Sam takes step up

TRAINING DAY: Samuel Alefaio take a break from training to share a laugh with his mum Sally at Kohuora Park in Papatoetoe.
TRAINING DAY: Samuel Alefaio take a break from training to share a laugh with his mum Sally at Kohuora Park in Papatoetoe.

Gridiron player Samuel Alefaio has scored his biggest touchdown yet.

The 1.98 metres, 145kg gentle giant has turned the tables on the schoolyard bullies who made his life as a child miserable because of his size.

He has just signed up for a full scholarship to play gridiron for Arizona Western College in the United States.

"It's going to be a whole new experience," the 20- year-old says.

The Otara resident will slot into the defensive ranks so he is out training three times a day, emulating NFL hero Troy Polamalu, to toughen up for the rigours of football in the US.

"For me it's going to be a big discipline thing. The biggest challenge will be getting used to the pace of football over there - it's a big step up from here."

Not bad for a young man who has played the padded code for only four seasons, one with the South Auckland Raiders and the past three with the Papatoetoe Wildcats.

His uncle Timo Alefaio says Sam knew what he wanted - even when he was being chased by Sydney rugby league club the Penrith Panthers.

"I've spoken at length with Sam and he's shared with me his love and passion for the game and he acknowledges he has a lot to learn."

But Sam's used to challenging circumstances.

He is the second of four children, and had to step up when his father, champion weightlighter Malo Maoluma Alefaio, died of cancer last September.

"Dad was a competitive weightlifter and if he was here right now he'd be saying to me ‘never sell yourself short' and ‘always work hard'," Sam said.

His signing has left little time for Sam's family to prepare and get their boy to the US in time to make the spring semester starting in January.

Mum Sally Alefaio says Sam's scholarship covers his accommodation, studies and gridiron training as well as a personal tutor.

"But it's the airfares to get him there . . . and then we've found hidden costs and that he has to pay his own medical insurance, up to NZ$2700 each semester."

Mrs Alefaio will travel to the US with her son to help him settle into his new digs.

Flying for the first time will add to the anxiety for Sam. "I can get pretty nervous sometimes, don't let the size fool you."

But on the field it is a different story, says his mentor Dan Amosa, who will also fly to the US with Sam.

"The Americans are looking at slotting him into the defensive end, a speed rusher coming off the edge. For his size, he can move."

Mr Amosa predicts New Zealand will be "the next port of call" for US scouts "looking for that next big thing".

"This is a viable career pathway and for some of these guys. If they're good enough, they can be student athletes on full scholarship and that's the biggest ticket, coming back with something for the rest of their lives."

Manukau Courier