When UNLV senior defensive tackle Isaako Aaitui first came to the United States from American Samoa in 2006, he spoke little English, knew nothing about Las Vegas and was still learning how to play football.
But Mike Sanford, then the Rebels' coach, saw enormous potential, calling Aaitui a "young Junior Seau."
The 6-foot-3-inch, 315-pound Aaitui, who grew up in Western Samoa, has blossomed into one of UNLV's top players and leaders.
Off the field, Aaitui -- who has two brothers with special needs -- volunteers for Opportunity Village.
Aaitui, whose Rebels (0-1) play at No. 20 Utah (1-0) at 1 p.m. PDT Saturday, spoke to the Review-Journal:
1. What was the experience like when you first began to play football?
I looked like a kid who had no idea what was going on. My high school coach wanted me to be a punter and a field-goal kicker. But he thought of the size and potential I had and put me at defensive end, and in the first game I had five sacks. I don't know how that happened. I had no idea what a great game was. I was just going after the guy who had the ball.
2. Did your coach want you to be a kicker because you were a rugby player?
Yes, I played rugby in Western Samoa. I was like 200 pounds, so they saw me as a kicker and a punter. I was thin, a little bit taller -- 6-4. But now I'm 6-3. I think I had too much weight after that. It brought me down a little bit.
3. What did you think when UNLV recruited you?
I had no idea about scholarships. I didn't have a lot of money. So when they showed up, I was like, "What do I say now?"
4. Did you know much about Las Vegas?
I never heard of Las Vegas. On my recruiting trip I thought, "Man, I have never seen a city like this in my life." I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know it was Sin City and the most famous city in America until a couple of years ago.
5. Why did you choose UNLV?
The lights of Las Vegas got my attention, and I wanted to stay here. I thought, "This is it. This is my dream."
6. How difficult is it to be so far from home?
It's hard. I think a lot of Polynesian kids feel homesick. I haven't seen my family for six years. I haven't been back since. ... Last year when the island got hit by the tsunami, it was really tough, and that's when we played Reno. I called back after the game, and they said they were fine. It's so expensive (to travel back). That's a big issue for me. We would have to pay a fortune to go back home.
7. How long did it take you to feel comfortable speaking English?
It took me one year, although I still mumble sometimes. No one translated to me. I just figured it out.
8. Was it difficult to learn the playbook and understand coaches' signals?
It was really tough. I asked some of the seniors how they learned. They learned it by walking through the plays. The most important thing is to know every position in the defense ... what they're going to do and what you're going to do.
9. How satisfying is volunteering at Opportunity Village?
I love visiting and talking to the kids. I have two brothers who kind of have the same problem. I (would be) glad to go back and serve them after I graduate. I love to help.
10. How important are your brothers to you?
I've got to do things that make them happy. When I was in the seventh grade, my mom passed away and I was the oldest in my family. My brothers looked up to me. The thing I still carry in my heart is to help.