”
Latu made the county and conference all-star teams, and eventually Colorado State and Connecticut showed interest.
Pete crossed his fingers. An offer had to be near.
But the schools backed off in the end, saying his son didn’t have enough experience. In the high-stakes world of recruiting, the bigger programs don’t have scholarships to waste on players they need to develop.
“I still remember that day,” Pete says. “He had tears in his eyes. I told him, this is something you will have to learn from. But don’t ever forget it.”
Will headed off to the only school interested in a football player with three months of experience, Division II Northern State University in South Dakota.
Latu spent a year in Aberdeen as a redshirt. He was miserable.
The scholarship promised wasn’t really much of one — he had to take out loans and get financial aid — and he found himself dominating the competition in practice.
He decided to follow in brother David’s footsteps and transfer to College of the Canyons, where his uncle was a linebackers coach.
With no financial assistance from the school and no dorms to live in and no meal plans to fill up on, Will has fought for survival.
“It’s a sacrifice,’’ he said. “You worry about where that next meal is coming from, the light bill, the AC, the cable getting cut off. It’s like being an adult and a football player at the same time.’’
Pete was working two full-time jobs back home to help him — “$200 for a book? Are you pulling my leg?” he asked his son — and Folau worked for an airline, which at least allowed his parents a break on tickets to watch him play.
They worried about their youngest boy, fighting to keep his dream alive against great odds. They didn’t miss a game, because they felt they had to be there.
Before planning a trip to come see him last year, Will tried to talk his parents out of it. He told his father “Dad, I know we don’t have any money …”
Pete’s voice trails off when remembering that moment, and he has to choke back the emotions.
“We support our son,” he continued. “I don’t know how we do it sometimes, but I believe God is on our side.”
Under the tutelage of College of the Canyons line coach Marc Dumalo, Latu developed into one of the country’s top juco linemen last season.
A tireless and driven worker, Latu worked toward one goal — a full-paid Division I-A scholarship.
His parents prayed for just one; he now has 13, and more are sure to come.
“I’m so proud of my little brother,” said David, a 2005 Gibbs graduate now working toward being, presumably, one of Sacramento’s biggest firefighters at 6-5, 335 pounds.
“He’s accomplished things I tried and never finished. I knew he had it in him. It just took some time before he figured out if he was fit for this or something else. And he’s fit for this. He’s fit and determined.”
Latu hopes to graduate from junior college in December and head to West Virginia in time for spring practice.
David thinks his brother will play in the NFL one day. And while Will isn’t looking any further than West Virginia, would you bet against him at this point?
Pete can’t help but think of the NFL, too. Not for the riches it could bring, but for what it would signify.
“As a parent, you hope for the best, you want them to go as high as they can,” he said. “If he gets his degree, we’re just as happy. Either way, he can’t lose. I’m just honored to say he is my son.”
Will Latu texts his parents before workouts: “Hi Mom and Dad. Good morning. Time for me to go to work.”
It may still be a job for him, but he has passion for it, too, never more than when he’s engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
He loves dominating the player in front on him, frustrating him, stopping him, making him want to quit.
If he can do that, he can make his parents proud, make all the problems one day go away.
“I just want to do whatever I need to do to be the best player I can be,” he said. “When I called them (Saturday night) to tell them, my mom was crying and everyone was so happy and proud of me, because they know that everything is going to be okay.”
As for his love for the game he once refused to play, Will Latu just laughs, probably unwilling to admit he’s more smitten than he lets on.