The Notre Dame-Nevada matchup the first weekend of the 2009 season might not have captured the country’s interest, but Amini Silatolu was watching.
A Nevada signee who didn’t qualify academically, Silatolu watched the game from the living room of his parents’ home in northern California – a man without a school.
“They’re playing at (Notre Dame), and I’m sitting at home watching,” Silatolu said. “And watching them running out on the field, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that could’ve been me.’ ”
It took a couple of years at an out-of-the-way football outpost in north Texas, but what could have been has become what will be for the 6-foot-4, 311-pound offensive lineman.
Through his academic struggles and stops at a California junior college and little-known Midwestern State, Silatolu never lost sight of his goal of making it to the highest level of football – even if he never said much about it.
Having made it to the NFL as the second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers, the soft-spoken giant who manhandled Division II opponents isn’t going to start boasting now.
“Off the field I’m the nicest person you’ll ever meet. I’m really quiet and don’t talk too much,” Silatolu said during a recent phone interview. “I’ve never been that overconfident guy that runs his mouth. Instead of doing a lot of talking, I do a lot of walking. That’s just who I am.”
Silatolu’s journey would have humbled just about any player. But Silatolu was humble long before he became a road-grading lineman.
Silatolu learned the value of hard work from his parents, Saia and Lupe, who held a series of menial-labor positions after moving to the United States from Tonga in 1985 for a better life.
And if the YouTube clips of Silatolu driving defensive linemen out of the video frame aren’t enough to quicken the pulse of Panthers fans, his college coach advised: Wait until fans see him in person.
“For a guy that no one knows anybody about, you’re going to be excited about watching him block,” Midwestern State’s Bill Maskill said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t know but one speed. He goes as hard in practice as he does in games. He just goes all the time.”
Saia and Lupe Silatolu settled in California after moving from Tonga, a country comprised of 176 islands in the south Pacific. Saia took a job at a gas station, while Lupe worked as a housekeeper at a hotel until her two sons were born 17 months apart.
When the boys were toddlers, Lupe took them to Tonga to live with her mother for a year while she returned to the States to look for work. While living in Tonga, the boys attended their uncle’s rugby games, the closest thing to American football on the island.
“As soon as they came back, you could tell they were really into football,” Lupe said. “So Saia took them to join Pop Warner.”
Silatolu played no other sports growing up. Football was his love, and everything else was a distant second – including homework.
Despite his parents’ encouragement, “Amini wasn’t really good at school,” his mother said.
After high school in Tracy, Calif., Silatolu attended San Joaquin Delta College in nearby Stockton. He started two years at left tackle, and had visits scheduled to Hawaii, California and San Jose State, as well as a scholarship offer from Tennessee.
But they all backed off after seeing Silatolu’s grades. He signed with Nevada, but was ineligible to play for a Division I school because he hadn’t finished his associate’s degree.
During an unofficial visit to Cal, one of the Bears’ coaches asked Silatolu to name his No. 1 goal, expecting him to mention NFL aspirations. Silatolu surprised him by saying he wanted to play for a four-year school.
“That’s how it all starts,” Silatolu said. “I never got ahead of myself. I just thought about the next step to get where I needed to be.”
That next step was Midwestern State, a school with an enrollment of 6,000 in Wichita Falls, Texas, and the alma mater of Dr. Phil (McGraw) of TV fame.
Within Silatolu’s first three days on campus, Maskill realized he had a devastating blocker.
“He just knocked the hell out of people,” Maskill said.
Silatolu dominated the Lone Star Conference from his left tackle position. According to Midwestern State, Silatolu was on the field for 560 pass plays during his two years with the Mustangs, and allowed a half of a sack.
Silatolu, 23, was a consensus All-American last season while anchoring the top offense in Division II in terms of total yards (531.9 yards a game) and points (48.6).
But it was the manner in which Silatolu finished blocks that caught the Panthers’ attention.
“We call it black line,” coach Ron Rivera said the night the Panthers drafted him 40th overall. “You take a guy and take him outside the black line of the (video) screen and he was just gone. That was impressive.”
Maskill told every scout who visited Wichita Falls (population, 101,000) that Silatolu was a throw-back.
“He’s mean. He’s tough. He’s nasty. He plays hurt,” Maskill said. “All the things the old guys used to do, he does it.”
Maskill said Silatolu broke his hand his first fall at Midwestern State. Doctors told him he’d be out the rest of the season. Silatolu missed two games after pins were inserted in the bone, and was back in the lineup.
Silatolu’s toughness and quiet leadership did not go unnoticed by his teammates, who voted him captain before his senior year. How unassuming was Silatolu? Maskill said he didn’t want to call the coin toss before games.
“I really don’t think he wanted to be a captain. He never got up in front of the team and spoke. He did not want to bring attention to himself,” Maskill said. “Everyone respected him for what he did, and how he did it.”
The fact that Silatolu did it against lesser competition was one of the knocks on him before the draft. Another question: How would someone not fond of textbooks handle an NFL playbook?
Silatolu said he kept his GPA around 2.5 at Midwestern so he could stay eligible. And while Maskill concedes Silatolu “wasn’t a fan of the classroom,” he’s plenty smart.
A friend of Maskill’s who is a Cleveland Browns assistant put Silatolu at the dry-erase board to diagram plays and go through blocking responsibilities. Silatolu aced it, the coach told Maskill.
Silatolu also was at the board with Carolina and wasn’t sure he did well. But when the Panthers called him the second night of the draft, he figured it must have gone better than he thought.
“He’s somebody we’re excited about,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. “When you watch tape, the whole approach he takes, the physical play comes out immediately. He puts opponents on the ground. He’s a very driven young man who’s come a long way.”
Minutes after hearing from the Panthers, Silatolu got a call from his younger brother. Paul Silatolu, a Naval petty officer, was calling from the USS New York – a ship whose bow includes 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center wreckage – off the coast of Italy.
It was a touching moment for the entire family. Nearly a week later, Lupe cried as she recounted the phone call between her only two children.
“It was very meaningful for us,” she said.
Though his path to the NFL was more circuitous than most of the other top picks, Silatolu never lost his way.
“I’ve always believed in myself. Football was always the main thing in my life,” he said. “I knew I always wanted to get to this point. But it doesn’t happen overnight.”