Football Athlete Feature

Uani ' Unga: the product of effort

(Photo by BYU Photo/Mark Philbrick)

This story was originally printed in the BYU-Idaho State football Gameday program, Nov. 16, 2013

It’s game day in Provo, where the city bleeds navy and white, and the fans arrive hours before the game begins. The BYU football team has just warmed up on the field and heads back to the locker room for its pregame meeting. Lachelle ‘Unga waits with her two children for her husband Uani to pass by with the team. The few minutes she gets to see eye-to-eye with him before the game are the first since the night before and the last until after the game. Uani gives his family his love and then heads back with the Cougars to prepare to take the field.

‘Unga has been married to his wife, Lachelle, for three years. Together, they have two children ages 2 years and 8 months. Between school, football and a family, ‘Unga must juggle being a student-athlete, a husband and a father.

“This is the least amount of time I have ever spent with my family,” ‘Unga said. “Usually when I get home, it’s about time for them to go to sleep. I get to put them to sleep, and then I’m gone before they wake up.”

With responsibilities competing for his time, ‘Unga takes his role as a husband and father very seriously and does everything he can to make sure his family is taken care of.

“The last two years, with having a family, he has balanced working with everything else,” linebacker coach Paul Tidwell said. “He has done a lot of work for his father-in-law and had a job during the off season. So I know he’s a hard worker and is doing everything he can to provide for his family.”

Weekends have been dedicated as family time at the ‘Unga residence. He appreciates Friday games, because it gives him the opportunity to spend Saturdays with his family rather than preparing for a game.

According to ‘Unga, since he has had a family his mind has not been as free during a game as it once was. He often worries about his family and attempts to manage as much time with them as possible around game time and game preparation.

“I have been balancing both family and football, and have learned how to block out distractions in a game,” ‘Unga said. “But I love it because when I’m done here, I have a family to go home to rather than a bunch of roommates.”

‘Unga met his wife while visiting Utah before college. They decided to head to Corvallis, Ore., together while ‘Unga played football for Oregon State. The couple was married soon after, and spent about seven to eight months in Oregon while ‘Unga completed two seasons as a Beaver.

It was in Corvallis where they found out that she was expecting their first child. ‘Unga spent the majority of his time going to school and playing football, which left Lachelle spending time alone or with the few friends she had in her new home. The time spent alone while pregnant, paired with the distance from her family became too much for Lachelle.

To help ease the situation, ‘Unga proposed that they move back to Utah so that she could spend time with her family while he played football and finished school. He explained the situation to his coaches at OSU, and headed back to Utah with his wife. 

“It was hard on [the OSU coaches], but they understood,” ‘Unga said. “They really care for their players, and it was hard leaving them, but basically the move was for a better situation for my family here at BYU.”

But ‘Unga didn’t move to Utah with a secured position on the BYU football team. Without contacting any schools prior to the move, ‘Unga made a risky decision to leave OSU before making any other prior arrangements.

“When we got here, I could have been school-less for the rest of my life, and no one could have given me a chance,” ‘Unga said. “As soon as we got here, I started looking online for phone numbers and started calling coaches.”

‘Unga contacted Utah State and BYU to set appointments with the coaches. But he never made it to the Utah State appointment. His BYU appointment was first, where he met with BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall and inside linebacker coach Tidwell. Mendenhall immediately gave ‘Unga the chance to prove himself and earn a position as a Cougar.

“I asked coach [Mendenhall] if he needed to see any film, and he didn’t want to see any film at all,” ‘Unga said. “He told me that he didn’t need to see any film because he could tell within five minutes of watching me if I could play football.”

The spring season came around, and ‘Unga didn’t know it at the time, but on his first day of practice Mendenhall had been eyeing him. Soon after, he was offered a spot on the BYU football team as an inside linebacker. 

Playing for BYU has helped mold ‘Unga into the player that he is. After redshirting and playing a season without a start behind senior Uona Kaveinga, his practice and effort landed him a starting position.

