The Tao of Setema Gali is learning how to bounce back
The former BYU and New England Patriots defensive end has a knack for knocking folks down. But after facing financial ruin, he’s learned how to stand back up
“I get that every single day,” Gali says with a smile and a laugh that could land him his own roles in Hollywood. After weeks diving deep into his life story, I realized that if Gali ever does star in a movie, it probably ought to be his own.
The former Brigham Young University Cougar and New England Patriots defensive end made a name for himself knocking people over. But since winning a Super Bowl with Tom Brady and the Patriots 20 years ago this week, Gali’s been on the receiving end of some heavy blows, including the prospect of financial ruin. Since then the lesson of his life has been focused on getting back up.
As a young man, Gali’s father followed his faith from Samoa to Brigham Young University-Hawaii with nothing but hopes and dreams. He soon met and married his wife and before long, they’d moved to the mainland. The family eventually settled in Utah County, and Setema was born in 1976. But by the time he hit the fourth grade, his parents had seven children and one broken marriage.
They divorced when Setema was 9.
“When I found out, I just cried like a baby,” Gali tells me during one of our recent calls. “Pretty soon my mom was out of the house with my younger siblings. And my dad had the older kids and worked all the time. We basically woke up, made our food, walked to school, came home, did our own thing, and went to bed. We lived a year like that with basically no parents.”
“We basically woke up, made our food, walked to school, came home, did our own thing, and went to bed. We lived a year like that with basically no parents.”
Gali would later learn his father immersed himself in work to avoid the pain of divorce and the impact the split had on their family. “I realized it was just how he needed to cope,” he says. “And actually I learned a lot from their marriage and divorce. The good and the bad. I knew exactly the kind of marriage I wanted when my time came.”
Despite this tumultuous season of his life, Gali watched his parents work tirelessly to provide opportunities for him and his siblings. Despite the pains of divorce, their parenting had been successful.
After a few years playing pee-wee flag football with his older brothers and cousins, Gali’s first true taste of the gridiron came in the seventh grade. But even with pads and helmet, he tells me, he was still thinner than a stick of licorice. Still, the boy with dreams of playing in then-Cougar Stadium had visions that couldn’t be dulled by a tape measure or scale.
Gali recalls running until he lost his lunch and dreading games so much he prayed that coaches wouldn’t put him on the field. He was small, not particularly athletic, and often wanted to just hang up his boyhood cleats. But he also detested the idea of quitting.
Over the next couple of years, he grew. And he went from being a boy praying to stay on the sidelines to a man being dragged from weight rooms when the lights went off. As his confidence rose, he meticulously tracked his goals in a red journal that today remains a prized possession.
He wanted to star in high school, earn a scholarship to BYU and play in the National Football League.
More importantly, he wrote about the woman he wanted to marry. “Independent, smart, beautiful, athletic, spiritual and musical.” His goal was a forever family and a marriage where he and his wife could lean on each other.
The first quarter
His red journal was clear: He wanted to play at BYU. But recruiters from Hawaii, Utah, and Wisconsin all made plays for the young man who’d become more than just an All-American and All-State athlete, but also a regular on the honor roll and student body president at Mountain View High School.
As much as Gali had learned to love football, his faith meant even more. As expected, he chose BYU and after a redshirt year learning the complex world of major college football, he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Gali’s two years in the Micronesia Guam Mission humbled him. After early language struggles, a sea of tears, and adapting to poverty and conditions he’d never imagined, he became fluent in Chuukese and served all across Micronesia in places like Chuuck, Palau, Saipan and the Marshall Islands.
Back home, Gali returned to BYU and resumed his drive to become a starter. But before he’d played a single down, he’d endured his first shoulder surgery. Then two games into the season, playing special teams, he was rocked and suffered a serious concussion and fractured leg.
After the season he needed his second shoulder surgery. Gali played his sophomore year, but was continually plagued by injuries and a third shoulder surgery awaited at season’s end. “Looking back,” Gali says, “I learned so much from the setbacks. I think if we let them, they can serve and strengthen us. The adversities refine us.”
“Looking back, I learned so much from the setbacks. I think if we let them, they can serve and strengthen us. The adversities refine us.”
