PROVO — A nervous Isaiah Nacua made his way to BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s office in late January unsure of what the outcome would be. What he expected was a tough conversation with a stern coach who wasn’t exactly pleased with what had transpired between the two over the last year and half.
No, this wouldn’t be the first time the two had met in Mendenhall’s office, and Isaiah was sincerely hoping it wouldn’t be the last.
The first meeting was a happy occasion for all involved.
That meeting occurred in June of 2012 when both Isaiah and his brother, Kai Nacua, made their way to Mendenhall’s office to formally accept scholarship offers granted both of them.
Kai, who is a year older than Isaiah, went on to hold his commitment and signed with BYU in 2013. As for Isaiah, who eventually ended up signing with BYU, it was far more complicated.
Upon committing to BYU, Isaiah began receiving a lot of interest, as top prospects often do. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound lineman began hearing from most Pac-12 programs, including Arizona, Arizona State and Utah — all of whom eventually offered scholarships.
Isaiah, who has always been intent on doing things his own way, began to waffle on his BYU commitment as a result.
Doing as much didn’t sit well with his mother, Penina, but wasn’t unexpected.
“Of all my boys, Isaiah is the one who is a bit of a knucklehead,” Penina said. “He’s a middle child and has always been intent on figuring things out on his own and doing it his way no matter what we say. He brushes off what we tell him all the time and just has to do things his way. It’s just the way he is.”
Isaiah’s waffling certainly didn’t sit well with Mendenhall either, who called Isaiah into his office a few months later to level with him.
“He wasn’t happy with me,” Isaiah recalled. “I wasn’t being honest with BYU. I wasn’t telling them the truth and so we sat down and I was told that I was now undeclared with them, as far as they were concerned.”
According to Isaiah, that meeting with Mendenhall stung him, more than expected, but also set him on the path of wanting BYU for himself and not because of what others wanted for him.
The impetus placed on BYU for both Kai and Isaiah came as a result of their father's wish. The now deceased Lionel Nacua took his two eldest sons to a BYU camp right before his death and determined he'd do everything possible to have his sons join coach Mendenhall's program soon after.
After his death, Penina was determined to honor her late husband's wish for her sons.
Mothers know their kids better than anyone, and even though Isaiah had committed to BYU, she knew that commitment may not last. As mothers often are regarding their sons, she was right.
“It’s hard because you see what’s best for your kids, but I know Isaiah doesn’t like being pushed, so I stepped back and just prayed he’d figure things out for himself,” Penina said. “Even though he’s my tough child, he’s a great kid with a great heart.”
Shortly following Lionel’s death, the family decided to move from Las Vegas to Provo, which wasn’t an easy thing and something Penina describes as a “roller coaster of emotion” for all of them.
“Even though we’re LDS, none of us really liked Utah,” she says. “Isaiah and Kai really didn’t like the state growing up, but I felt strongly it’s where we needed to be and the best place to be for Isaiah specifically to find good influences and set himself on the right path.” The family moved within Timpview's boundaries where Isaiah’s talent aided greatly with the school’s eventual football 4A championship run last season. Isaiah wreaked havoc on both the end and the interior of the Thunderbird line and is considered by most Timpview coaches to be the best defensive end to pass through the program since current BYU defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi.
Isaiah is quick to credit Timpview coaches — particularly head coach Cary Whittingham — for his continued development.
“He’s a great coach and I love him,” he says. “It was an honor to play for him. I love his tenacity and everything about him.”
Despite Whittingham being the brother of current Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, Isaiah says he never felt pressured by his head coach to accept Utah’s offer.
At least as important as the influences inside Timpview’s program were the influences he found away from football. Most notable among those influences were former BYU players Gabriel and Spencer Reid, who are brothers.
“Gabriel Reid has been our bishop in the ward we moved into and someone who immediately took us in as family along with his brother Spencer,” Penina says. “Not having a father figure is tough for a young man, and both Spencer and Bishop Reid have helped become that type of figure for Isaiah.”
“Their influence has been a huge impact on my life,” Isaiah added. “Losing my dad and then having them step into my life filled that hole somewhat and helped me through the process. I don’t think I’d be here if not for them, and they definitely helped get me through a tough time and put me on the right path.”
That path included getting actively engaged in the LDS Church while gaining a desire to serve a church mission — something he hadn’t planned to do previously.
Isaiah informed his mother late last year of his mission plans, which both pleased and shocked Penina.
“I was like, ‘what, say that again? Did I hear you right?’” she says. “I was obviously overjoyed with the news, and more happy that he was doing it for himself. That’s the whole thing with Isaiah. He has to do things for himself, and not for anyone else. But when he figures out what he wants for himself he’s totally committed.”
Part of the equation of Isaiah’s transformation was a renewed desire to join BYU’s football program.
“I think that time away and Coach Mendenhall pulling my offer made me realize for myself that I truly wanted to be part of the program,” he says. “That’s why I was so nervous meeting with him again after everything that had happened.”
Meetings with Mendenhall don’t just happen, and Isaiah first had to reach out to BYU assistant coach Paul Tidwell to help broker that meeting. Tidwell listened to what the former BYU commit had to say and then encouraged Mendenhall to meet with him.
In the meeting, Isaiah found a typically straight-forward coach who didn’t mince words.
“I was expecting him to be that way after I’d been untrustworthy with them and with how I played with them throughout the process,” Isaiah says. “He was hurt, which I understood and told me he still didn’t know if he could trust me, but he said he’d give me the chance to build that trust.”
Building that trust involves proving academically eligible to join the program upon completion of his mission service. It’s something Isaiah is determined to do while proving to be everything Mendenhall expects of one of his players.
“BYU is what I want now, and I’m not going to let anything stand in my way of getting there now,” he says. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity Coach Mendenhall has given me to prove trustworthy to him. He didn’t owe me that, and I’m going to do everything I can to prove myself for him, my family, and for myself.”