Can receiver Neil Pau’u become BYU’s next great tale of redemption?
The junior from Santa Ana, California, believes he will be, after sitting out the entire 2019 season for disciplinary and personal reasons. Pau’u ran afoul of BYU’s honor code in the summer of 2019 and eventually pleaded guilty to an amended charge of impaired driving.
Williams sat out the 2015 season and Takitaki missed the 2016 season, but both returned to BYU to become two of the best players in program history, and Pau’u can see a similar route for himself, thanks to the guidance of head coach Kalani Sitake and his family.
“I feel like I have been waiting for this for a long time,” Pau’u said last week. “It has been a long time coming, but I am just taking each and every day as a blessing because I know how fast it can be taken away from you. So it has been amazing just to apply all the things I have learned this whole year, and hopefully we will have a season so I can be able to show that.”
Receivers coach Fesi Sitake said the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Pau’u could become the go-to receiver the Cougars are looking for to replace graduated stars Aleva Hifo, Talon Shumway and Micah Simon. Fellow juniors Gunner Romney and Dax Milne are also capable of big seasons, Fesi Sitake said.
In 2018, Pau’u caught 18 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown, and the former high school quarterback threw a 40-yard pass against Boise State on a gadget play. Then trouble arose — Pau’u was arrested on suspicion of DUI by a BYU police officer just after midnight on June 8, 2019, after he allegedly attempted to drive through a barricaded road near the Smith Fieldhouse.
“Neil is like, ‘You know what, at this time last year I wasn’t in a good place. But now I am. I am a leader on this team. I am making plays. I am out here having fun, and enjoying every day for what it is worth,’” Fesi Sitake said. “Just credit to him, the way he has bounced back. He’s done a great job with it.”
Although he didn’t play last season, Pau’u stayed in close contact with the team, attended a lot of practices and meetings, and says his teammates never turned their backs on him. Nor did his family, in particular his older brother Butch Pau’u, a former BYU linebacker now coaching at Snow College.
“I didn’t know when I would be back, and how I would be able to play once I was back, with the uncertainty now with this pandemic and whether the season would happen,” Pau’u said. “But one thing I have just learned, is to take each day as its own, and try to get better from that. Each day is its own process. It is about trusting the process and it is not about rushing it. When it happens, it will happen.”
It does appear that season, albeit shortened with a revamped schedule, will happen. Five games are officially on BYU’s 2020 schedule, and two more — against Texas State and Texas-San Antonio — are reportedly close to being added.
Fesi Sitake said Pau’u’s turnaround started with an improved attitude. He began by serving others, and not focusing on himself as much.
“Just his willingness to buy into everything has been remarkable,” Fesi Sitake said. “He is an unbelievable young man. … He works behind the scenes as much as anyone I’ve ever seen. He is a guy that when you leave the facility, he will be out on the (throwing machine), he will be out doing some things. He is kinda that quiet worker. I have been real happy with him. He’s been making plays every single day. He is growing in his leadership role. We are just really happy with the way he has bounced back from some early adversity.”
Milne said that although Pau’u is a junior in eligibility, he’s older and brings more wisdom to the receivers room because of his life experience, including a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Salt Lake City.
“It has been great to have Neil back,” Milne said. “I know early on in his career he had issues, whether it was with his attitude or off the field stuff. He brings a lot of knowledge. I can always ask him questions. We learn a lot from each other and even though he didn’t play a year, he still has that experience and knowledge because he’s been around and so it is just good to have another veteran mind around.”
Pau’u hopes to graduate in December with a degree in exercise and wellness and a minor in business — he’s been working for First Colony Mortgage — and then see what happens. He’s not ruling out a return to BYU for his final season of eligibility, but knows the clock is always ticking for returned missionaries who want to give the NFL a shot.
“I’m just hoping to become another good story of redemption at BYU,” he said last March.
Kalani Sitake said Pau’u’s journey back “is a great story because he is a great young man from an awesome family” and it would be “really sad” if he had to go hide from the mistakes he made.
“Instead he is owning up to it and has done a lot of service work, and is trying to make the world a better place,” Kalani Sitake said. “I have been proud of him.”