Sometimes he stares at the sea. Sometimes, between the resistance training and the sledgehammer slamming and the sand whipping he performs almost every other Friday on the cinnamon-sugar coast of Newport Beach, Penei Sewell stares in the direction of home. 

Four thousand, seven hundred and sixty-five miles from here, past the crashing surf and the shrill begging of seagulls, across the deep-blue churn of the mighty Pacific, across the very voyage he himself made all those years ago, is a place sort of like this one — a place he never wanted to leave. Everything the Sewells needed was there in American Samoa, but everything they dreamed of was not. For their faith to truly bless them, they reasoned, they needed to give it a better chance. So they moved to St. George, Utah, in 2012, their sights set on the future — the same way Penei’s are now.

Penei Sewell played college football for the University of Oregon. | Pascal Shirley for Deseret Magazine

Alongside a few dozen other NFL hopefuls — fellow signees of the Athletes First sports agency — he’s here in Southern California to sharpen his skills ahead of the big day: April 29. The NFL draft. That’s when, barring some unforeseen injury or undiscovered medical condition, Penei should hear his name called near the top. That’s the hope (and the projection), anyway. But he isn’t leaving anything to chance — or at least he’s leaving as little to chance as one can when the future depends on the whims of random evaluators and executives.

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His life is about to change in the way $20 million changes a 20-year-old’s life. That kind of money changes a person, no doubt about it. Suddenly you’re the success; you’re the one the kids are looking up to; you’re the one with the power to ensure your family lives in safety, in comfort. But with the draft approaching, his mother worries about the looming lifestyle overhaul. “People keep saying things are going to change,” she’s told him. “And I don’t want things to change.”

Sometimes, he can’t stare out into the ocean and ponder that, or anything else. Instead, he must retreat into instinct and run as he does today, stomping and scurrying up the shoreline. For over a decade, he’s poured his whole self into this goal, into this life he envisions. He’s won trophies and recognition galore; he’s sculpted his body and polished his mind; he’s played through injuries; he’s earned comparisons to Hall of Fame players; he’d have been the top pick in other drafts, analysts say. He’s anxious to find out where the unpredictable headwinds of the NFL draft will blow his life, and the moment is almost upon him. April 29. 

He’s not alone in fixating on that date. He knows they’re watching, because he watched. Not long ago, he was one of them, a child of American Samoa marveling at Troy Polamalu when he hosted a camp on the island. He’s about to step into that world, and into the responsibilities it entails. The Polynesian football legacy is a proud one. “We want Penei and all our kids,” says Vai Sikahema, the former BYU great and first Tongan to play in the NFL, “to represent who we are all the time.” It’s a blessing and a burden, but mostly a blessing. In the rich mosaic of Polynesian football tradition, he’s been offered a chance to chisel and glue a legacy of his own. It’s what he’s wanted since he first encountered this species of hero as a 5-year-old — a prime example of how football offers his people a new mythology of achievers and role models. And yet, it recalls once more the words of his mother: “I don’t want things to change.”

Penei’s strived his whole life for this change — for the opportunities the NFL will offer him, those he loves and future generations. But on this beach, staring out into the great blue wobble before him, his hooded T-shirt blocking the sides of his face, he remembers her words. He remembers them, too, each morning, when he glances at the photo displayed prominently on his dresser — the same photo his dad keeps on his nightstand. Sometimes, when he stares long enough, both the photo and the sea seem to stare back. 

The pink house

Penei was 5 when his family moved into the pink house. He was born in San Diego and spent his earliest years there, but he hardly remembers. The childhood he remembers, rather, was all in American Samoa, in that light-pink house with a rusted tin roof. Penei’s father, Gabe, remembers it as a “makeshift shack.” Gabe’s family built it when he was a boy, after a hurricane leveled their previous house. When his young family made it their home in 2005, there was no sink, so they washed dishes in the shower. Because of the flimsy tin roofing, “sometimes, when it rained, you didn’t even have to turn on the water (in the bathroom),” Gabe says. “It’d come right through.” There was just one bedroom, so the family usually slept together in the living room. “Wherever you found space at night,” Gabe says, “that’s where you’d lay your head.”

