Lott IMPACT Trophy | Honoring College Football's Defensive Best



Player Profile: ASU’s Villiami “Laiu” Moeakiola


(Note: The Lott IMPACT Trophy publishes stories from students at universities where a player has been nominated to the Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List.  Kaelen Jones is a junior at Arizona State and is a Sports Journalism student. He is from Chino Hills, California.)

By Kaelen Jones

For many athletes, their style of play and personality on the field parallels their life off of it.
ASU redshirt-senior safety Villiami “Laiu” Moeakiola’s play reveals a reserved, but passionate leader. It characterizes a leader who learned to follow before he could ever lead; one who lives a purpose-driven life and understands the importance of family.

“I think the biggest part with leadership, a lot of people think it’s the guy up front,” Moeakiola said. “You know, ‘Hoo-rah!’ (guys). But it’s just the guy using his influence to impact others.”
While not the most animated, Moeakiola, a four-year starter, is considered to be one of the most effective communicators and influential Sun Devils on the field.
Off the field, it’s no different.

Moeakiola’s drive to purposefully impact others developed while growing up in Euless, Texas. He has three older brothers, two younger brothers and one younger sister. Of the boys, he’s the middle son in his family.

Through his upbringing, Moeakiola learned early on about the values of responsibility and sacrifice.

“(As the middle child) you’re kind of an older brother to the younger ones,” he said. “You just try to learn from your older brothers.”

Moeakiola’s role as a brother transitioned him from being a follower, to being looked up to as a leader. Amidst this evolution, he was taught the importance of family.

“Growing up with five brothers and a sister, you knew it wasn’t about you,” Moeakiola said. “You grew up sharing bedrooms, sharing shoes, sharing clothes with my brothers and stuff.”

The importance of selflessness for the benefit of others was ingrained in Moeakiola as a child. As a middle child, he watched his older brothers and parents do their part to put the family in the best position possible to thrive, then bestowed that wisdom on his younger siblings.

“You just try to do your role in the family, just like you do on the football team, which is try to do your part,” he said. “Try to do whatever you can to help and support your family.”

In order to understand a role, one must understand its purpose. Moeakiola’s parents and their faith, he says, played a key role in defining his. Their discipline and hard work is something he tries to emulate.

Moeakiola’s effort to replicate the hard work and discipline of his parents-along with his understanding of purpose-has translated into both on- and off-field success.

Entering his fifth season at ASU, Moeakiola has gone from being viewed as a sort of younger sibling on the team to growing into a heralded veteran presence his teammates look up to. He was named a co-team captain for all of last season, and is in line to retain his captaincy this year.

Redshirt-senior linebacker Carlos Mendoza was Moeakiola’s roommate during their freshman year. He said Moeakiola garners the team’s respect through his presence on the field.

“People look to him as a leader all around on the team as a captain,” Mendoza said.
Moeakiola, a Trinity High School (Texas) product, said when he joined the Sun Devils, experienced players in the secondary unit provided the guidance he needed early on.

“Everything was so fast-paced,” Moeakiola said.”It was exciting, being behind (former ASU defensive back) Keelan Johnson and the older guys, just learning from them.”

Moeakiola learned quickly. He started his collegiate career by recording an interception during his first career game as a true freshman. In fact, he was in line to have a role with the defense that year prior to battling a hamstring injury that cut his season short two games in.

Still, he managed to bounce back the following year, returning to log 21 tackles in 10 appearances during his redshirt-freshman campaign. That momentum carried into his redshirt-sophomore season in 2014, during which he was named a team captain for the first time.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Moeakiola credited his conversion from safety to SPUR linebacker during the 2013 season for his noticeable improvement. He said linebackers Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam, along with nose tackle Ami Latu (who originally played linebacker) were instrumental in his transition.

Latu said he enjoyed playing alongside Moeakiola, pointing out the latter’s strong communication skills.

“After I transitioned to defensive line, you could still hear him and Salamo calling out the plays, being vocal out there,” Latu said.

Through four seasons, Moeakiola’s officially listed position has changed three times. He was recruited to ASU as a safety, then during his redshirt-freshman season was converted into a SPUR. Now, ahead of his redshirt-senior campaign, he’s expected to return to safety and start there.

Despite the changes, Moeakiola’s purpose remains clear: be an effective communicator and lead by example.

“Before he would always show by example,” Latu said. “But now, everybody looks up to him, so he’s got to be a bit more vocal, and he’s improved a lot.”

Moeakiola has approached each position change as an opportunity to further his understanding of the game.

“You get to learn multiple facets of the game,” Moeakiola said of his switch to safety for his final season. “Whatever I can do from a perspective of being smart and trying to use my strengths on the field, I’m all for it.”

The 22-year old has been involved with football most of his life. Each of his brothers played growing up, along with other members of his family.

