Shaun Nua knew something was wrong.
A hard cast stretched from his hip to his foot, but beneath it, the swelling had become unbearable. A few days earlier, he had been in the back of a coach’s Toyota pickup truck, speeding from football practice to the nearest hospital.
This was the reality of American Samoa in 1998. Nua is careful to note that it’s not a third-world country. Food, as his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame attests to, was never short. But life there is simple. When he attempts to describe the islands to an outsider, the first comparison his mind drifts to is the show Survivor, before acknowledging, “it’s not as bad.”
So by 1998, when Nua was 17, few modern medical advancements had reached the islands. A pickup truck was the delivery method of choice for incoming hospital patients and, more importantly, there was no way to diagnose a torn ACL — Nua’s injury.
“I had no idea what an ACL was or what any of that was,” Nua told The Daily. “I was just like, ‘My leg is broken.’ It was a numbing, burning feeling so they put me in the back of a truck and took me to the hospital.”
Leaning into a black leather chair inside Schembechler Hall’s second-floor lounge — 21 years and 7,000 miles away from Tafuna High School — Nua can’t remember who asked him the question that changed his life: “Don’t you cast only broken bones?” What he does remember is his response.
By that point, Nua knew he hadn’t broken his leg. So with the pain becoming unbearable, he came up with his own remedy: boiling a pot of water, pouring it on his leg and cutting the cast off.
Seven years later, he won the Super Bowl.
“Man,” Nua said. “I’m telling you, my story’s crazy.”
By his senior year of high school, football consumed Nua’s life. Growing up with his grandparents, he discovered the sport on a trip to go see his parents on Tutuila, American Samoa’s main island.
“I wanted to watch Smurfs sometimes, but (my dad) would turn on football,” Nua said. “Football, football, football. And that got ingrained in my head. I was like, I want to play that sport.”
In American Samoa, though, there’s no Pop Warner or Little League football. The game, in its official form, starts in high school.
Immediately, it was all Nua wanted to do. He hadn’t yet committed to a position, playing quarterback, tight end and defensive line, but going into his senior season, the Division I interest had started to arrive, awed by his imposing frame.
Then came the injury.
“It was probably the darkest time in my life,” Nua said. “Cause that was everything to me, was trying to get a football scholarship. I wanted to play Division I football. I wanted to play football, period.”
So, even with his leg boiling beneath a cast, Nua couldn’t let the game slip away.
After a year of hobbling around on crutches, he graduated and moved to live with his aunt in Hawaii, where he could get a proper diagnosis and surgery. Six months later, he continued on to Arizona to live with his sister.
That’s where he thought his football career would take off. But the early results didn’t cooperate. It didn’t matter where he tried out — Scottsdale Community College, Phoenix Community College, Mesa Community College — no school would take him.
“It was discouraging, but I was so convinced that I was meant to be a football player,” Nua said. “So convinced, like nothing was going to stop me from becoming a football player. The only question was when was the opportunity going to come. And that’s when Tom Ellsworth came in.”
Twenty years later, Ellsworth — a renowned athletic trainer in the Phoenix area — is only willing to accept credit for three of his patients’ athletic careers. Nua is one of them.
An aunt whom Nua lived near in Phoenix put him in contact with Ellsworth to continue his ACL rehab. Within three weeks, it became clear he needed a second surgery. The problem is, this was in late February 2000. His surgery was the first week of March. Football season starts in August. That’s not a timetable that usually lines up.
By early April, Ellsworth had a sense Nua was the exception.
“When you get around (elite athletes), you just know,” Ellsworth said. “You know when somebody has it. He’s athletic, he’s huge and he’s hungry. And he wants to play football.”
Ellsworth worked his contacts, calling Scott Giles, the head coach at Eastern Arizona College, a small-town community college 160 miles east of Phoenix.
After one glimpse of Nua, Giles was swayed.
“I knew he was a Division I athlete just based on his physical presence,” Giles said. “He is just a mountain of a man.”
For most players, the first drive to Eastern Arizona is a moment of reckoning. It’s a three-hour drive from Phoenix, through a canyon, an Indian reservation and very few traces of civilization.
The only things emerging from the desert landscape are a Walmart and a few Mexican restaurants. There used to be a K-Mart, but that’s closed since Nua left.