“I think I’m a better player here at BYU than I was at Oregon State,” ‘Unga said. “I don’t know if that has to do with maturity, time, or coaching, but effort is Mendenhall’s heart, his world, and so I have put more effort into everything here at BYU than I ever have in my life, and I think that’s what has made me the player I am today.”

And the return has been great for BYU. ‘Unga had his “breakout game” against Virginia, where he had 10 tackles and played through a spasm in his rhomboid muscles. He recorded a career high and tied a school record (with Kelly Poppinga in 2007) of 17 tackles against Utah State. He tied that record again with 17 tackles against Boise State and now leads the team with a total 86 tackles as of the Boise State game. With just 32 tackles to go and four games left, he is on track to break the BYU season record of 116 tackles set by Aaron Francisco in 2003.

Even prior to his great performance on the field, his teammates voted him captain along with defensive teammate Daniel Sorensen and offensive captains J.D. Falslev and Skyler Ridley. ‘Unga, though the quiet, lead-by-example type, has been a great leader and influence to the team. Mendenhall recognized ‘Unga for his leadership on and off the field on the IMG Coaches Show.

“He has a real nice leadership role on our team and on our defense but also within our Polynesian players,” Mendenhall said. “And that, for a program like us that traditionally has the second most besides Hawai’i, is great to have an upperclassmen our younger guys can look to and say, ‘That’s what it looks like to be a good student, a good husband, a good parent, and a good player.’”

Among the defensive team, ‘Unga has earned the respect of his teammates to be named captain. According to Tidwell, ‘Unga puts in extra effort in the weight room and in his off-season conditioning that has set the bar for the younger players.

“I think the most important thing he has done to help our team is his off-the-field example,” Tidwell said. “He’s really just taken a group of younger guys and has molded them without saying anything. His leadership has been priceless to the team.”

After being named captain, ‘Unga was both shocked and humbled by the decision of his teammates. Thinking that only the typical, in-your-face kinds of linebackers would be chosen to lead the team, ‘Unga was least expecting of the title.

“I don’t think that I’m the typical, middle linebacker, tough, ‘argh’ kind of guy,” ‘Unga said. “I didn’t think that anyone would ever vote for me, at all. We had just got back from player-run practices, and I wasn’t out there yelling, ordering, or trying to be the coach and run the drills.”

In his on-the-field presence, ‘Unga is tough and physical and helps set the pace for the rest of the defense. His hard work off the field is clearly visible and pays off as soon as the ball is snapped. His self-motivation and natural instincts make him an incredible football player who requires little coaching. On the sidelines, Tidwell collaborates with ‘Unga for questions and game planning, but is at ease knowing that he is a smart football player who doesn’t make too many mistakes.

“I don’t think coaches can make a player,” ‘Unga said regarding his success. “I think it has to be done before players get here. They recruit potentially great players and then are the instruments to bring out the player in that person. For me, the coaches have done exactly that, they have brought the player out in me.”

He might be exactly right. Considering the ‘Unga family tree, the men seem almost bred to play football. All six brothers have played or are playing football. His twin, Feti, played middle linebacker at Oregon State with Uani, where he finished his career. The oldest brother, Paul, played defensive end at Arizona State and cousin, Harvey, has played for the Chicago Bears. Older brother, J.J., currently plays in the NFL for the Baltimore Ravens. Uani’s younger brother, Tui, is a sophomore at Fresno State and his youngest brother, Christopher, is a high school senior who hopes to play at Arizona State with twin ‘Unga cousins who are freshmen. (open jpg file below or here.)

For ‘Unga, the next step is the NFL. With a bright future in football, he hopes to make it among the other talented ‘Ungas who have played professionally. With his record-breaking performances, ‘Unga has already been impressive to NFL scouts. In the first “BYU Football with Bronco Mendenhall” show of the season, Mendenhall acknowledged ‘Unga’s NFL potential.

“Uani will play great for us this year, and I believe if he wants to play, he will play after BYU,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think that’s a stretch. That’s just what’s going to happen. He has the size and the speed, but also his work ethic and presence. Teams want those kinds of things. There were six NFL scouts at practice today, and they all left very impressed.”

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