As a boy, Penei enjoyed playing hide-and-seek in the surrounding vegetation, or running up and down the hill in the backyard, or simmering onions in a pot of coconut milk and salt to make traditional Samoan sauce. “It was all so simple, and we just had fun with whatever was around us,” he says. His mom, Arlene, worked first with a telecommunications company and later as the financial aid director of American Samoa Community College. Gabe worked for the government under a U.S. grant until the grant was frozen and he was laid off — a casualty of American Samoa’s limited employment opportunities. Almost every job there revolves around tuna canneries or the government. As a result, many leave the islands with faith in finding material wealth elsewhere. “Faith,” Arlene says, “has been a cornerstone of our family.”

Faith is central to Polynesian cultures and has been since long before Christianity arrived. “I’ve never met one Polynesian in my life, with a lot of interaction over the last 40 years, who has been an atheist,” says Fred Woods, a professor of church history at BYU. “They’re just believing people.” Like Woods, the Sewells are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A lot of Polynesians are. Ranking countries by percentage of Latter-day Saints, the top five are found in the South Pacific. American Samoa ranks third, at over 30%. Many Latter-day Saints believe Polynesians are descendants of Hagoth, a seafaring man referenced in the Book of Mormon. As a result, the church has become an institution of consequence on the islands. And many prominent Polynesian football players — Manti Te’o and Haloti Ngata and Star Lotulelei, for example — grew up in the church. 

Penei with his parents, Arlene and Gabe, at his first game for the University of Oregon, in 2018. | Provided by the Sewell family

While rugby dominates as the top game in neighboring islands, American Samoa has taken to football. And as Polynesians of various nationalities have migrated to the U.S., football has fit right into their culture. “Polynesians have always gravitated to it,” says Ken Niumatalolo, head coach of the U.S. Naval Academy. “I think they love the physical contact of the game,” along with the adherence to authority. 

Football’s prominence in Polynesian culture has led many to pursue it as one potential antidote to the islands’ lagging economic opportunity. “It really has provided a bridge for education for a lot of young Polynesians,” says Kevin Kaplan, director of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. “This incredible platform has been built, and now it’s become this sort of great, unifying force in the Polynesian community. It showcases great men and develops heroes for kids.”

The 2014 Sundance documentary “In Football We Trust” calculated that Polynesians are 28 times more likely to reach the NFL than members of any other ethnic group — an assertion Sikahema has observed anecdotally. “At any Tongan reunion,” he says, “there’s bound to be a dozen guys who played football, and maybe three or four who played in the NFL.” The odds still aren’t good, though, and overreliance can become a problem. “It’s a double-edged sword for us as Polynesians,” Sikahema adds. “Many of us have used football to get to college, but it’s not the only way. … And many of our young men haven’t made the effort when they failed to get a football scholarship.” Luckily, Penei never had to worry about that. 

When Penei was a boy, Steelers star Troy Polamalu brought a cadre of teammates and Polynesian players to American Samoa for a football camp. They only worked out with the varsity players, though Penei was still watching. “I was just a little kid, running around, enjoying their presence,” he says. He already knew he wanted to play football. He’d known, he says now, “from the moment that I can remember anything.” But he also remembers that visit. And his dad remembers the visit’s impact. “I think that left a lasting impression on Penei and all my sons,” Gabe says. “They wanted to be the next guy.”

With Gabe coaching at a local high school, Penei and his brothers often showed up at his practices and played off to the side, their makeshift football — a plastic bottle filled with sand — warbling through the oceanside air. Penei quickly became so obsessed that his schoolwork sometimes suffered. At one parent-teacher conference, Gabe recalls, Penei’s teacher asked him to show his parents his notebook. He’d filled it with sketches of football plays. His parents couldn’t help but laugh. “Son, I like this,” Gabe told him. “If I can figure out how to get 13 guys on the field, I think we’re gonna win.”