Nua wasn’t fazed.
“Even a place like Thatcher was still — it had still modern stuff compared to where I came from,” Nua said. “Like the Walmart was like, ‘Wow’ to me.”
It was in Thatcher that the bigger names started to come calling. According to Eastern Arizona’s then-defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake — now the head coach at BYU — Nua had offers from Pac-10, Big 12 and Big Ten schools.
But in Thatcher, Nua had found something comfortable.
Eastern Arizona had established itself as a feeder school for Polynesian players not yet ready for Division I football. In any given year, Giles estimates they had five to eight players from the islands — a significant number for the smaller roster sizes of JUCO.
“Any time you’re around people with the same mindset and the same culture, it makes everything easy,” Nua said. “You eat the same food, you cook the same way, you dress the same way. And the communication, you have someone to talk to. It makes it easy.”
As a born Tongan who moved to Hawaii when he was eight, Sitake quickly developed a unique player-coach relationship with Nua.
“From the beginning, being both islanders, we knew each other’s culture and ability for us to share and hang out and really connect, it was not even a problem,” Sitake said. “Once we met, it was like it was meant to be. He’s like a little brother to me.”
Nua didn’t convert to Mormonism until later, but Sitake had graduated from BYU a year earlier and knew it would be a good fit. At the time, it was among the schools on the forefront of Polynesian recruiting, creating a similar environment to what Giles — another BYU graduate — had fostered at Eastern Arizona. That, combined with the unique ability to focus on football, pushed Nua over the edge.
“We just talked specifically about the distractions,” Sitake said. “He came from the islands and then when he went to Arizona, he was in Thatcher so it’s not like there were a lot of distractions there either. And he flourished. So we talked about it quite a bit and he knew.”
Five years after graduating to an NFL career in 2004, Nua found himself back at BYU, back in a stats class, back in a world he had left behind.
This time, it was to be a graduate assistant coach on Bronco Mendenhall’s staff.
Through a stroke of good fortune and his own preparedness, that’s where Ken Niumatololo found him. Niumatololo, Navy’s head coach, had a son at BYU at the time, allowing him to watch the Cougars practice. He was there simply to be a dad, but football coaches have a hard time compartmentalizing that. Nua’s enthusiasm on the sidelines immediately brought his coaching side out.
“I loved his energy, I loved the way he coached,” Niumatololo said. “… He kinda stood out to me as I was watching practice so I watched him a little more and I remember just telling my wife … ‘If I ever get an opportunity to hire a D-line coach, I’m gonna hire Shaun Nua.’ ”
For Nua, it was the perfect opportunity. Niumatololo is the only Samoan head coach in Division I, continuing the trend of comfort in familiarity that began in Thatcher a decade earlier. He gave Nua someone to confide in as he adjusted to his first full-time coaching job as a Samoan in a profession devoid of them. “I feel like a proud dad,” Niumatololo said.
In their six years together at Navy, the two developed a special bond, discussing their family members back on the islands and even making a trip back to American Samoa together for a Troy Polamalu coaching clinic.
“Any time you’re from a small group of people, the pride that you have for each other is that much stronger,” Nua said. “Cause you’re representing a small group of people so you don’t want to disappoint them.”
At Navy, Nua developed into one of the most sought-after young defensive line coaches in the country, turning down an offer to reunite with Mendenhall at Virginia to stay on Niumatololo’s staff.
When Arizona State came calling in 2018, though, the Sun Devils offered something none of those previous offers could — proximity to family, allowing Nua to limit his trips to see family to annual visits back to the islands. A year later, he had to leave that behind to come to Michigan, an offer that he called “too good to turn down.”
These days, he coaches in front of a crowd nearly twice the size of the island he came from. But even when he’s back home, in the 32-family village where he grew up, he doesn’t see himself as any more than a kid who made it out.
“You always want to have the mindset that you don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m a role model,’ ” Nua said.
Then, he paused, staring into the oversized block ‘M’ adorning the wall in front of him.
“Maybe I am a role model,” Nua said. “I just hope I’m a good one.
“It is pretty cool, though, just thinking back where I came from. I’m blessed. I’m the most blessed guy in the world.”