When Liberty High senior Sam Tai stood in front reporters Wednesday to talk about his college decision, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound defensive end wasn’t alone.
Flanked by his parents, three siblings and other family members, he discussed why he selected to play football at UCLA instead of Arkansas and nearly a dozen other schools that coveted his services.
Tai never talked in the first person about the process, simply calling it a family decision. “Me and my family liked what UCLA had to offer,” he told the group.
Ultimately, playing for UCLA was attractive for Tai because the four-hour drive to Los Angeles makes for an easy commute on game days for his family.
Lota Tai, Sam’s 78-year-old grandmother, stood near the back of the gathering silently taking in the scene. Sam is one of her 30-plus grandchildren, and in a family of football players, she says, Sam is the best.
“Because he is going to UCLA,” she said with the help of an interpreter.
Tai is on track to graduate from Liberty a semester early and will enroll at UCLA in January. He will participate in spring football practices.
Tai’s makeshift signing — players who enroll early don’t sign a letter of intent because the national signing period is in February — was more of a celebration. Afterward, there was a party for his teammates in the Liberty High cafeteria and a barbecue in the courtyard.
Tai is the first football player in the school’s eight-year history to receive a Division I scholarship. Coach Rich Muraco considers Tai’s recruitment a major step in the program’s development. He said Tai might be the first of several players to advance to the college ranks.
“This is a great step,” Muraco said. “We want to establish a first-class program here, and someone of Sam’s caliber brings a lot of attention to Liberty.”
There are three Tais on Liberty’s roster — Sam, his brother Albert Tai, a sophomore linebacker, and his cousin, senior running back Teu Tai.
With the Tais leading the way, Liberty won the Southeast Division title this fall and advanced to the Sunrise Regional semifinals for the second straight year. On Thursday, they host Canyon Springs.
For Sam Tai, enjoying success with his family along for the ride carries extra significance. He talked about how his family, in good times and bad through the recruiting process, was always there for support.
UCLA didn’t offer Tai a scholarship until late October, but he had been on the Bruins' radar since attending their camp this summer. An assistant coach for UCLA drove to Southern Nevada for Liberty's game with Foothill three weeks ago, and Tai had a scholarship offer the following day.
Tai, who is rated by Rivals.com as a two-star prospect on its evaluating scale of five stars, is coveted by recruiters for his raw ability. He played quarterback last year as a junior and is still coming into his own as a defender. Also, he injured his foot in late August during a scrimmage and sat out for more than a month.