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USU football: Ricky Ali’ifua, now a vocal leader, balances school, football and family

Utah State senior defensive end Ricky Ali'ifua (center) fires up his team prior to the Aggies' game against Arkansas State earlier this season.
Utah State senior defensive end Ricky Ali'ifua (center) fires up his team prior to the Aggies' game against Arkansas State earlier this season.
Rick Parker, USU Athletic Media Relations

Utah State had just walked off the field for the final time in 2015 and filtered into its locker room at Boise State’s Albertsons Stadium, fresh off a 23-21 loss to Akron in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

For 21 seniors, it was the final time they suited up for the Aggies. But for one player, who would be returning to Utah State the following season, he spoke up.

Defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua, who at the time was not known for his vocal leadership, lit into his team.

“It hurt him to the core and sometimes it takes something like that to happen before people start to figure out that there is more we can do,” said Utah State assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Frank Maile. “He’s done a great job of finding a way to do it and bringing our unit together defensively, and also the defensive line. It’s a pleasure for me to coach him and I love everything about him.”

With the loss to Akron, the Aggies finished the season at 6-7, marking the first time they had finished below .500 since former head coach Gary Andersen's second year at the helm in 2010.

“I looked around the locker room and saw who was in there,” Ali’ifua said of his speech. “I saw how many talented players we had on our squad. There was so much potential and so much talent, and I felt like the record that we had didn’t reflect the talent we had in the room. It was unacceptable and I was overwhelmed with disappointment, mostly in myself, but also in the team and how some people carried themselves. I just felt it was something the team needed to hear from the players and not from a coach.”

The best part about Ali’ifu’s post-game speech was that it was not planned.

“I’m not even that type of person to do that kind of thing,” Ali’ifua said. “It just kind of hit me and I had no control. I wasn’t going to hold back because I felt it too strongly.”

One of those younger players Ali’ifua has already made a lasting impact on is sophomore nose guard Gasetoto Schuster.

“Ricky is more of a big brother than a teammate,” said Schuster, who was hosted by Ali’ifua on his official visit during his senior year of high school. “He looks out for me on the field, but more so off of it. What makes him such a great player is his leadership and knowledge of the game. Ricky is also extremely competitive and has a lot of passion for the sport.”

Another player Ali’ifua will always be there for no matter what is his actual little brother. Demytrick Ali’ifua is a freshman offensive lineman for the Aggies, and he’s thrilled to be sharing his first season in college with his big brother.

“It’s really special,” Demytrick said. “Being able to have my brother right here helping me through everything has been a blessing. I’m really lucky to be able to come into a place where he’s established a great name for himself and my family. I’m happy to pick up from where he leaves off.”

Both brothers seem to bring out the best in each other.

“He pushes me to be better so I can set a better example for him, so he sees what hard work looks like and what hard work will get you,” Ricky said. “I hope that I have the same effect on him that when he sees me he wants to go a little harder because he doesn’t want to disappoint.”

Through the first 11 games of his senior season, the 6-foot-2, 280-pound senior from San Leandro, California, has recorded 28 tackles, including 7.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, to go along with three quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and one forced fumble.

“Ricky comes to work every day and he’s focused,” Maile said. “He’s everything you want in a player, on and off the field. He’s explosive, he handles his business and he’s a low-maintenance guy, so I don’t have to worry about him. But, he’s also the guy that’s reaching out to bring up the younger guys and guys that need work. I don’t have to do it, so he makes my job easier.”

For his career, Ali’ifua has played in 50 games with 22 starts and racked up 98 total tackles, including 17.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks.

He’s hungry for more, though.

“I’m still not satisfied,” Ali’ifua said. “Any true competitor is never satisfied and they’re never content with what they’ve done. Whatever they do, they always feel that they can do more and that’s exactly how I feel. I’m working hard so I can leave with no regrets.”

Ali’ifua, who didn’t even begin playing football until his junior year at San Leandro High School, originally signed with Utah State in 2009, but did not enroll until the spring semester of 2013. Prior to arriving on campus, he served an LDS Church mission to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, from 2010-12.

The son of Mila and Ituala Ali’ifua isn’t your typical college student. Aside from his daily class schedule, he must also make time for football, as well as being a full-time husband and parent.

Ali’ifua married former Utah State volleyball player Tumua Etimani in 2014, and the couple has a 1-year-old son, Tavai.

“My wife and my son are my world,” Ali’ifua said. “There is nothing I do in this life where I don’t think of them or I don’t have their best interest in mind. They are definitely my driving force and the waves that push my boat. My son is great and I love to see him smile. I love to hold him and I love to hang out with him. Anytime I’m with my wife or my son, I can never complain and I’m always happy and always having a good day with them.”

The bond between Ali’ifua and his son is already a strong one.

“Whenever Tavai hears the door open he stops whatever he is doing and runs straight for it yelling his baby nonsense, but when he sees that it is Ricky he runs straight to Ricky with his arms open so he can be picked up,” Tumua Ali’ifua said. “It’s heartwarming to see. To go in depth of how much Tavai loves and misses his dad, one would have to see him from when Ricky walks out the door. Tavai will run to the door crying every time he sees Ricky leave and throughout the day I’ve caught him picking up a phone to talk to ‘dada’ or go to a window and open the blinds so he can stick his face in it and call for ‘dada.’

“Ricky is teaching our son how to catch balls and when our son comes up to him holding out a book he’ll stop what he’s doing to hold Tavai and read it to him. There are some people in the world that, try as they might, just aren’t meant to be fathers or family men. Ricky is not that type.”

His brother agrees with that assessment.

“Our family has always been there for each other no matter what and that’s how it’s always going to be,” Demytrick said. “Coming to Utah State really showed me how close we really are. He’s married and has his own family now, but no matter what, I know I can call him and he’s going to be there for me.”

Ali’ifua is majoring in family, consumer and human development. He is on track to graduate in the spring of 2017.

“It makes me very happy to see his hard work noticed,” Tumua said. “I see all the extra work he puts in. He is constantly watching film of himself and the other teams, eating right, doing extra workouts outside of practice and going over plays with his defensive line. He can be found doing homework with our son cuddled up next to him. He’s his own worst critic and mediocre isn’t good enough for him. He’s an amazing man and I love that others can see him and appreciate what he can bring to the table.”