But with the game growing roots in the family, two things happened. First, chronic chest pains besieged Gabe. Second, he realized his boys were talented — talented enough to make a run at college football, at higher education and at a better material life. Which isn’t to say they didn’t like their existence in American Samoa. Gabe and Arlene, like Penei, enjoyed the simplicity. They liked going to the beach two or three times a week, or indulging in a Saturday treat. “Going to McDonald’s on the weekend, or going to Carl’s Jr. — that was the thing,” Gabe says. But Gabe and Arlene also wanted more for their kids.

Penei, right, in American Samoa with his cousin Viliamu. | Provided by the Sewell family

For six months they contemplated and prayed and made multiple trips to the emergency room for Gabe’s chest pains. They viewed those ER visits as a (somewhat unconventional) sign from God, and they decided they needed to move in search of better treatment and better opportunities. They set a deadline for January 2012. They targeted St. George, Utah, because Gabe’s sister lived there, and because they liked the pace. 

Penei, then 11, didn’t want to leave. American Samoa, in his kaleidoscope eyes, was paradise. “I was really comfortable where I was as a kid. I didn’t wanna change that for anything,” he says. “I just knew at the time that American Samoa could be a home for me; just somewhere that I could be forever.” He didn’t yet understand his parents’ vision — a vision even Gabe was unsure of. 

As the family glided across the South Pacific bound for their new home, Gabe surveyed his children. He worried. After all, they were going to Utah with no jobs and no guarantees. But he found inspiration in their eyes. They were leaving the pink house behind, he reasoned, but part of it would stay with them. “It looked like they were ready to take it on,” he remembers, “no matter what.” 

The decision

Within a month of the move, Gabe registered his boys for football. Penei, starting in seventh grade, played two seasons of youth ball. He was different — his footwork was faster, he played harder and he seemed to understand the game better than his peers. He arrived at Desert Hills High School a year later standing 6-foot-3 and weighing nearly 300 pounds. Given his size, word about his potential began to spread. “A year or two into living in the States, I kinda realized what my parents were seeing,” he says, “and what kind of vision they had.”

As a junior, he started to dominate. In the Utah class 3AA state championship game against crosstown rival Pine View, coaches shifted him all over the offensive line to thwart defenders; if they wanted to run right, they moved Penei to the right. The running backs got the credit, but Penei had always liked that part of being an offensive lineman. It provided him with the anonymity he craved. He could protect others and serve others without drawing much attention to himself. “I just like going to work every day with teammates who know what I do,” he explains. “I don’t care about what everybody outside the room thinks.” But with his size and strength, he couldn’t help but stand out on occasion. Leonidas Jacobsen, who also played offensive line for Desert Hills, loved seeing him charge toward unsuspecting defenders on screen passes. “Watching a dude that big in high school move that well to make that block is just incredible,” he says. “That’s one of those things you’d just watch again and couldn’t believe.”

By his senior year, Penei stood at 6-foot-5 and weighed about 350 pounds. He tore his shoulder cartilage at a camp over the summer, but no matter, he played the entire season with (supposedly) limited use of one arm. Against Snow Canyon, another St. George rival, he pushed three defenders to their backs on one play to make way for his younger brother. Playing along the defensive line the next week against Bonneville, in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, he ran down a receiver on a screen pass while sprinting past defensive backs less than half his size. Desert Hills offensive line coach John Stokes can recall many similar plays, where Penei threw defenders into the sideline turf like bags of wet sand, but his favorite remains the legendary chokeslam. During an otherwise normal contest against Cedar City, the opposing coaches and players harassed Penei, telling him he wasn’t as good as his four-star recruiting rating. So Penei grabbed the opposing defensive end during a pass block, lifted him and slammed him to the turf with one hand. “I just took it upon myself to handle the situation on my own terms,” Penei says with a chuckle — and with enough diplomacy to make his PR team blush.

