Friday, June 1, 2012
Jake Muasau journeys from living in a van to NFL
by Paola Boivin, columnist - May. 31, 2012 10:56 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
At the conclusion of rookie minicamp for the New York Giants, Tom Coughlin called all the undrafted players into a huddle.
"I want to thank you all for coming," the coach said on May 12. "Keep working hard and stay ready."
It was your run-of-the-mill, thanks-but-no-thanks speech. Linebacker Jake Muasau, who attended high school in Southern Arizona's Sierra Vista, 15 miles north of Mexico's border, felt sick. His mind raced.
Lord, no. This can't be it for me. Not after this journey.
The players gathered into a huddle. They chanted "1-2-3 Team" and dispersed. Crushed, Muasau, 22, began the green-mile walk toward the end of his football career when a hand reached out of him.
"Jake, I'm here to let you know the team loves you," a Giants scout told him. "We want to sign you."
Muasau, all 6 feet 1 and 243 pounds of him, bear-hugged the scout, lifted him off the ground and then exhaled.
To understand that hug is to appreciate Muasau's journey, one that has concluded with an opportunity to land on the Giants' 53-man roster or eight-man practice squad before the team's regular season begins Sept. 5 against Dallas.
"When he called me, I started crying," Louie Muasau, his older brother, said. "It was like, finally, everything has paid off."
Their journey started in Washington before their father, Liuavano Mataaga, a pastor, moved his family to Southern California to help Mataaga's brother build a church.
The family struggled. The mother, Asoiva, battled mental illness and the father, Jake Muasau said, was arrested and imprisoned for domestic abuse.
"We never had a stable place," Muasau said. "I remember sleeping on park benches. We had this red 1985 Dodge Astro van that we lived in."
They brushed their teeth in water fountains and often used public restrooms to clean up.
The family relocated to Glendale in 1998, to try a new life.
Four years later, Mataaga was diagnosed with throat cancer. His voice box was removed and he was fed liquid through a hole in his neck. Jake Muasau had started middle school in Glendale, but his mom moved him and his two brothers to Sierra Vista where an aunt lived while Mataaga stayed in the Valley for treatment.
The opportunity to stay with the aunt fell through, and the family was back to living in a van.
The police discovered them and sent the boys to a group home. While they were there, their father died.
"It was hard to bear as a child," Muasau said. "What I am supposed to do? Who am I supposed to look up to?"
Football had been part of the boys' life, but only on the street, in alleys and the side of apartment complexes.
"We never had enough money for organized football," Muasau said. "My first experience that way was as a freshman in high school."
At Buena High in Sierra Vista, he and Louie, a year older, were defensive standouts. Jake, who also played wide receiver, had jaw-dropping speed. They idolized a famous NFL player whose roots also were Samoan: the late Junior Seau.
To help their mom, they would sneak food home from the school cafeteria.
When Louie went on to play at Phoenix College, Jake, who had committed to Nebraska, felt lost. He wanted to help his mom and agreed to sell a friend's prescription drugs on the Buena campus to make money. He was caught.
"Without Louie, I lost direction," he said.
He was expelled his senior year, but there was such fondness for Muasau by teachers that they approached the school board to plead his case and his penalty was changed to a suspension.
Still, Nebraska pulled the scholarship offer, and Muasau's SAT scores were low. He had few options.
He joined his brother at Phoenix College.
"It's funny," he said. "My junior year in high school, I became such an arrogant person. I thought I was going right to the NFL out of high school. Suddenly, here I am at a junior college in Phoenix."
It was a turning point. He played side-by-side at linebacker with Louie, who had redshirted. They were determined to stay on the right track together. They tattooed half of the Seal of American Samoa on their arms so that when Jake's right arm is next to Louie's left arm, it makes the complete seal.
Both were recruited to play at Georgia State, an Atlanta university that had just started football that year (2010). Former Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky coach Bill Curry would be in charge of the program.
The brothers thrived there. Louie gave the team the defensive leadership Curry sought, and Jake provided flat-out athleticism. It was a great fit for the two, who benefited from the structure a scholarship could provide: expectations, education, necessities.
The day the pair first arrived at school, they couldn't believe the scholarship paid for all their meals.
"We were so hungry," Louie said. "We sat down and ate about three plates. It was unbelievable."
Jake was the defense's top player and MVP both seasons. He captured the attention of NFL scouts and particularly the Giants, who didn't draft a linebacker. The team brought six players from that position into the rookie camp, and most were better known than the young Musasau.
He made a strong impression. He was the one they kept.
"He'll do well in the NFL," Louie said. "He loves challenges."