(Photo: Sun Devil Athletics)
The way you do anything, is the way you do everything.
It’s the mantra defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has adopted for his defense and for the players under his direction. It transcends the gridiron – a phrase applicable to a player’s focus in the classroom, the effort they put into their relationships and the way they approach everyday challenges that they are met with.
Senior Laiu Moeakiola is the personification of this saying.
“He’s having his best season yet I believe,” Patterson said. “If you look at, all the way back from Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, he’s played as solid as I’ve ever seen him play. I mean, he just seems to be, all of a sudden, he’s always been a very under-control type player, but man, he’s just playing at a very high level the last four games and it shows up. But again, it goes back to the character that he has, when you think about it, that’s just the way he lives his life. He’s successful in the classroom and he’s probably one of the most likable guys on our football team.”
This season, Moeakiola has played in eight games and ranks third on the team in tackles with 43. He also added an interception against Texas Tech, a late-game play in an eventual victory that he returned for a touchdown.
He’s played both safety and linebacker this season, remaining as versatile as any player on the defense.
Still, even with Moeakiola’s talent, his road to the success he’s experienced in his final season was anything but smooth.
Moeakiola ranked as Rivals.com’s No. 42 safety prospect in the nation coming out of Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. He was one of the first in a wave of players coming to Arizona State from Texas under head coach Todd Graham’s direction.
Alongside now senior linebacker Salamo Fiso, Moeakiola worked to get acclimated in the spring and the summer before making his presence known during fall practices.
Fiso and Moeakiola have leaned on one another from the beginning, through the highs and the lows.
“It’s a strong bond,” Moeakiola said. “We came in together, taking the same class, worked out in spring, summer, winter, all together. That’s a bond that we will carry on to the rest of our lives. We’ve created a lot of memories here, but just because football’s going to be over here doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop talking, that’s the beauty of it all. I’m just thankful for the relationships I’ve made, hopefully it continues down the road for all the freshman coming in.”
One of those lows hit Moeakiola right off the bat in the second game of his collegiate career against Missouri in 2012. After starting his true freshman campaign with four tackles and an interception, a calf injury ended his season. He redshirted the rest of 2012.
“ went by pretty fast, I’ll tell you that,” Moeakiola said. “Coming in, trying to make an impact early on as any freshman is trying to do, and when that happens. An injury occurs, you just kind of question yourself, ‘Man, did I do everything that I could to prevent that from happening,’ but it’s all apart of the process. College is a long journey ahead and that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned.”
Through the recovery process, Moeakiola found a common ground with one of his teammates – fellow senior Carlos Mendoza – with the faith that they shared.
The two were roommates their freshman year. Through that, Mendoza experienced everything Moeakiola embodied and stood for, while watching him battle back from the injury.
“Laiu as a person I’d say is probably one of the best that you could get character-wise,” Mendoza said. “All-around amazing person. When it comes to his faith, me and him have the same faith. We believe in the same God and the same religion so we were really close in that aspect. When it just comes down to it, everything he does both on and off the field he does it with a purpose and he believes that.
“Coach [Patterson] always had this saying for us, ‘The way you do anything, is the way you do everything,’ and before he even gave us that saying, I’ve seen Laiu live out his life like that.”
Moeakiola made his return to action as a redshirt freshman in 2013 and earned his first career start against Sacramento State. Since then, Moeakiola has played in 42 games, tackled the ball-carrier 180 times, intercepted opposing quarterbacks twice and sacked them seven times.
He’s become the standard for other players on the defense through his football knowledge and style of play, especially those like senior cornerback De’Chavon Hayes, who is new to that side of the ball.
“Laiu is a smart guy,” Hayes said. “He’ll just communicate some things, he’ll tell you, ‘Yo, watch out for this’ and then when it happens you’ll be like, ‘Dang, how (did) you know that, bro?’ So, you can tell he’s been around here a lot, he knows a lot so it’s definitely been fun playing with him. He’s a playmaker and not only that but he’s got heart… He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he’s going to make plays and just give it his all.”
Moeakiola has remained steady through vastly different seasons over his five years as a Sun Devil.
He played for a Pac-12 Championship against Stanford in 2013; he helped lead ASU to a 55-31-win over No. 10 Notre Dame the following year, clinching a No. 6 national ranking in the process; and he endured a six-loss season a year removed from coming so close to a College Football Playoff berth.
Through the ups and the downs, Moeakiola has kept a level head, focusing on what matters through the adversity.
“I think the biggest part is you see both sides of the spectrum,” Moeakiola said. “Where you could be if you have a great season and where you could be if you have a season where it’s not so, where you want it to be. It goes all back to ground zero, how we’ve been working and understanding what we’ve got to do in order to reach our goals.”
His faith still remains his rock through his trials and adversity, whether that be on or off the field.
It’s how he’s been able to keep everything in perspective throughout his career.
“[My faith] has definitely been the pivotal part of my life,” Moeakiola said. “A rock that I can lean on because football only lasts [a short amount] of time, so it’s kept me in a good balance and perspective on life, what’s really important.”
The last home game of Moeakiola’s collegiate career will come on Thursday against No. 15 Utah. At this point, Moeakiola admits he might get somewhat emotional when he runs out of the Tillman Tunnel for the last time as a player.
For head coach Todd Graham, Moeakiola will leave a lasting impression on him far after he’s left the program.
Still, don’t be surprised if Laiu is spotted on the sidelines sporting a collared shirt rather than pads in the future.
“Laiu’s a guy that’s a very, very special young man,” Graham said. “A man of few words, a man of great faith. What an example he is on how he lives his life, how he goes about everything academically, on the field, off the field, tremendous student of the game. He’s going to be a coach. He’s a guy that whenever he’s done with playing football I’d hire in a heartbeat. He is a defensive Taylor Kelly, is how I’d describe Laiu.
“There’s not many people I’ve coached that I have more respect for.”
As far as the prospects of coaching, the interest is mutual on Moeakiola’s end as well.
“Definitely, I want to get into the coaching aspect of football,” Moeakiola said. “I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned, sharing tid-bits on the sideline with younger guys. I find real joy out of that and helping other guys.”
The future for Moeakiola is still uncertain – whether he gets the opportunity to continue his playing career at the professional level, whether he gets the opportunity to coach, or whether he goes into something completely different altogether remains to be seen.
His time as a Sun Devil, though, has prepared him for whatever he may choose to do next in his life.
“I’ve seen myself since my freshman year to now, just seen improvements,” Moeakiola said. “Whether that’s on the football field, or most importantly as a person, academically, in all phases of life, that’s all credit to coach Graham and the people he’s bringing in. That’s definitely showed in the statistics of what we’re trying to accomplish.”