Finally, during Gali’s junior year things clicked. He’d earned his spot as a starter, met a personal goal of 10 sacks, and was named a second-teamer in the Mountain West Conference. He was voted a team captain and appeared on the official team poster his senior year.
Then once again, between seasons, he needed shoulder surgery.
“What could I do?” Gali muses. “I just faced a lot of adversity. That’s part of life.”
Determined to meet his goals and impress future NFL teams, he played his senior year in 2000 through pain and injuries and cemented himself as the defensive leader. He was named to the All-Mountain West Conference First Team in addition to a host of other honors.
Though he wasn’t drafted, several NFL teams were interested. His red journal dreams of playing at the highest level were finally within reach.
The second quarter
Gali was in the best shape of his life. His shoulder was strong after his fifth surgery and he had solid workouts with the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles. Gali will never forget the first phone call. “The Patriots called and said they were cutting a guy and wanted to bring me in right away. They were ready to sign me. And I said. ‘Great! I’m in.’”
Then a second call came. It was the 49ers with a similar story. “I’d hoped to play closer to home, to my family, so when the 49ers called it was tough.” It was an ideal setup — a West Coast team he’d known and loved for years.
“My heart knew I couldn’t do it though. I hadn’t signed a contract, but I’d given my word to the Patriots.” Soon, he got a call from a 49ers executive who did his best to convince Gali that players change their minds all the time. “It’s business,” the man said. “You need to do what’s best for you, and that’s right here in San Francisco.”
Relying on prayer to make the right decision, Gali stayed true to his word and reported to camp in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The decision proved life-changing, and his rookie year ended with the 2002 Super Bowl, the first of the Tom Brady and Patriot dynasty.
“That moment was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Gali reflects. “It’s unreal. Grown men hugging and bawling and kissing one another on the cheek. It’s so special because we earned it; we put in thousands of hours of hard work, paid a price, and now we’re standing there living the dream we all had as kids.”
One year later, in constant pain and needing yet another surgery, Gali knew it was time to move on. But he’d retire with a Super Bowl ring and priceless memories.
“I remember one off day during the offseason I went to the team facilities early, 6 a.m., to get a workout in. Feeling all good about myself, right? And there’s Tom studying game film by himself. Again it’s not even off day during the season, it’s just empty, there’s nobody around but the guy who became the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time). I’ll never forget that.”
“And there’s Tom (Brady) studying game film by himself. Again it’s not even off day during the season, it’s just empty, there’s nobody around but the guy who became the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time). I’ll never forget that.”
Shortly after his official retirement from the NFL, Gali became involved in the real estate and mortgage business and his habits of hard work started paying off. Gali began making more money than he could ever imagine. And in 2005, he married his longtime best friend, Laina.
“She was and will always be my greatest gift and blessing,” he says.
Business boomed and Gali arranged deals worth tens of millions of dollars. He was riding high on ridiculous interest rates with new cars, big houses and bank balances that surpassed his NFL days.
Then, in 2007, he got a different kind of phone call. Gali learned that in a blink, he’d lost half a million dollars on a bad real estate deal in Florida. Relying on years of positive self-talk and affirmations, he convinced himself the setback and the looming economic crash wouldn’t touch him.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the next three years, Gali’s financial life collapsed in dramatic fashion. In less time than it took to accumulate his wealth, it was gone and replaced with crushing debt and depression. The family lost their home, their cars and most of Gali’s renowned self-confidence. When he was at his lowest, he even started having thoughts about suicide.
“These thoughts would pop in and out,” he says. “I mean, I’m getting kicked in the teeth and I think to myself how easy it would be to just end it.”
Thankfully, he never allowed those thoughts to grow, but the experiences created a sense of empathy. “I see now why some people end up there, at that place,” he explains. “I have a deeper understanding of how those pressures can lead people to that ending. The fear and stress. It’s so real. My heart is with them and their families.”
“I have a deeper understanding of how those pressures can lead people to that ending (suicide ideation). The fear and stress. It’s so real. My heart is with them and their families.”
In 2009, hungry and out of options, his wife Laina asked if he had the courage to do the unthinkable. “Setema, we need food, money for bills,” she said. “Will you sell your Super Bowl ring?”
Humbled but hopeful the sacrifice would save his family and restart his business, Gali boarded a flight for New York City. He sold the ring to a wealthy collector. The painful sale stopped the bleeding, but it didn’t heal the financial wound, and one year later, in 2010, the former All-American and Super Bowl champ stood in front of a judge in bankruptcy court.
After a year of getting by, he regrouped emotionally and rediscovered faith in himself. Right on schedule, the phone rang and a friend asked him if he was up for lunch. That meal at the Happy Sumo in Provo changed Setema Gali’s life once again.
The third quarter
Gali recalls the lunch as if it were last week, not last decade. “This guy was with Vivint and he’d pitched me on joining his sales team before, but I’d resisted,” Gali says. “But then, sitting in that restaurant, I just knew it was time to say ‘yes.’”
Soon he was in South Carolina knocking doors, 10 years older than most of his colleagues, but willing to outwork anyone. He’d been knocked down. He was ready to rise. “I knew I could get up once more,” Gali says.
Just as he had all his life, he studied and practiced. When others saw movies or took naps, Gali hit the streets. “I paid the price. I mean here I was knocking doors, totally humbled, rebuilding. I had a family to support and a new career to build.”
Remembering that first summer brings a wide smile to his face. “I was working so hard, sweating through my clothes, it was like training camps. One day, probably mid-July, I was sitting on this kind old lady’s couch selling her a system and I was so tired, but I knew I had to hammer through. So I did, then next thing I open my eyes and a full hour has passed. The woman says to me, ‘Bless you, you were so tired I just let you sleep. Let me get you some food.’”
Before he left he’d made a friend and a sale.
Fueled by faith in God and himself, Gali hit every goal he’d set and landed in the top 1% across the company. He later found tremendous success in other markets and soon was training others to do the same.
In 2013, while giving a church fireside talk in Iowa, he felt impressed to share his raw journey. “It was time to tell the truth. The whole truth, and let people see where we’d really been,” he says, reflecting on the moment. “They knew I’d played in the NFL and had these ideas about what I’d accomplished. But they didn’t know about the failures, the Super Bowl ring.”
He stood at the pulpit and bore his soul. “It was so liberating, so freeing to get that off my chest.” Later that year it was once again time for change. And in Setema Gali fashion, it began with a phone call.
The fourth quarter
Sitting in his car in California, Setema felt it was time to move on and begin his own venture. He was making money doing honest work and had not intended to make the change. “I’ve just learned no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how challenging, when it’s time to go, you go. That’s how you grow. You stretch yourself again and again.”
Still in the car, Gali called his wife and explained his thinking, “I told her I’d met some personal coaches and motivational speakers and that I just knew that was my next journey.” He told her it was time to tell their story in a bigger way, and hopefully to inspire people to learn the skills to get back up no matter how many times life knocks them down.
Gali began writing a book, pitching clients and developing his own coaching program. Today, he and his team coach clients from his base in Florida. “This isn’t about me anymore,” Gali says. “It’s about a team that’s building other teams. It’s about training leaders to lead. It’s about all of us helping one another back up.”
“This isn’t about me anymore. It’s about a team that’s building other teams. It’s about training leaders to lead. It’s about all of us helping one another back up.”
His life has changed, too, and has never been better. His parents remain close friends and are now both happily remarried. “It’s just amazing,” Gali says. “They live maybe 15 minutes away and we all have holidays together, meals, whatever. It’s all so good. So strong.”
He also reflects on the strength of his marriage with Laina: “It’s always been her. I’d be nothing and nowhere without her. She’s everything.” Today they share three sons: Zion, Izrael and Judah.
As he celebrates 20 years since standing on the field as a Super Bowl winner, everyone knows that Setema Gali has plenty of game left. While he might be deeply entrenched in his final profession as a coach and consultant, his journey feels like it’s beginning anew.
And as long as the red journal lives on, the man writing it will refuse to quit. I have to wonder if there isn’t at least one more goal left to scribble down that remains unfilled. “Star in my own life story.” And if Setema isn’t available when the cameras roll, there’s at least another actor who could pull off the part.