“Part of it was just watching TV and hearing my uncles talk about their memories playing in the front yard,” Moeakiola said of his early impressions of the game. “(I remember) having cars drive by and ruin our football games.”

Having played and been around the sport for so long, Moeakiola feels comfortable on the field, allowing him to interchangeably play SPUR or safety. Hybrid linebacker-safeties like him, in particular, have etched out a significant role in the sport over recent years.

Moeakiola says his style of play is patterned after one of the game’s most recent greats who induced the hybrid role’s importance: former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.

Polamalu was a dynamo. During his 12-year NFL career, he displayed range against the pass and hard-hitting run-support ability that was rare for a safety standing at 5-foot-10 and 207 pounds. His production will most likely earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Despite Polamalu’s on-field success, what really drew Moeakiola to the former Steeler-who shares Polynesian heritage-was his way of life off the field.
“He played to honor his coaches, his teammates,” Moeakiola said. “There’s something attractive about that personality that made me think,  ‘Hey, man. I can relate to this kind of guy.'”

He can for good reason. Like the player he grew up idolizing, Moeakiola is active within communities in both Arizona and Texas.

In Texas, he’s been a part of the Student Ministry Project in his hometown of Euless, which helps run church camps. He’s visited patients at the Cooks Children’s Hospital with some of his teammates. In Arizona, he’s volunteered at Sun Devil Football camps, and has served as a mentor for students at Cesar Chavez High School as a representative of the Scholar Baller program.

For his service, he was named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy Award watch list, and earned nominations for both the 2016 Wuerffel Trophy and Allstate AFCA Good Hands Award. Each honor recognizes college football players for their work within the community.

Moeakiola-whose nickname “Laiu” is an abbreviation of his middle name, Ilaiu-credits his parents for instilling a humble and grateful character within him. He said it’s something common amongst Polynesian families.
“Growing up in a Polynesian household, you understand hard work at a young age,” he said. “You understand being appreciative of the opportunity, of having gratitude.”

According to teammates, the 2016 Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award candidate has grown more talkative over his career. Moeakiola said most Polynesian players aren’t talkative because humility is considered paramount.

“The biggest way you can show how much you care is by your actions,” he said of his demeanor.

If that’s the case, Moeakiola has certainly more than shown how much he cares through his performance on the field.

Moeakiola has given body and soul to the game, and he’s battled through injuries while at ASU. He played in all 12 regular season games in 2015, but needed right-shoulder surgery the ensuing offseason. Recent hamstring issues have held him out of preseason practices just ahead of the start of the 2016 campaign.

Regardless, he straps up whenever can, often with a large wrap protruding out of his right-shoulder pad. His teammates commend and respect him for doing so.
Some are even awestruck.

“It’s crazy,” Latu said of Moeakiola’s practice showings. “Watching him holding his arm, and being able to make tackles with just one arm… his shoulder injuries, all his injuries that he’s going through…   Sometimes we think he’s crazy, but that’s how much he loves this game.”

“Crazy” isn’t a word too distant in definition from “fearless,” which happens to be the very word used to describe Moeakiola in his ASU Football player bio online. His fearlessness discharges as passion he says every player should feel when they take the field.

“It just shows true leadership,” Latu said of Moeakiola’s passion.     “(He’s) somebody who won’t give up on his team no matter what.”

Part of the reason for Moeakiola’s commitment to the team is the team’s commitment to him, particularly through his periods of injury rehabilitation. During each instance, he said the team has been there like a family for him.

“I’ve been wishy-washy emotionally with surgeries and all that,” Moeakiola said. “But you’ve gotta have a foundation, and my foundation comes from my faith, the guys around me, and my family.
“They’ve just been so supportive of the things I’ve been through. It helped me stay at peace, stay at calm, and understand it’s not the end of the world.”

Mental toughness is something Mendoza said was a lasting trait Moeakiola instilled within him, and vice versa. Their relationship is one Mendoza says resembles a brotherhood.
“I feel like it’s a relationship that’ll never die,” Mendoza said.

Relationships like the one Moeakiola shares with Mendoza are the reason the defensive back says he remains confident heading into his final year for both the team’s success and his road to recovery.

When Moeakiola was asked to break the rock this offseason to ceremoniously conclude the Sun Devils’ summer workout, he said it was bittersweet to know it was his last time being a part of it. He said he hopes whoever listened to him speak carries his advice for the rest of their lives, and takes advantage of the opportunity they have.

Moeakiola said he wants to do his part by touching players of all personalities and backgrounds, and showing them how to do things. He wants to influence the younger players on the team to understand that without understanding purpose and family, it’s impossible to accomplish anything.

“You can’t (win) without the other 10 guys on that football field and that coaching staff, and the guys behind the scenes,” Moeakiola said. “They all play a role. And it’s just (about) helping each other realize that their role is just as important as yours.”

For Moeakiola, football is more than just a game. It’s about family, relationships, and understanding one’s own purpose and that of others to contribute to something bigger than them.

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