Coming in at 6-7, 295-pounds, Lisala Tai is a big Tongan boy from Southern California. He plays tackle on both sides of the ball for a high school that struggled last season. Despite that fact, BYU head coach Kalani Sitake saw a diamond among the rough and paid the Tai family a personal visit.
“I got [an opportunity] from Coach Sitake and Coach Tuiaki to play football for four years at BYU,” said Tai. “I’m very excited and very grateful. Both Kalani and Ilaisa came by my house and I wasn’t really expecting it because this is only my second year of playing football in high school. When they came to my house I was scared.”
It’s hard to imagine a 6-7, 295-pound Tongan being scared at the sight of seeing two BYU coaches walking up the driveway. However for Lisala Tai, it was a new experience for him and he didn’t know what to expect.
“Yeah, I was scared,” he said with a chuckle in his voice. “This was something that has never happened to me before. I was just thinking, ‘Don’t say nothing dumb!’”
Those who know Kalani Sitake and Ilaisa Tuiki can personally tell you that you won’t find two of the more personable or happy-go-lucky guys to wear a coaches uniform. However, despite a normally reserved Lisala Tai being a bit nervous he was in good hands.
“They were great and really helped me to be at ease,” said Tai still laughing. “When they came in they just talked to me about what they could help me with and what they could do for me. They talked mostly about school and not so much about football. They just want to make sure that I graduate. It was a good visit.”
Neither Sitake nor Tuiaki recruited Tai while they were coaching up at Oregon State. After having heard about him and seeing Tai’s film, the whole process was born in Provo. Once that happened, they informed Tai that they were going to visit him at his house. The scholarship offer from BYU came as a complete surprise.
“First Coach Tuiaki went by my school to pick up my transcripts,” Tai said. “Then later on (Coach) Tuiaki came by and we just talked about school. We didn’t really talk that much about football. Tuiaki and Kalani then came by and offered me at my house. When they offered me I just told them that whatever plan they have for me, I’m in.”
After the offer was extended, Tai committed to the two BYU coaches. For Tai, it was a simple choice to make.
“I committed because I know the kind of coaches Kalani Sitake and Ilaisa Tuiaki are,” explained Tai. “I’ve seen and heard about the kind of linemen they’ve developed in the past to build a winning team. I also know a lot about BYU because I’m LDS. Not only was it my first choice for school and football, but BYU is also my first choice for getting a spiritual education as well. I want to keep my relationship with my Heavenly Father, and I know at BYU I’ll be able to do that better than anywhere else.”
After receiving the offer and committing to BYU, Tai reflected upon all the hard work he put in over his first off-season last summer.
“When they said they wanted to offer me a scholarship the first thing that came to my mind was how much the work I put in over the off-season really paid off,” said Tia. “I just really worked for it during my junior year. I just worked hard to do my part in school and take care of things and it all paid off.”
Much of that hard work came from the motivation of a high school coach BYU fans are all too familiar with. Former BYU cornerback Omarr Morgan coaches at Hawthorne High School and has taken Tai under his wing.
“Yeah, that’s my man right there,” Tai said. “He played at BYU and is another father figure to me. When he first started coaching this year, he would just tell me how great BYU is and how great the culture was when he went there. He talked about how much of a family (atmosphere) it was out there when he played. He says nothing but great things about BYU.”
Following Tai’s graduation at Hawthorne High School, he plans on setting aside football for two years to serve an LDS mission.
“Yeah, I’m excited to be a Cougar,” said Tai. “I just feel blessed and will serve a mission after I graduate. I’m just grateful that after I serve the Lord, I can play football at BYU.”