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When then-offensive line coach Mario Cristobal arrived at the University of Oregon in January 2017, fellow assistant coach Joe Salave’a showed him film of his “old neighbor’s son,” a prospect named Penei Sewell. It took three clips to convince Cristobal, who’d come from Alabama, that Penei would be his top priority of the recruiting class. He quickly called and offered a scholarship, to which Penei hardly said three words. If Penei worked hard, Cristobal promised, he’d be an All-American, a conference champion and an Outland Trophy winner — the best lineman in college football. Classic coach hyperbole in the moment, sure, but Penei was smitten. Here was a path, perhaps his best path, to the stability his parents envisioned when they moved to the mainland, along with a chance to etch his name into Polynesian football lore, to give back like his heroes had. Still, on signing day, four hats crowded his table: Utah, Oregon, Alabama and USC. 

Columns of yellow and black balloons framed his face. An American Samoa flag hung from the wall behind him, and three of his jerseys dangled from the table. He teetered back and forth as he tried to thank everyone who made that day possible. “Just ‘thank you’ I feel like doesn’t do it justice,” he said. His hands never left the pockets of his zipped-up hoodie, and it felt like he wanted to say more but couldn’t as the spotlight briefly shifted elsewhere. 

“We’ll move on to Penei,” coach Carl Franke announced moments later. “Of course, we’re all curious.” With the spotlight back on him, Penei hesitated. “Well, for the next couple of years, um … .” He paused. He deadpanned. “I’m sorry, before I say that, I didn’t thank everybody. I’m just too excited, I guess.” So he thanked his teammates, and he thanked his coaches, “And with saying that,” he continued, “for the next couple of years, I will be attending — Oregon University.”

He unzipped the hoodie, revealing a black shirt with a white “O,” and he placed the hat on his head, his man bun jutting from the back. About 700 miles away, Cristobal, the newly appointed head coach at Oregon, beamed. 

The recognition

Alex Mirabal, who Cristobal hired to take over as offensive line coach, first met Penei during spring practice. His first impression was predictable. “My gosh,” he thought. “This kid is big.” By then, 17-year-old Penei weighed about 370 pounds. He carried it well, though, and by summer, Mirabal suspected he could be special; a man that big just doesn’t usually move that well. But his first concrete introduction to the type of player Penei would become came on the third day of fall practice Penei’s freshman year. 

They’d ventured to the Nike campus for their first day of practice in full pads. To test their prized rookie, Mirabal and Cristobal matched him up against their starting defensive tackle in a run-blocking drill. Penei threw him backward. “I literally thought he broke the kid’s back,” Mirabal remembers. He looked at Cristobal, and Cristobal knowingly smirked back. He knew by about practice No. 5 that Penei would start at left tackle. The Ducks had five returning starters, but even they couldn’t deny Penei’s place. “He was so talented and so good that there was no animosity,” Mirabal says. “It was just like, this guy needs to play.”

To Penei, none of this was obvious. Oregon opened the season ranked No. 24 — a relatively low ranking for a team that’d become a Pac-12 powerhouse. The Ducks had reached the national championship game as recently as 2014-15, led by Polynesian quarterback Marcus Mariota. But the program was entering a new era — the Cristobal era — and Penei, whether he realized it or not, was a centerpiece. He found out he’d be starting at left tackle the night before opening day — a home game against Bowling Green. With his family in the stands of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, he emerged from the tunnel and felt something he’d never felt before. “I could feel the yelling in my chest,” he says. It felt like an arrival, like he’d made it. And that made him nervous. His parents were nervous, too, as their boy warmed up with the first team. They had no idea he would be starting. “I think I was so excited,” Penei says, “that I forgot to tell everybody.” He’d go on to start the team’s first six games, until a high ankle sprain sidelined him for the rest of the regular season. He returned for the team’s bowl game, and he returned for his sophomore season with his sights set on winning the Outland Trophy — the award presented annually to the best interior lineman in college football, and the top award Cristobal promised during Penei’s recruitment. “Go get it this year,” he remembers Cristobal telling him. 

