LOS ANGELES — Xavier Su’a-Filo may look like a visitor when he runs into Rice-Eccles Thursday night in Bruin blue and gold, but the Pleasant Grove native couldn’t feel more comfortable on the Utes’ home field.
The field where the Utes will battle UCLA Thursday night also happens to be the scene of one of his favorite football memories.
In his senior season, Su'a-Filo helped Timpview High earn its third straight 4A state championship by blocking a punt that led to the game-tying touchdown. The T-birds went on to win a thriller, 34-28, over Cottonwood on the same field where Su’a-Filo will line up at left guard for the Bruins against the Utes.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said of Thursday’s game. “I will have a lot of family come to watch me, and I get to see the mountains again.”
Now a junior starting at left guard for the Bruins, Su’a-Filo, who was one of the most sought-after prep football recruits in the country, earning accolades and awards locally and nationally, said he could have easily been dressed in red (or BYU blue) were it not for an almost impossible to articulate feeling he had about playing at UCLA.
“I just felt like it was the right place for me,” he said in a telephone interview with the Deseret News on Monday. “I prayed a lot about it. I looked at the pros and cons, and I got a good feeling that I should go there. I don’t know 100 percent why. It was just the place I was supposed to be.”
Su’a-Filo was offered scholarships by dozens of schools, but the ones he was most serious about were LSU, BYU, Utah, USC and UCLA.
“Coach Whittingham is an awesome guy, very classy,” said Su’a-Filo of being recruited by Utah. “They were definitely in the race.”
He didn't announce his decision until national signing day, and not everyone understood his choice.
“When he first told us UCLA, my initial reaction was, ‘I’d rather you stay here and go to BYU or Utah,’ ” said his father, Ifi Su’a-Filo, who played at Ricks College. “For some reason, we felt really good about it. We knew he put a lot of thought and prayer into the decision. We really wanted him to decide because we didn’t want to influence him, have him go some place we wanted, and then have him be unhappy.”
Ifi Su’a-Filo has seen that happen with other players, and it never ended well. Xavier’s passion is football, and his talent and drive have always made him a special player. So in choosing a college, the Su’a-Filos knew he had to find the place he felt would help him on his journey to try and play in the NFL some day.
UCLA did not look like that kind of place in 2008.
Consider what both BYU and Utah were accomplishing that fall as he contemplated his football future. The Cougars had beaten the Bruins 59-0 in Provo and the Utes finished their second perfect season in four years and a shocking upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
The Bruins, however, finished 4-8 with a loss to USC.
Su’a-Filo explained to his parents that the choice was really more a matter of what he felt than what he could explain. And they understood.
His father felt that if he was destined for the NFL, any of the schools in his top five would help him get there.
“It was more of a strong impression that it was the right situation for him,” said Ifi. “And it really has been the right situation for him. He wanted to go on a mission, and it was important for him to go to a place where he could get on the field right away and show people he could play. … And that community has really embraced him. They love him."
Xavier Su’a-Filo became the Bruins’ first true freshman to start a season-opener on the offensive side of the ball. He earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention and was second-team freshman All-American by Phil Steele, as well as Sport News Pack-10 all-freshman team.
While Su’a-Filo’s always wanted to play in the NFL, he’d also dreamed of serving a mission for the LDS Church. So, just weeks after finishing his first season of college football, he left for his LDS mission in Alabama and Florida, where he learned to speak Spanish.
“My mission was awesome,” he said. He never regretted leaving school — or football — to share his beliefs with others.
Just a month before he returned home from his mission, UCLA fired the coach who recruited him — Rick Neuheisel. When Jim Mora was hired, he saw Su’a-Filo as so important to the program’s future he spent an hour on the phone with him the night he arrived home. The next day, Mora flew to Utah to meet with Xavier to ensure he was still committed to the Bruins.
Once again, Su'a-Filo said he simply felt UCLA was the place he needed to be, even though it looked like a program in turmoil.
“Even when I was a freshman, a lot of things happened, and I wasn’t exactly sure why,” he said. “And I was confident that I could go in and compete anywhere as a freshman. But I did want to go in and compete, especially with me going on a mission.”
He said he’s never doubted his decision, and just recently he’s seen evidence of why UCLA was the right place for the Utah County boy.
“Last season, I feel like I was really blessed, and I finally understood how fortunate I am to be here,” Su'a-Filo said. “I always try to make the most of this opportunity, and I’ve met some people, became close to some people, who’ve affected my life. They’ve been very helpful to me, very positive influence on me. One of them was on the football team, and one has been my church leader.”
Su’a-Filo’s trip to Rice-Eccles Thursday will be the only time his family gets to see him play a college game in Utah.
“It will be very nice,” said Ifi Su'a-Filo, who traveled to California to watch every UCLA home game when his oldest son was a freshman.
Unfortunately, his immediate family has a conflict as Xavier’s younger brother, Wilson, will be playing for Timpview in Spanish Fork Thursday night. Despite Xavier’s insistence that his parents focus on Wilson, the family will try to make both games.
A close-knit family, the 22-year-old cherishes opportunities to support his two sisters and only brother in their endeavors. Su'a-Filo was in Utah just a few weeks ago to watch Wilson play center for the T-birds.
“Because of my mission, I’d never seen my brother play (high school football) until about three weeks ago, the Alta game,” Xavier Su'a-Filo said. “It was awesome. He’s such a hard worker. I was just there to support him, and I wanted him to know I’m proud of him.”
Su'a-Filo is still unsure what he will major in at UCLA, favoring history at the moment. But neither he, nor his family, ever question his decision to play for the Bruins.
“He chose the situation that’s best for him,” said Ifi Su’a-Filo. “He told me, ‘Dad, I’m going to use football to accomplish my goals. I’m not going to let football use me.’ And when you look at the different schools and offers he had, and you look at the programs now … I couldn’t say he would be in a better position, even at Utah or BYU.”
Xavier Su'a-Filo has never wanted to simply be the best player on any team. He’s always sought to know how he measures up against the best — anywhere.
“He’s one of those kids who needs to know how he matches up,” said Ifi Su'a-Filo. “Is he the best? We spent a lot of time taking him back East, to Texas, to see how he matched up. … He’s always been one who welcomes challenges. He’s one who learns from it as well.”
Xavier Su’a-Filo said his focus this week will be to help the Bruins (3-0) stay undefeated. While he doesn’t keep in touch with a lot of players on Utah’s roster, he is looking forward to seeing Utah tight end Jake Murphy, who played at American Fork High.
“It’s going to be a good, tough game,” said Su’a-Filo. “I have a lot of respect for Utah, a lot of respect for coach Whittingham and what they do there."