BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. - When Phil Paea stepped into the discus circle most teammates stopped to watch.
Not all Paea’s attempts came off well. Some hung out to the right, others got caught in the wind blowing into his face. But when Paea got the technique correct, results followed, as did eyes watching the disc fly through the air at a Berrien Springs track meet earlier this month.
One teammate noted how long a walk it would be for Paea to retrieve a pair of discs.
“He needs a golf cart at this point,” another added.
Those exchanges capture Paea’s presence at Berrien Springs High School. He’s mostly just another kid making his way through high school, biding time during the football offseason with track. He throws the disc and shot put.
Sometimes, though, Paea’s peers realize they’re looking at something different, a future major college defensive lineman and someone they all gravitate toward.
“He doesn’t realize it,” said Berrien Springs coach Tony Scaccia. “Sometimes they don’t, young guys in leadership roles. When Phillip turns around, all these guys will be around him. That just naturally happens. He’s gotta grow into that. He’s still learning how to be that leader. He does it by example and he’s a kind person. He takes care of his teammates. But motivationally and stuff, he’s leading by example. I’d like to see him take the next jump and be vocal.”
Paea has already grown immeasurably during his high school career.
Scaccia first used Paea as a freshman fullback and inside linebacker with the varsity. Paea eventually moved to defensive tackle and guard. He worked behind Nick Padla, now an offensive lineman at Michigan State.
Working in the trenches let Paea blossom. Adding nearly 50 pounds helped. Paea has gone from 230 to about 285.
“It’s been a little bit of a ride for him because of the position change and getting comfortable,” Scaccia said. “Going from being an inside linebacker then moving to the defensive line. He was a fullback then moved to guard. We had Nick Padla and he was the guy ahead of Phillip at guard. Phillip would rotate in and learn from Nick. Just for him to be comfortable, his natural place is with his hand in the dirt. I think he kinda found a home when we moved him down and got him dirty. He’s excelled. It’s been fun.”
Recruiting attention naturally followed, albeit more than anyone expected.
Paea has scholarship offers from Arizona, BYU, Central Michigan, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, USC and Western Michigan as his junior year winds to a close.
Notre Dame hosted at Junior Day in mid-March. Over spring break, Paea planned to connect with family in California and visit USC. He’ll see Oregon in late April. Return trips to Michigan and Michigan State are in the works.
Not even Paea thought it would reach this level. Then again, he always hoped the game would open some doors.
“I really didn’t think that it would be all this,” he said. “I thought it would be just getting the offer and going to a different team. But ever since I started playing football, being from a family with not much, I had to do something. Football is something that I could choose myself. It was real good.”
Scaccia believes Paea benefitted from playing different positions. He’s well-rounded enough to be more football player than defensive line specialist.
For comparison’s sake, it’s like a basketball player with an inside and outside game that can handle the ball. Sure, they might have a specific position. But they’re also just a ball player.
“It’s the same kind of thing for Phillip,” Scaccia said. “He’s played all over the place, even had the ball in his hand. He’s really grown. His overall skill set is very good. You can see that out here. He’s a great discus guy and that takes a lot of athleticism. He’s definitely developed into a pretty well-rounded football player.”
Paea plans to cash that in for a free education. When talking about college programs, academics are the first thing he mentions in a potential fit. But that’s not to minimize what football means.
That’s especially true given Paea can see where it’s about to take him.
“It’s one of the most important things to me,” Paea said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve just been thanking the Lord for everything He has provided for me and my family, everything he’s blessed me with.”