From New Zealand to Hawaii to UNLV, Asiata now hoping to stick with Bears
Earlier this offseason, Johan Asiata was so engrossed in his present that he didn't fantasize about his future.
The Bears guard, who was undrafted in 2009, watched veterans such as Olin Kreutz and Roberto Garza in the weight room, peppered defensive tackle Tommie Harris with questions and soaked in all the teaching from new offensive line coach Mike Tice.
Yet over and over again, at practices during minicamp and organized team activities, Asiata discovered himself in a most unexpected position.
''I'm down in my stance, and I see Jay Cutler behind me,'' Asiata said. ''Then I'm looking next to me, and there's Chris Williams.
''I was like, 'Whoa!' ''
Asiata's ascension defies convention, whether he does or doesn't start the season at left guard. He didn't start playing football until his freshman year at Yuba Community College in California, and he didn't start mastering the intricacies of the sport until he transferred to UNLV in 2006.
''It's incredible to see how he's progressed as a football player,'' said former UNLV offensive line coach Gary Bernardi, who developed standout linemen such as Tony Boselli and Jonathan Ogden. ''The first three to six months, he didn't know how to watch film.''
Added agent Joe Palumbo, ''A lot of times, the chips have to all fall into place, and they often don't.
''But in his case, it did.''
Technique notwithstanding, Asiata always could do one thing: Move men.
''You could tell he didn't know what he was doing sometimes,'' Bernardi said of Asiata's film at Yuba, ''but he was literally throwing guys around.''
Born in New Zealand, Asiata initially played rugby as a boy. But after he moved to Hawaii with his father and three siblings, Asiata strayed and surrendered to what he described as the ''street life.''
But his life changed during a six-month stint in Honolulu at the Hawaii Youth ChalleNGe Academy, which is designed for ''at-risk/ non-traditional students,'' and he realized his passion shortly thereafter.
''I just like to hit people -- that's basically it,'' Asiata said of football. ''I don't get arrested for hitting people, so thank God for that.''
Turning point approaches
Francois Asiata said he and his younger siblings had ''a good life'' in New Zealand.
But their parents had marital problems, and a judge in Samoa gave custody of the children to their father, Taeao.
''Back home in New Zealand, I wasn't really close to my kids,'' Taeao said. ''I was so angry and emotional in my life and marriage.''
But he uprooted his family for Hawaii because of the opportunities.
''I wanted to see them grow, and see what they wanted to do in life,'' he said.
Taeao was strict --''he was no-nonsense, and he would spank us Samoan style,'' Johan said -- but he couldn't closely track his kids. He needed two full-time security jobs to support his children, working one shift from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and then starting his second from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. He couldn't afford a car, so he rode the bus to their home in the projects, made his children dinner and then slept for three hours before starting the cycle all over again.
But despite the financial challenges, Taeao would cook grand feasts like Samoan chop suey and baked garlic and ginger chicken for his children while often taking two slices of bread to work for lunch.
''As long as we had food on the table, I didn't think we were struggling,'' Johan said.
Taeao was shocked when a high school counselor called him and informed him of Johan's long list of transgressions -- which included cutting class and disrespecting teachers -- and recommended Hawaii Youth ChalleNGe Academy.
''To be honest, I wasn't aware of a lot of stuff that was going on,'' Taeao said. ''That really hurt me so much, when I found out.
''The school never called before. This could have been corrected earlier.''
But Johan experienced a first when his father dropped him off at the academy.
He saw his father cry.
''That hit me hard,'' Johan said. ''I said, 'Man, I'm going to do my best to be better.' ''
The school, encircled by 20-foot-high barbed-wire fences, demanded responsibility and accountability, with students waking up at 5:30 a.m. and running from Point A to Point B.
''It was hard,'' said Johan, who had his long hair chopped short. ''Sergeants just yelling at you, trying to break you down.
''Everything you do, you had to ask first.''
It's time to try football
But Johan thrived, being appointed a leader of his squadron. And while there, Johan's brother made a bold prediction to a friend who worked at the academy.
''Out of nowhere,'' Francois recalled, ''I told him, 'Dude, my brother is going to the NFL. Just trust me.' ''
Yet no one in their family -- including Johan -- had seriously played football. They were a rugby family.
''I played rugby for a few years, but I used to get penalized for high tackles,'' Johan said. ''I just ran and hit people.''
After getting high marks on an Armed Forces multi-aptitude test, Johan planned to join the Air Force following his graduation from the Youth ChalleNGe Academy. But during the summer, he bumped into a church friend named Lorgan Pau who was playing football at Yuba Community College.
''When he came back, everyone talked about him,'' Johan recalled. ''I just looked at that like, 'Wow.'
''People would say, 'Man, you're pretty big; you should play football, too.' ''
So Johan purchased a one-way ticket to Sacramento, Calif., for $450 and left with about $300 in cash and a duffel bag of clothes. When 49ers coach Ted Hoal asked him where he wanted to eat, Johan picked Denny's, where he ate plate after plate of pumpkin pancakes.
''He was just going to town,'' Hoal said. ''They just kept bringing them out.''
Countless young men come to Hoal looking for a chance to play on his football team, but many are rebuffed after that initial meeting.
''If it doesn't go well, there are four or five hotels around the airport, and you send them back home," Hoal said.
But Hoal was impressed by Johan's candidness about his past and his willingness to do ''what you want me to.''
Even special teams.
Johan didn't know what he was doing, but he liked to hit people.
''Pummel -- no technique or nothing,'' Johan said. ''Just pummel.''
He helped the 49ers win consecutive conference titles, and he drew interest from several major programs. But only UNLV was willing to persevere in dealing with Asiata's academic eligibility issues. He red-shirted his first year there, focusing on academics, lowering his body fat and learning the nuances of the game.
Bernardi worked closely with Johan, guiding him on and off the field, and he projected his NFL potential.
''I didn't believe in myself,'' Johan said. ''People [in Hawaii] thought I was in jail or doing some bad things.''
Composure a big plus
Taeao is proud of Johan's turnaround, though he never has seen his son play in a football game.
''That's something I really want to do this year,'' Taeao said.
Tice said the battle to start at left guard is ''wide open,'' noting that Josh Beekman and Lance Louis weren't afforded a chance to make an impression at the position this offseason. But Tice said he's already been impressed with Asiata's composure.
''The thing that jumps out at me the most, for a young player who hasn't played, he's shown amazing poise,'' Tice said of the 6-4, 300-pounder. ''He makes mistakes -- and all young guys do -- but he doesn't get rattled.
''Most of the time, when young guys make a mistake, they compound that and rattle off three or four in a row. But Johan hasn't done that.''
Johan knows there are no guarantees, but he's grateful to the Bears for even giving him a chance.
''To be a part of their team means a lot,'' he said. ''I'm thankful, but I'm not going to take it for granted. I'm going to go hard -- or go home.''