Senior defensive end Pita Taumoepenu is living proof you can overcome any obstacle and achieve whatever you wish to achieve. Born in Euless, Texas, Taumoepenu moved to Tonga at three months old and lived on the island until he was 17 years old. Island life was literally all he knew. As a senior, he decided to attend Timpview High School in Provo, Utah. He was on the high school football at that time as well and made one mighty impression for a guy who had only played rugby to that point, recording 25 sacks - a mark which tied him for third all time in the state of Utah for single-season sacks.
Despite hitting the football field running in high school, few realize the adjustments Taumoepenu had to make coming from Tonga to the United States. “It was hard. Tonga is a small island. It’s about the same size as Salt Lake, everybody kind of knows each other,” he said. “It was really small and it was hard. We speak a different language- Tongan. When I first moved to the United States it was crazy.”
“First of all, it’s huge. Second, there are a lot of different kinds of people that I had never seen before. Moving to the United States was really hard trying to fit into the culture. I was surprised most of the time by the things I would see,” Taumoepenu explained. “I had never seen it before and going to school and picking up English in school was probably one of the hardest things too. Like I say I always make sure to finish something. I just came and observed a lot of people. Especially in my English class in high school and tried to pick it up. It was hard because I had to learn football, English and tried to pass my classes in high school in order to play college football. I overcame all of them and I’m grateful for that.”
When Taumoepenu arrived on the University of Utah campus, he says all he really knew about the sport he was on scholarship to play was the basics of his position. Everything else was still foreign. Four years later, Taumoepenu is not only more well versed at his position becoming a feared pass rush specialist in the Pac-12, but what everyone else is doing as well.
“I came here- the only thing I knew was my position. That’s all,” he said. “I didn’t really know a lot of things like step off if it’s a run or pass rushing when it’s a pass. I didn’t know a lot of things but right now it’s crazy to look back and tell myself, ‘Dang, wow, if I know all of these things my freshman and sophomore year I could have balled out.’ It’s cool though. I learned a lot of things from coaches and people older than me and the younger kids too.”
One of Taumoepenu’s favorite memories from his time with the Utes is the first time everything clicked for him and he got his first sack. “There are a lot of favorite memories but my first favorite memory was when I got my first sack against- I think Oregon State my freshman year. No, Sophomore year,” Taumoepenu said with a big grin. “They almost beat us and so I came out and made a sack. I think it was the 10 yard line. We got the ball, scored and we won the game. There are definitely a lot of favorite memories with me, the teammates and coaches. It’s a lot. Especially the food. All of the barbeques and all of that. It’s the best time.”
Taumoepenu is a guy who has had to take in a lot of information in a short amount of time, but says it has been worth it and is something he has learned to do consistently with every task he takes on. “Make the most of everything we do,” he said. “I’m here early in the morning making sure I finish everything 'cause my coach says football is going to end one day, but in life you have to make sure you finish things.”
With Taumoepenu’s career at Utah in its waning hours, he hopes fans remember him as a lesson that you can accomplish anything if you really want to. “I just want people to know that you can get whatever you want to get,” he said. “You can become whoever you want to become because, when I first got to the United States, there aren’t that many people who come from a different country. Especially Tonga where we speak a different language, go to high school one year and then D1 football. Back in high school a lot of people told me, ‘Hey, you are never going to make it. First of all you have to learn a lot of plays and you have to pass classes and all of that stuff.’ I always told myself, ‘I want to prove you guys wrong.’ I wanted them to know whoever you want to become you can do it. That’s what I want them to remember me. I want to finish it. I want to finish strong and prove everybody wrong.”