He slimmed down to 330 pounds and became such a force that Oregon gameplanned to get him near the ball. On the first play of the 2019 season, for example, Oregon opened with a short pass to the left side designed not for the receiver, but for Penei. He faked a pass block and sprinted into the open field, flattening an Auburn defender and clearing the way for a 9-yard gain.

At season’s end, Penei notched nearly every recognition possible. All-Conference First Team. Unanimous All-American. The Morris Trophy (given to the best lineman in the Pac-12). On and on and on. The last one, the one Cristobal had long spoken of, was the only one that still eluded him. 

The promise

The announcement had almost arrived. Seated alongside his parents somewhere within Atlanta’s College Football Hall of Fame, Penei, at just 19, was 1 of 3 finalists for the 2019 Outland Trophy. “I was just there trying to enjoy the moment,” he says. He made no predictions about his chances — at least not publicly. “I was just excited to be there — to have the honor to go there.”

He stayed calm as the announcement unfolded, his eyes staring straight — “On behalf of the Football Writers Association of America,” — his head tilted slightly — “it is my honor to introduce” — his face expressionless — “the 74th winner of the Outland Trophy” — the lei accentuating his all-black suit unruffled — “Penei Sewell, Oregon.” His eyes closed, and his head dropped and his lips puckered with his favorite exclamation: “Oooooo!” He stood and hugged Arlene, who wore a bright green-and-black aloha shirt and wiped away tears. Gabe, wearing the very same aloha shirt and a black cabbie cap, offered a high-intensity high-five and a long hug.

Penei, right, with former NFL player Tiatusi “Deuce” Lutui in American Samoa. | Provided by the Sewell family

The Outland Trophy winner is announced in December, along with the rest of college football’s awards, but the trophy is presented at a ceremony later on. And at that ceremony, with plenty of time to prepare, Penei took the stage and spoke for seven minutes. He sighed through much of the speech, failing to fight back sniffles and tears. When he pivoted to Cristobal, he harkened back to the conversation they’d had before the season. “Well coach,” he said, “I’m here. And I went and got it.” But then he transitioned to his parents, and it was time to transcend the game that had defined him to focus on where the voyage began. 

“Mom, and dad,” he said. He smiled, and his head dropped. “If you told me when we were in American Samoa, in our house, that we would be here today, I couldn’t believe you.” He sniffled. He wouldn’t have believed them, he said, because everything he thought he wanted was in American Samoa. But their choices changed him. “Mom: Your smile makes me go every day, makes me go harder, and I do this all for you — all for you, Ma. Your sacrifice, and you just being the backbone of our family, makes me hopeful, if it’s possible, to find a woman just like her.” The crowd laughed and clapped. “Dad,” he said. He paused for eight seconds, trying to catch his breath as tears shined his cheeks. “All this I know you gave up for us. You had a dream of your own. … And all I wanna do is just give it back. I want you to experience everything that we have, and everything we’re gonna go through, because you should’ve been doing it all the same way I’m going through it. I want you both to know that I love you guys from the bottom of my heart, and I’m still going to work until you guys never have to worry about a thing no more.” He sniffled, and he paused. 

“I promise you that.”

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The picture

Back on the Newport Beach shoreline, Penei jogs toward the water alongside about 30 other NFL draft hopefuls. Jevon Holland, a fellow Oregon Duck and potential first-round pick himself, jogs among them; so does Justin Fields, the Ohio State quarterback likely to be among the first players selected. Some passersby stop and wonder why all these hulking men are working out on the beach; most rollerblade past without a second glance. Penei, with his black hood still blocking most of his face, is the least recognizable of all. He’s been here since early October, since shortly after he opted out of the 2020 season — due to COVID-19 concerns — and signed with Athletes First. 

