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Sione 'Jon Jon' Molisi may not look the part, but his grit and talent give East's offense versatility

East running back Sione Molisi jaunts past a slew of Highland defenders and into the end zone during a UHSAA football game in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.
East running back Sione Molisi jaunts past a slew of Highland defenders and into the end zone during a UHSAA football game in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.
Nick Wagner, Nick Wagner

SALT LAKE CITY – Standing 5-foot-6 with a shy smile that borders on embarrassment, Sione Molisi is the antithesis of intimidating.

But put a football in his hands, and the junior running back, who adds to his unassuming manner by using the nickname "Jon Jon," becomes a one-man wrecking crew.

“He’s like a little Barry Sanders,” said East head coach Brandon Matich. “He’s a little, tightly wound ball of muscle. He’s explosive; he’s small, but he’s physical and he’s very elusive. He’s a fun kid to be around. He has that ‘Ah, shucks’ look on his face, like he doesn’t understand the play, and then he’ll run 70 yards for a touchdown.”

Molisi hasn’t attracted attention, in part, because of his size and personality. But it’s also easy to overlook him because he lines up with the state’s leading rusher and last year’s 4A MVP, Jaylen Warren. And when a team has a running back who accumulates more than 2,800 yards (240 carries) and 35 touchdowns, it may seem like there isn’t a need — or room — for a guy like Molisi.

The top-ranked Leopards, however, run the triple option, and they’ve used 17 running backs this season. Molisi plays “A back” for the team, usually taking his place in the backfield with Warren, with a third back.

“He gives us an element we haven’t had,” Matich said. “We have two wings in Charlie Vincent and Jon Jon that really are perimeter guys who can go inside or outside, and we haven’t had that in the past. With Jaylen in the middle, people are so focused on him, it opens up a lot of things for Jon Jon, and (he’s) had a huge playoff run. … They’ve been thunder and lightening, if you want to use that cliché.”

The duo feels much more like a right hook and a jab to opponents. Molisi has 1,012 yards on 89 carries and 11 touchdowns. Three of those touchdowns have come in the playoffs and he’s had two games (against Maple Mountain and Skyline) in which he rushed for more than 100 yards on single-digit carries.

Molisi appreciates not only his success in the playoffs, but just the ability to play in the postseason after an ACL injury robbed him of last year’s championship experience.

“That was really hard for him,” Matich said of the knee injury he sustained in the team’s region finale at Woods Cross. “But he came back in six months, like Adrian Peterson. It was unbelievable. We babied him a little bit, bringing him back slowly. It took probably about a quarter of the season to kind of get his feet back under him, and for him to get the confidence you need after overcoming an injury like that. But he’s fully back now.”

When asked about what it was like to watch his teammates make that title run from the sideline. He shook his head and sighed. When asked if his pain was more physical or emotional, he said softly, “Emotionally.”

“I knew right away,” he said of the severity of the injury. The sound and the pain told him his injury wasn’t superficial, but it became a gut-punch when doctors told him he’d have to have surgery to repair his ACL. It was the promise of the football field that sustained him during the toughest stretches.

“It was painful, but I just moved on,” he said. “Right after the season, I wanted to get back into it.” As soon as doctors would let him, he did whatever he was allowed.

“I did therapy twice a day,” he said. “I wanted to get back on the field. Working out helped. Sitting around was the worst.” Molisi said when he was able to return to action, he felt an appreciation for the sport that he didn’t have before.

“It felt so great to be back,” he said.

Molisi is enjoying the success he’s had, but he said his favorite aspect of the game is his brothers, especially this year’s seniors.

“It’s been good, especially with our seniors,” he said of this year’s playoff run, which culminates with the team’s game against Springville on Friday at Rice-Eccles. “The bond we have, ever since we were little, and all coming up to high school, and they’re going to be leaving. I am going to miss them.” He said he learns from them by the things they do and the lessons they offer younger players. One of the best mentors, he said, is Warren.

“Just finishing runs, not taking any plays off and keeping my feet moving,” he said of what Jaylen’s taught him this season. “Just run. Don’t get taken down easily.” Football isn’t just a game for Molisi.

“It’s becoming a man,” he said of what he will take from his time on the field. “It’s the game of life. I love it. So I want to play it as long as I can.”

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports