OREM — Lionel Nacua didn’t have the luxury of a lifetime with his six children.
In fact, one of his youngest, Puka, only had 12 years to take advantage of his father’s wisdom, insight and advice.
But Penina Nacua said that was plenty of time for her late husband to plant seeds that are beginning to bear fruit in both expected and unexpected ways.
“Puka did have that,” Penina Nacua said of Lionel’s influence on their fifth child. “As Puka was getting older, playing football, my husband would always say, ‘I’ll take him to football.’ Even though he was working more and more, he’d make time to do pick up or drop off, and sometimes both.”
Lionel was Puka’s first Little League coach, he taught him how to break down film, and he predicted something about Puka that appears to be coming to fruition.
“I think that my husband planted the seeds in Puka at 9, 10, 11 years old,” Penina said. “Because while most kids are eating Fruity Pebbles and watching Sponge Bob cartoons or the Disney Channel, Puka never did any of that. He would watch ESPN, he’d watch all the football and basketball highlights because my husband planted the seeds already with Puka.”
About a year before his death in May 2012, Lionel Nacua whispered something to his wife that still makes her emotional.
“Puka is going to be the best one,” she recalled him saying. “Out of all my boys, he’ll be the best football player.”
That may have seemed, at the time, a weighty expectation to put on a young man who has three extremely talented older brothers. One played at BYU and has played with three different NFL teams, while another was a standout starter for Utah as the team won the South Division and played for its first Pac-12 championship.
That sentiment appears prophetic as Puka Nacua, who earns the title of Mr. Football 2018, finished his senior season as the top receiver in the country, averaging 166.9 yards per game with 26 touchdowns. The Army All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year is one of the most highly recruited players in the state, and while he committed to USC, he doesn’t plan to sign until February 2019 as he takes all five of his recruiting trips, including one to Utah on Dec. 7-9.
Puka, who is also a starter for the basketball team, also led the Tigers to a second straight 4A title with the kind of jaw-dropping plays, like converting a first and 44 into a touchdown, that have college coaches pursuing him relentlessly.
“I tell college coaches the reason you want to fight for this kid, obviously you can see what he’s done on the field, but his personality is so infectious,” said Orem head coach Jeremy Hill. “He’s such a good kid, quick-witted with a great sense of humor, loves life, loves to practice, and he’s a kid who is going to remain in your heart forever as one of your favorite kids you’ve ever coached.”
Hill cites Nacua’s athleticism, body control and football intelligence as traits that made him the best football player in the state.
“He’s like a player coach,” Hill said. “The stuff he sees, the covers and matchups, he’s always coming off the field saying, ‘This is what I see.’ There are actually times when he’s coming up with the fourth down play or giving us his input.”
When he talks to his players about legacy, Nacua’s is certain.
“He’s a kid who has left his legacy on Orem High School as the best player to ever come through here,” Hill said.
Even those talented older brothers admit to being impressed with the player Puka has become.
“His effort,” Utah wide receiver Samson Nacua said of what impresses him most when it comes to Puka. “I think he puts in more work than anyone I know.” He recounts a recent Sunday afternoon as evidence of his younger brother’s relentless desire to improve.
He’s such a good kid, quick-witted with a great sense of humor, loves life, loves to practice, and he’s a kid who is going to remain in your heart forever as one of your favorite kids you’ve ever coached. – Orem head coach Jeremy Hill
“My brother Kai came back into town, and we were just chillin’ with our fam and out of nowhere Puka comes up to both of us and says, ‘We’re going to Orem High. We’re going to get this work right now.’ Me and Kai were like, ‘Bro, it’s Sunday. We just ate.’ And he’s like, ‘No, we can relax later.’ So he took us to the field, and we got like an hour or two of work together. It was crazy.”
Hill met the Nacuas when they moved to Utah the summer after Lionel passed away in Las Vegas. Samson and Isaiah chose to attend Timpview, while Kai headed to BYU. Puka became friends with coach Hill’s son, and that connection led to the kind of friendship and support that helped heal the heartbroken young man.
“I always remind Puka, especially, even though Heavenly Father took dad, he put the right people in your path,” she said.
Penina told Hill what Lionel had predicted, but Hill admits it took some time for him to catch that vision.
“He worked out with us through the summer, and it wasn’t until we got into pads in the fall,” Hill said. “The way he moved, how he always knew where he was and what was going on, the intellect he had, even at that young age, that’s when I knew he was going to be playing on Sundays. I definitely knew he was special.”
Penina gets emotional when she thinks about how much joy Puka’s success would bring Lionel. She laughs as she recalls him picking up Samson and Puka from practices and taking them to get Slurpees while they talked about sports.
“I always knew my husband was talking to them, coaching them,” she said. Years after losing his dad, Puka tells his mom about things he needs to do “because dad said I need to do this.”
Penina knows that while his boys can’t physically see their father on the sideline, he is always with them.
“I know he can see,” she said, her voice choking with emotion. “If he could be here, be present, to really witness what he predicted back then has come to fruition, it makes me laugh and smile and just tickles my heart.”
And she and coach Hill agree, it’s not just because he plays the game so well he can almost single-handedly change a game.
“He is a great leader,” Penina said. “He’s a great person. I always tell my boys, ‘Football doesn’t define you.’ It’s been a means to help them get through college, help them get through life. … But I’m just living this out for my husband. It’s humbling to see Puka have all of this success.”