Editor’s note: First in a two-part series.

Top recruit Max Prep All-American and 5A MVP Siale Esera will be present and accounted for when BYU begins its inaugural season in the Big 12.

The Timpview High four-star recruit is a powerful, quick linebacker who can topple blockers and devour running backs one minute, and lay his head on his mother’s shoulder on the living room couch the next.

“He is about 6-foot-3 and is 245 pounds. He moves like he’s 200 pounds. He really flies around and he loves contact, but again, he’s so quick laterally and in a straight line, linear he’s just as fast.” — BYU linebackers coach Justin Ena on Siale Esera

But don’t mistake his kindness and sensitivity for weakness. He wants to collide with people and make them feel it.

A softhearted 18-year-old man-child, Esera is articulate, polite and a natural-born leader. He’s been chosen as a team captain in almost every athletic endeavor he’s ever attempted. One of his favorite books is Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” an ancient text that he has studied and marked up with quotes like, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

Esera, a key signee in BYU’s class of 2023, has been at the top of Kalani Sitake’s board since he was in the eighth grade. He will report to BYU’s conditioning camp on June 26 and plans on competing for playing time.

That’s good news for linebackers coach Justin Ena, who just went through spring practice with two of his top linebackers, Max Tooley and Ben Bywater, out due to surgery recovery and rehab.

“Siale was a freak of nature when he was young,” said Ena, who was at Utah State working for Gary Andersen when young Esera came to Logan to play in a basketball tournament as an eighth grader.

Just days before, while attending a BYU football camp, he was offered a scholarship by Sitake.

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The thing is, he hadn’t played a down of organized football in his life. His first love is basketball and since he was always one of the tallest in his class through elementary school and junior high, he easily made a Utah traveling AAU team. By design, his mother Pam and father Peter had banned him from playing tackle football until his freshman year of high school.

Siale was in Logan just days after the BYU offer. Ena and Andersen were watching Esera play hoops in the tournament and approached him to come watch some of their football camp. He did. Ena offered him a scholarship on the spot. 

Esera, Ena come full circle 

The following fall, as he began playing football for the first time, scholarship offers came flooding in to the Esera house through mail and phone calls.  

Why? He was big, he could move and he was smart. He learned fast. “I’d just put him on one side or the other of the defense and the offense would run a play the other way. He had that kind of impact,” said Timpview coach Donny Atuaia. 

“He has size and he is fast. That combination made him a threat for any kind of offense. He had some great coaching this year where he got to a point he was really comfortable. He has experience putting his hands on the ground and we used him there (lineman) when needed. He’s a team player to be honest, he played wherever we needed him to play.

“He was raw when he came out and I had to show him where to go but he caught on very fast,” said Atuaia.

Offering Esera, said Ena, was “a no-brainer.” Yes, even if he had not witnessed him playing a football game,

“I knew he would be a Power Five-type athlete. There was no doubt in my mind by the way he moved, his stature. It was easy for me to just kind of say, ‘Hey, I know you are only an eighth grader but when the time comes, I’d love to coach you.’”

Ena will get that chance this fall after joining Jay Hill’s defensive staff at BYU. “Things just worked out so I will get to coach him five years later. It’s a huge lesson for me and he’s such a great kid.”

Esera is listed as an edge linebacker but he could play inside. On signing day, BYU coaches declared he could be used anywhere in the defensive front seven.

Size, speed stood out

What did Ena see in Esera five years ago that became evident as a high school junior and senior when recruiting battles heated up?  

“He’s very athletic for his size,” said Ena. “He is about 6-foot-3 and is 245 pounds. He moves like he’s 200 pounds. He really flies around and he loves contact, but again, he’s so quick laterally and in a straight line, linear he’s just as fast. He’s a pure athlete in a form where you’re thinking he’s too big but then you see how he moves. He’s also very smart.”

Ena said he doesn’t know what Esera’s 40 time is yet, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it is in the 4.6-second range.

Esera has been hanging around BYU’s spring practices, sticking his nose into everything Ena is doing, soaking things up in preparation for when he officially is allowed to work out with the team.

In other words, Esera is already plugged in before his freshman year in the Big 12. He would be the biggest linebacker on BYU’s roster if enrolled today.

To keep in shape, he is working with Mike Stroshine, a personal trainer and brother of Dave Stroshine of StroPerformance. According to his father, Peter Esera, Mike has been working with Cougars Puka Nacua, Kingsley Suamataia and Noah Sewell (Oregon).

“I’m just working out with a few guys during the week trying to drop a little weight and build muscle,” said Siale.

“Some coaches say that the only worth a football player has is on the field. If you can’t be on the field, you have no way to help the team. I just have to keep myself healthy enough to be available to play. That’s my main focus right now.”

