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BYU’s Uriah Leiataua left Compton with a goal to get straight A’s. Now, he wants to give back to his community

Known as ‘Lopa’ to his friends and teammates, defensive end graduated in April but still has a year of eligibility remaining, plans to use it to focus on readiness for NFL draft

Liberty Flames quarterback Stephen Calvert (12) throws the ball as he is hit by Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua (58) as BYU and Liberty play an NCAA football game in Provo, Utah on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. BYU won 31-24.
BYU defensive end Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua tries to tackle Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert in an NCAA football game in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. BYU won 31-24. Leiataua graduated in April with a business degree but still has a year of eligibility remaining at BYU.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — Growing up in Southern California, BYU defensive end Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua was “never given the chance to be around the gangs as other kids were.” When he left Compton, his goal was to get straight A’s.

Mission accomplished. Now, he hopes to give back to his community.

Leiataua was an honors student who had a 4.3 grade point average and was in the top three of his graduating class at Manuel Dominguez High. Before enrolling at BYU, he served two years as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his parents’ homeland of Apia, Samoa, the same place where his father, Siu served years ago.

A three-star recruit for the Dons who famously decommitted from Stanford on signing day in 2014 and was flipped to BYU by then-coach Bronco Mendenhall, Leiataua has yet to live up to the hype that accompanied him out of Compton, mostly because of injuries. He’s got one season of eligibility remaining to rewrite that narrative.

“If I had to describe my college football career so far, it would be ‘what could have been?” he said. “The injuries have been hard to deal with.”

Off the field, however, he’s continued his immediate family’s academic success. Leiataua, whose three older sisters graduated from UC Berkeley, Cal State Long Beach and UC Riverside, respectively, graduated from BYU’s Marriott School of Business in April to become Siu and Vaosa Leiataua’s fourth first-generation college graduate.

“It took a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices,” Leiataua said. “I remember my first year at BYU, it was business school or bust for me. Those (prerequisite classes) were brutal, but I got accepted. And now I’ve made it.”

Leiataua says he would like to work for an organization such as the United States Olympic Committee, or another sports-related group, then give back to Compton in some way, make lives better for people who deal with sounds of police sirens and gunshots on almost a daily basis, including his parents.

“The place you grow up is the norm to you,” he said. “You never realize how different it is. I always tell people I wasn’t shellshocked when I came to Utah, but I was amazed at how different it was, and how much I was missing growing up.

“The four years I have been here at BYU, I have noticed how much kids have here, and how many resources are available to them, and I want to help (Compton) kids get some of that, too,” he continued. “I remember just thinking, ‘Dang, school buses are for real? School buses are a thing?’ I thought those were only in the movies. I didn’t know they actually picked kids up, took them to school.”

Leiataua, who was so smart in high school that his teammates would refer to him as “the dictionary,” and take all their difficult questions to him, credits his parents for “being really strict” and keeping him away from the gang violence and criminal behavior.

“I would have early morning seminary, then go straight to school, then after school we would go straight back home,” he said. “I was never given the chance to be around the gangs as other kids were.”

He didn’t play youth football, and only took up the game when he entered high school. But he quickly became a star, and had 24 sacks his final two seasons of prep football to earn recruiting attention from UCLA, USC, Wisconsin and others even though he told the schools he planned to serve a mission first.

“My mission was life-changing, man,” he said. “It opened my eyes a lot to the world outside of L.A. … I knew (only) five white people before my mission, and they were all from Utah. A mission made me interact with different people from all over the world. It was good for me.”

Although he played sparingly in 2017 and 2018 before becoming a part-time starter in 2019 and making 19 tackles and a sack for a defense that struggled to stop the run and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Leiataua says he doesn’t regret picking BYU.

“I am for sure happy with the choice I made,” he said. “I love BYU. Stanford would have been nice and all, but I feel like I am happy here. … If (his struggles with injuries) happened anywhere else, I don’t think I would have made it. I would not have been able to cope with it.”

Now, with a degree in hand and a year of eligibility remaining, Leiataua says he’s putting everything he has into becoming a better football player in hopes of catching the attention of an NFL team in the draft next April.

“People have told me I have my whole life to work, but only a small window to play football,” he said. “So, I’ve got tunnel vision right now. I am entirely focused on getting bigger, faster and stronger and improving at football as much as I can.”

After analyzing his performance last season, Pro Football Focus ranked Leiataua as one of the “top breakout candidates” for the 2020 season, if there is one in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has Leiataua and his roommates — teammates Tyler Allgeier, Neil Pau’u and Lorenzo Fauatea, among others — getting even more amped up to play than usual.

“I had minor (shoulder) surgery in January, but I’m 100% healthy now and ready to give it everything I have,” he said.

Just like in the classroom.

BYU defensive end Uriah Leiataua’s timeline to graduation

  • 2014 — Decommits to Stanford and signs with BYU after late push from then-coach Bronco Mendenhall
  • 2014 — Departs on two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Apia, Samoa
  • 2016 — Redshirts after returning from mission and is a member of the scout team
  • 2017 — Plays in seven games before suffering a season-ending back injury
  • 2018 — Battles through lingering back injury and nerve issues to play in nine games as a redshirt sophomore
  • 2019 — Appears in 12 games and makes 19 tackles, one sack and one quarterback hurry
  • 2020 — Graduates in April from BYU’s Marriott School of Business with one season of eligibility remaining