Six hundred and fifty-eight miles northeast, in Orem, Utah, a shrine welcomes visitors to Gabe and Arlene’s otherwise unassuming suburban abode. Past the front door, to the left, posters and trophies and jerseys and balls crowd every inch of the walls. Gabe, thanks to “a Skittles-basket worth” of daily pills, has his heart problems under control, and he and Arlene have witnessed everything. They’ve saved everything to prove it, right down to the boys’ locker name plates, which are displayed atop a small rectangular table. On a snowy January evening, with the draft three months away, Arlene surveys the sanctum. She repeats the same thing she’s told Penei. “I hear, ‘Your life’s gonna  change,’” she says. “And I don’t want it to change.”

Again, change is coming, no doubt about it. And it’s coming soon. “I really do believe — God willing he stays healthy — that he’s a generational talent,” coach Mirabal says. That term — generational talent — is usually reserved for quarterbacks, including the one almost assured of being chosen first overall on April 29, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. But Penei is right there, too. He’s the type of player who can become a franchise cornerstone and a perennial All-Pro — a football fixture who makes every Pro Bowl, whose performance is never in question, who’s the best offensive lineman of his era. Cristobal hates to compare his players, but he has no doubt here. “He’s the one,” he says. “I’ve been able to either coach or recruit four out of the last five Outland winners, and he’s the best one.” 

But Penei doesn’t fear the future, nor the changes it will bring. When his mom worries, he tells her the same thing she’s told him countless times: Things happen for a reason, and God has placed a path before him to be embraced; not to overwhelm him. Which isn’t to suggest he’s naive. He expects “characters” to enter his life, and he expects people will try to take advantage of him, and he anticipates the temptations of life as a millionaire football player. But he still isn’t worried. “Just having my family, having that circle in place, is really gonna have that foundation for me not to fall into that lifestyle that everybody’s talking about,” he says. “At the end of the day, my family is the most important thing to me.”

NFL prospect Penei Sewell has been training in Newport Beach, California, ahead of the 2021 draft. | Pascal Shirley for Deseret Magazine
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What he does fear, then, is anything that could threaten that bond. And life in the NFL certainly could. Money, prestige and fame can stress, can weaken, can destroy relationships. Which is why Gabe decided to give all his kids a reminder of how to keep things simple. He even made one for himself. It’s a square photo of the pink house in American Samoa, with the rusted tin roof and leafy greenery in every direction. He’s superimposed a slogan atop the image in white letters: “Before our TIME is up,” it reads, “choose to SPEND it with the ones you LOVE.” Gabe keeps his on his nightstand. Penei keeps his on his dresser. “Polynesian culture is built around families,” says Kalani Sitake, BYU’s head coach, “and built around respect and honor for those who have sacrificed for you.” Penei doesn’t want to forget that. The picture ensures he won’t. 

His beach workout finished, Penei explains how he uses the photo to ground himself every morning. It reminds him of how far his talents and effort have taken him, and how that could change his family’s circumstances in a revolutionary way. It reminds him of all he plans to do with this newly bestowed status and power; how he wants to return to his home. “I’ll have the luxury to go back and help these kids realize what they have on their plate,” he says, “and realize the opportunities that are out there to chase.” And with the draft inching ever closer each day, it reminds him that while many things have changed already, and many more changes are on the way, some things can — must — stay the same. Indeed, as the NFL beckons with more material comfort than he could have ever imagined, the photo above all reminds him that while right now he has more than he wanted, he’ll always have what he needs. 

With that, he departs for his pre-draft residence in Irvine alongside the other hopefuls, talking and teasing and dreaming about what’s to come. For just a moment, he removes the hood from his head, and the noon sunlight brightens his face.

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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