WSU's Luani made sacrifices to follow dream

PULLMAN – Football coaches drone on forever about the need for players to sacrifice, but Washington State coaches can save their breath when discussing the subject with free safety Shalom Luani.

Three years ago, Luani left tiny, isolated American Samoa – where he was best known for making the national soccer team as a senior in high school -- to pursue his dream of playing college football.

Shortly before he headed to the United States for an international football tournament in Austin, Texas, Luani dropped a bombshell on his parents: He wasn’t coming back.

At 17, Luani decided to move to a foreign country nearly 5,000 miles away to play college football. Due to the prohibitive cost of airfare, he hasn’t seen his parents since.

“I just told them a week before I left,” Luani said. “They told me, if that’s what I want, go for it. They let me go.”

High school football in American Samoa is inferior to that in the United States (plus the facilities can hardly be called that). And Luani (whose first and last names are pronounced Shuh-LAWM Loo-AH-nee) admits he initially wasn’t certain he could even play junior college ball. Still, he agreed to attend Chabot College, a San Francisco-area JC where a cousin coached.

His confidence bolstered after a grayshirt year (practice only, with limited classes to save a year of athletic eligibility) at Chabot, Luani transferred to City College of San Francisco. CCSF is the juco powerhouse where O.J. Simpson starred before gaining fame at USC and in the NFL (and infamy in a murder case).

Luani blossomed into a first-team JC All-American as a sophomore last year on a team that lost in the state championship game. Rated a 4-star JC recruit by, he first verbally committed to Oregon State, then turned down offers from the Beavers and Washington to come to Pullman.

“When I came on a visit,” Luani recalls, “it’s like everyone says: It’s a family atmosphere. I’m more comfortable.”

Luani, who grew up in the little village of Masausi, said he loves living in a small town (“San Francisco is crazy”) and playing on a team with six other players from American Samoa. He was recruited to WSU by defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, still another American Samoa native. Luani shares a house in Pullman with teammates Robert Barber, Destiny Vaeao and Frankie Luvu, all of whom he knew back home. Luani and Barber were high school teammates.

Luani scored a goal in a World Cup first-round qualifying game in 2012 in American Samoa’s first official victory in international soccer. Still, he says it wasn’t difficult for him to give up soccer for football.

“Playing soccer, it’s a lot of running, which is not my favorite thing,” Luani said with one of his frequent smiles. “In football, you have contact and everything.”

Luani came to WSU with a reputation as a big hitter, and nothing has changed in fall practice. At 6 feet and 201 chiseled pounds, Luani takes pride in arriving at the collision site with the proper mix of speed and rage.

“It’s just something I’m used to,” he explained. “Coming from my island, people just run the ball every time, so I’m used to coming down the field and hitting people.”

Luani, who joined the Cougars for summer workouts and began classes in early July, has been splitting time between the No. 1 and 2 defenses. The raw talent is obvious, but Luani is learning on the fly.

“You need to know what you’re doing,” he says. “Right now, I’m not really comfortable, but as we go along, I’m improving, so we’re getting there.”

For Luani, one of the bonuses that comes with playing Pac-12 football is the fact that his parents will be able to watch him on television. He can only hope a reunion with his parents takes place during his time at Washington State.

“My dad,” he said earnestly, “is dying to come out.”

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