Humble, deadly

Enter the Esera home in Provo and chances are you will be greeted at the landing or the top of the stairs by a fierce-looking, bug-eyed Great American bulldog named Zuko. He is named after Nickelodeon’s animated cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” character Prince Zuko. Thing is, this pet is a big loving furry box of muscle.

Vickie Esera, the younger sister of Siale, describes her big brother off the field as, well, kind of somebody like Zuko. “He’s just a big teddy bear. He comes home from a football game and goes over and lays on mom on the couch without his helmet.”

In the Samoan language, Siale is Charles. It is his father’s middle name.

Growing up in an extended family full of athletes, cousins and neighbors, Peter and Pam watched their son play flag football on Donny Atuaia’s youth league team. Everyone thought he should play on the line because of his size. 

Then they had him run the ball and nobody could catch him. When all these friends and cousins decided to play tackle football, the parents had conversations about CTE (injuries to the brain). After a lot of discussions with a doctor, they decided Siale was big enough and skilled enough that he didn’t need to play tackle football before his freshman year in high school.

A young Siale Esera decked out in BYU gear. Even though he was a big kid, he dazzled observers with his speed during his flag football-playing days. | Esera family

They decided they’d keep him playing basketball on a traveling AAU team in national tournaments all over the country at Adidas and Nike events. There would be time for contact later. Siale was a key cog on championship AAU teams in the seventh and eighth grade coached by Ronny Ross.

“Football is the sport I’ve always wanted to play, but was unable to play until the ninth grade because of my dad. My parents didn’t want me to get hurt, so they wanted me to wait until high school when it really counted.

“I grew up watching all my cousins play little league football, stuff I always wanted to play, so I grew up thinking of basketball as my first sport. Man, I love basketball so much that it kind of took the spotlight away from football.”

But as things turned out, it was his play on the basketball court that drew the attention of BYU and Utah State, his first Division I offers. Within a few weeks of playing football as a ninth grader, he began having offers from all over the country including schools from the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12.

His ability to chase down running backs and receivers, get pressure on QBs and impact an offense from multiple positions on the defense drew a lot of attention fast. Atuaia said Siale started playing with limited knowledge of what to do that evolved into him becoming an elite impact player.

Linebackers Coach Justin Ena, talks with his players after the BYU Cougars football practiced in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. Ena first offered Saile Esera a scholarship when he was a member of Gary Andersen’s staff at Utah State after seeing him play basketball as an eighth-grader. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

His freshman year he was named to the Max Prep All-America Team and was invited to the Under Armour All-America and All-Poly Bowl. By the time his senior year came around, he was traveling to all-star football camps all over the country. His parents were more than willing to pump money into travel to support opportunities to show his skills, something that could have led to a five-star designation as a recruit. But Siale said he didn’t need that — he was OK where he stood and with what he had accomplished. He didn’t need any more marketing or exposure.

What does he like about football? Well, Siale can hit people without getting called for a foul or getting in trouble.

“I think hitting people and not getting in trouble is kind of fun,” Siale said.

“The other thing is when you start hitting and playing and winning, it is a great feeling knowing you have put in all that work before the season, during the season, all the practices and time and to have it rewarded with wins gives a great self-satisfaction knowing you had a place on the field and it is paying off.

“That’s how I fell in love with the game. When I first started playing I had never felt anything like it in my life. I encourage other people to experience that, no matter what the sport, because once you find that feeling, there’s no going back. There really isn’t.”

This past fall, Siale did his part to lead Timpview to the 5A championship title game, a triple-overtime loss to undefeated Lehi.

Part 2: Siale Esera discusses NIL and recruiting.

Siale Esera fast facts

6-foot-3, 250 pounds | LB | Provo, Utah | Timpview High School 

  • Rated a four-star recruit by Rivals.com/247Sports.
  • Ranked the No. 46 edge prospect in the nation (247sports).
  • Ranked the No. 4 overall prospect in Utah (247sports). 
  • Polynesian Bowl selection. 
  • ESPN Under Armour All-American LB MVP.
  • Two-time Rivals 5 Star Defensive MVP.
  • Earned 2022 5A Defensive Player of the Year honors.
  • Awarded 2022 5A Linebacker of the Year recognition. 
  • Named to Deseret News Utah 5A All-State First Team.  
  • First-team All-Region and All-Valley selection.
  • Recorded 76 tackles, two sacks and an interception in 2022. 
  • Helped Timpview reach Utah 5A state championship game (2022). 
  • Max Preps Junior All-American, Sophomore All-American, Freshman All-American.
  • Posted 43 tackles as a junior with 15 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, forced a fumble, had two recoveries.
  • Recorded 20 sacks in high school with 31.0 tackles for loss.
  • Also recruited by Arizona, BYU, Cal, Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Tennessee, UCLA, USC, Utah, Utah State, Virginia, and Washington State.
  • Parents are Peter and Pamela.