Sittler column: For Oklahoma State's Tolu Moala, blessings keep on coming
BY DAVE SITTLER World Sports Columnist
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
10/05/10 at 10:25 AM
Go to Dave Sittler's BlogOriginal Print Headline: Moala's blessings keep coming
STILLWATER - An eventful day in the life of Tolu Moala was just the latest compelling chapter in the Oklahoma State linebacker's intriguing 25-year journey.
Late Wednesday night, Moala was in the emergency room of a local hospital caring for his 11-week-old daughter. Just a few hours later, an emergency forced a sleep-deprived Moala into the biggest challenge of his football career.
The fact he handled both crisis situations calmly and successfully is a testament to the knowledge and experience Moala gained long before arriving on OSU's campus.
A California native of Tongan descent, Moala overcame the fear and accepted the responsibilities of being a teenage missionary. And he didn't let the rejection of attending his "dream" school ruin his dream of playing major-college football.
That hectic 24-hour period last week had two happy endings for Moala. His daughter's medical condition was stabilized, and he brought some much-needed stability to OSU's defense in the Cowboys' thrilling, last-second 38-35 win over Texas A&M.
"It was a good day for me," Moala said Monday.
It's been a good life for Moala. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Cowboy senior was 19 years old when he was sent to Brazil on a two-year mission.
"I basically cried the first three months," Moala said. "It wasn't the best two years of my life. It was the most difficult, but it was worthwhile and the most rewarding two years of my life."
Those early months ended in tears because Moala didn't speak Portuguese, Brazil's official language. When you're going door-to-door spreading the word of God, it helps if those you're trying to convert understand what you're saying.
Instead of leaving, a homesick Moala opted instead to immerse himself in the Brazilian culture. Living in Brasilia, the nation's capital, Moala quickly added Portuguese as his fourth fluent language.
Although he was totally disconnected from football those two years, Moala's love for the game eventually led him to El Camino (Calif.) Community College when he returned to the United States.
After two successful seasons, Moala was thrilled when he was offered a scholarship to attend and play for Brigham Young University.
"BYU was always a dream for me because I am a member of the LDS Mormon Church," said Moala, who will turn 26 in November. "And there were 40 married men on the team that were all about 24 or 25 because they had also returned from LDS missions."
When BYU officials informed him he wouldn't immediately be eligible because of academic requirements, a crushed Moala was granted a release from his letter of intent. He eventually signed with OSU after being recruited by then-defensive coordinator Tim Beckman.
"To travel halfway across the country with my family was something new," he said. "But my wife and I decided, 'let's do it.' I'd never been to Oklahoma, and it's been great for me."
Along with his wife, Elisa, and a son, Moala spent his 2008 season at OSU as a redshirt because of injury. After playing every game as a backup last season, Moala was primed for a breakout year in 2010 when his life took yet another interesting turn.
After he injured a knee during fall camp, Moala was told his career was over because the initial MRI couldn't even locate his anterior cruciate ligament. Arthroscopic surgery revealed the ACL was indeed intact and needed only minor repair.
"I was still drugged up in the hospital when I heard the news, but I was still jumping for joy," said Moala, who had to sit out the first two games after the surgery. "Miracles do happen. I believe in it."
Moala and his wife were back in the miracle-hunting business when their daughter was hospitalized with breathing difficulties. They were relieved when tests revealed the child's voice box wasn't fully developed at birth, but will be normal within two years.
"When she inhaled, her voice box would collapse," Moala said. "It was definitely scary."
After spending a mostly sleepless night in the hospital, Moala returned in time for Thursday's 8:30 a.m. team meeting. He spent the rest of the day preparing the OSU's critical Big 12 Conference opener against the Aggies.
When starting linebacker Justin Gent suffered a concussion on the game's third play, Moala replaced him. After nearly four hours and a whopping 103 defensive plays later, Moala and the Pokes were 4-0.
Moala, who paints his face before every game to honor his Tongan heritage, finished with a career-high eight tackles, including seven solo stops. After being involved in 10 plays against Tulsa in his first game, Moala was slated for about 30 plays against A&M.
"My body was dead after the game," the 6-foot, 230-pound Moala said.
But the victory made it hurt so good for Moala. He had delivered when his team desperately needed him, a team he didn't think he'd be a part of when he was hurt in August.
"You never know how important something is until it's taken away from you," he said. "I'm just so grateful to be back."
A survivor because of his ability to persevere and adapt, Moala had a lot to be grateful for last week. And neither his superb play nor the huge win was at the top of his list.