Neil Pau'u faced a difficult situation as a senior in high school. He had remained faithful to BYU since the day he committed as sophomore at Servite High School (Anaheim, CA) telling interested colleges they weren’t the place for him. He had a few offers on the table besides BYU, but BYU was the place where he wanted to be.
“When I went out on a mission I had a few offers but I just wanted to go to BYU,” Neil Pau’u said. “No one had offered me but BYU my sophomore year, but there were other schools in the mix but they didn’t offer much because my brother (Butch Pau’u) was at BYU. I’m mean, BYU is a LDS school and I’m LDS.”
Though he had been committed since his sophomore year, there was a problem. Pau’u had his BYU scholarship offer pulled by former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“Yeah, Coach Mendenhall pulled it my senior year,” said Pau’u. “I don’t know really know why he pulled my scholarship. I went up there on junior day and didn’t perform as well as he probably was expecting, so after hearing that [my offer had been pulled] my parents weren’t super happy on the drive back home. A couple of weeks later he called my mom and told my mom. I mean, [my performance] could have been it but I don’t know for sure.”
However, there is also a belief in the Pau’u family that Coach Mendenhall wanted Neil to focus on playing one sport rather than three. He ended up playing three sports (football, volleyball, and basketball) at Servite as a high school junior which, according to his father Uepi, didn’t sit well with Coach Mendenhall who wanted him to focus on football.
“My dad played football at San Jose State and was a middle linebacker, but growing up he wanted us to play different sports so when we were grown up we could choose what we wanted to play,” said Neil’s older brother Butch Pau’u. “He got us into soccer and in high school I played football, basketball, and tennis.”
Could Neil Pau’u’s focus on three sports and a lackluster junior day performance at BYU be the cause? It’s hard to say. Other reasons include a scholarship crunch that BYU was facing but no one besides Bronco Mendenhall can really say.
“Yeah, I don’t really know the exact reason why it was pulled,” Neil Pau’u said. “It could have been a couple of reasons, but I don’t really know for sure.”
Once the offer was pulled, other colleges began showing interest despite it being late in the recruiting calendar.
“Other schools were on hold to see what my next move would be, but when Coach Mendenhall pulled my scholarship it opened up the discussion again for other schools [to enter the picture],” Pau’u explained.
One such school that quickly offered soon after BYU reneged on their offer was the University of Utah.
“After that Utah offered me,” said Neil Pau’u. “After we found out that BYU pulled my offer we were driving down to Utah the same week for their junior day. I checked out the campus and facilities and then they offered me a scholarship.
“When schools found out that I didn’t have a BYU offer, there was more interest in me. My high school coach told me that UCLA was really interested in me. He also told me that possibly Colorado was interested in me as well, but the only school to pull the trigger was Utah.”
Despite it being his only offer at that time, Neil Pau’u never committed to Utah. He decided to put football on the back shelf, place his faith in God first, and turn his attention towards serving an LDS mission.
“Yeah, I decided not to commit to Utah and just go on my mission and see how things went after that,” Neil Pau’u said. “I just left on my mission and trusted in the Lord. I told him I would give everything in the hopes that he would provide me an opportunity to come to BYU. I worked my tail off on my mission.”
Just before he returned home from serving in the Salt Lake City mission earlier this year, Neil’s mother received a letter from BYU’s new head coach Kalani Sitake.
“I think about a month or two before I came home, I received an email from my mom telling me that my scholarship from BYU was back,” Pau’u recalled. “Coach Sitake had offered me a scholarship, so I was able to come back to BYU. I was super happy about that! I remember how happy my mom was and I was just super thankful.”
He let Coach Sitake know by word and in person how grateful he was for providing him a chance to play football once again at his dream school.
“I got home June 27th and I sent Coach Sitake a text saying, ‘Thank you for giving me a scholarship and a chance to play football at BYU again.’ It was short, simple, and sweet,” Pau’u said.
“When I came out to BYU [this past] fall I got a chance to meet Coach Sitake for the first time. I was so thankful for him and for everything he’s done for me. He really did a lot for me and I’m so grateful. It was such a peaceful feeling knowing he’s the new head coach. It was a different vibe and feel talking to him than it was talking to Coach Mendenhall. I just felt at home.”
The faith of the Tongan Saints is well documented in LDS lore. For new BYU Cougar Neil Pau’u, he saw firsthand how placing his faith in the Lord truly works and he couldn’t be more excited with the results.
“It was really cool to see the Lord’s hand kind of work for me,” Pau’u said. “It’s good to know that if you trust in the Lord he’ll take care of you. It was definitely a blessing for me. I didn’t see it coming at all. When I went on a mission I had the mindset that I would work as hard as I could and just trust in the Lord that everything would work out as it should.
“I didn’t worry much about football and how that would all work out. I’m excited to come back to BYU and be a part of a new team with a new coaching staff with Kalani Sitake as the head coach. I’m just excited to see where it all goes and I’m super excited to be a part of it.”
At Servite High School, Neil Pau’u played all over the field, including quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, and safety. Coach Sitake isn’t quite sure where Neil Pau’u will play once he gets to BYU.
“We’ll see what the coaches want me to do,” said Neil Pau’u. “I can play tight end, safety, and wide receiver. We’ll see what the coaches want. Coach Sitake said, ‘Oh, we want you on defense but the offensive guys want you on offense, so we don’t really know where yet.’”
“The coaches either want him to play linebacker, safety, or tight end so we’ll see,” said older brother Butch Pau'u in an earlier interview during the 2016 season. “I guess we’ll see.”
Neil Pau’u has already chosen his classes and will enroll in January where he’ll once again be reunited with his older brother playing football together for the first time since his sophomore year of high school.
“School starts on the ninth of January,” said Neil Pau’u. “I don’t sign anything and just enroll. I got my five classes and 13 credits ready to go. I’m now really excited! I get to play with my brother and hopefully it will be this upcoming year. I’ll be on the offensive side and he’ll be on the defensive side, but it will be like when I was a sophomore in high school. I couldn’t be more excited!”