PROVO — Sione Takitaki’s invite to the NFL Scouting Combine has come at the end of a long and bumpy road. It’s an achievement lined with faces who believed in him, a cadre of allies who never gave up on the mercurial, complex kid.
The combine runs from Feb. 26 through March 4. The portion that includes linebackers such as Takitaki will be Sunday.
The Takitaki story is one of inspiration. He’s a guy who could have fallen off the rails several times, but ended up earning a tremendous chance to better his résumé this weekend.
Back in high school, Takitaki collided with structure and struggled at school. He came to BYU hoping to find more support and be around positive people who could influence his decisions. But even then, he tripped up within weeks on campus, getting in a dorm fight that led to a suspension for a few days.
Takitaki was suspended again for breaking a team rule and was later dismissed from the team following allegations of theft of gear as a campus custodian in 2016. Eventually, he made his way back and became a team captain last August as a senior.
His 19 tackles in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl were the most by any player during the 2018 bowl season. After that performance, Takitaki was invited to the Senior Bowl, then the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
According to his one-time stepfather and relative Petelo Hifo, there was a day just over four years ago when Takitaki met with BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae, running backs coach Mark Atuaia and academic councilor Fui Vakapuna. They discussed three choices on the table.
Vakapuna told Takitaki that he had been where he’s been, but overcame the challenge. Takitaki could leave BYU and attend a military school, return to BYU’s team after sitting out, or transfer to the University of Utah, where defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake sent word through the grapevine that head coach Kyle Whittingham had a scholarship available when running back Harvey Langi transferred to BYU.
“I was almost ready to advise him to go to Utah that day,” Hifo said. “Although I am a longtime BYU fan, I thought if he was with Kalani Sitake there he would receive support and Kalani would watch out for him.”
There was support from Anae and the others, but if he left campus, what support would he get? That was the question.
“Kalani loves people. He wants to help them succeed and he will do anything he can to help,” Hifo explained. “People stay loyal to him a long time. He has that reputation.”
- Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Sione Takitaki (16) celebrates a stop against the California Golden Bears in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
- Sione Takitaki celebrates a sack for BYU against UMass, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Foxborough, Massachussetts. Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo
- Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Sione Takitaki (16) dives for New Mexico State Aggies quarterback Josh Adkins (14) in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
- BYU's Sione Takitaki and teammates celebrate a play on Saturday. Photo provided by BYU, BYU
Takitaki chose to remain at BYU and it was a decision that changed his life. In time, he met, dated and married BYU swimmer Alyssa Penney in the Salt Lake Temple in June 2016. Alyssa proved to be a powerful piece of the puzzle to Takitaki’s life, a miracle worker who helped make him a more complete human being.
At first glance, the couple seemed like opposites. Takitaki was rough, had tattoos, but inside had a heart of gold. Alyssa was saintly, devout in her faith and blessed with the inner strength to rise above the darker pools of this world.
“She is a major force in his life,” said Hifo.
But there are others in that line.
Hifo said he knew Takitaki would make it to the next level if he could stay on track. “He is such a hard worker and he has a work ethic. Coach Ed Lamb ended up coaching him at a critical time as a senior this past year.”
Hifo, who helped coach Takitaki in high school in Fontana, California, said Heritage High principal Julie Zierold, football coach Kraig Broach and athletic director Scott Moore were a great help to him.
“All of these people watched out for Sione. Defensive coordinator Tom Tello was a guy Sione gave nightmares. Over the years, he has found a way to get them tickets to see him play at BYU to thank them,” said Hifo. “He wanted to thank them and recognize them.”
At BYU, the line of those who have helped Takitaki is long, starting with Bronco Mendenhall, who recruited Takitaki and had to use carrots on a stick to get him to adjust. BYU president Kevin J Worthen, vice president Matt Richardson, athletic director Tom Holmoe and coach Sitake were others who made a big difference. “Also, Vakapuna was an unsung hero for Sione,” said Hifo.
“I’d like to say my wife Lesieli had a lot to do with helping Sione when he lived with us after his father passed away when he was in the eighth grade.”
But Hifo, like so many, says Sione’s wife Alyssa has had perhaps the biggest impact.
This past summer at BYU’s football media day in June, Takitaki credited his marriage as a major stepping stone in his life.
“She is an angel,” he said at the time. “I got lucky. I can go on for days about her. It’s been a night-and-day difference in my life. For a kid who had tons of problems like me, my wife is really religious and strong in the church. It’s been a blessing.
“I’ve so much time on my hands. I can get done everything I need to and I have such a strong support system at home. When I was single, I was all over the place. Now I can focus my time on what is important.”
If Takitaki were to point to one thing that has changed his life the most, it is his marriage to Alyssa. Her unyielding faith in her beliefs and standards and her establishment of a clear boundary for their relationship flipped a switch inside of him.
“When I leave BYU, I think the biggest thing I (will) take from this place is my eternal companion here,” Takitaki said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Despite Takitaki accepting a more gentle influential tweak to his rough edges, the fire that burns hot inside of him on the field has never waned. Since his days in high school, his intensity on the field has been a wonder to teammates and coaches. He is capable of going redline on his competition meter almost instantaneously.
It could be that BYU coaches will rewind and play film of Takitaki’s performance in his final game in Boise, just to display what it looks like to play at full speed — heart and feet — in a game.
Takitaki's stellar day was not lost on scouts. After his performance in the East-West Shrine Game, he received an invitation to the Senior Bowl. Following that week, the invitation to the combine came. Takitaki and fellow defensive player Corbin Kaufusi remain BYU’s best prospects for the NFL draft.
Surmised BYU receiver Dylan Collie:
“You look at the mentality of what it means to be a football player on the defensive side of the ball and very few, very, very few people do it like Sione Takitaki, and that’s a guarantee.”