Inside Aussie’s ‘mind-boggling’ rise from ‘world’s biggest water boy’ to NFL history

Home » Inside Aussie’s ‘mind-boggling’ rise from ‘world’s biggest water boy’ to NFL history
Inside Aussie’s ‘mind-boggling’ rise from ‘world’s biggest water boy’ to NFL history

Just over five years ago, Daniel Faalele had his first taste of American high school football.

By the time that game was over, the Australian had made that big an impression that it was called “the most unfair spring game in high school football history” by Saturday Down South — the leading voice in Southeastern Conference Football.

It had only been nine months since Faalele, then 16 years old, left Box Hill Senior Secondary College in Victoria, chasing a dream in a sport he barely knew anything about.

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Daniel Faalele made an immediate impact in his first IMG game. (Photo by Casey Brooke Lawson)Source: Supplied

For his first year with the IMG Academy, an American boarding school with its own prestigious football program, Faalele simply soaked it all in.

He was “the world’s biggest water boy”, as the Academy’s football properties manager Don Zoloty put it.

But midway through 2017, Faalele was not running water anymore. Instead, he was running directly at East Ridge’s Josh Colston, who still remembers that game against Faalele and IMG.

Although, at that stage, he did not know Faalele by name. Rather, his coaches simply told him he would be lining up against “this Australian kid who is 6-foot-9, 400 pounds.”

“It was basically trying to get around a giant boulder,” Colston, who now works as a software engineer, told foxsports.com.au.

Daniel Faalele surprised IMG teammates with his pure size. Source: IMG Academy.Source: Supplied

“I could have a perfect jump off the ball, beat him by half a step and all he’d have to do is take one big 6-foot-9 step and he sized me up.”

When Faalele first arrived at IMG, he did not even know what a first down was. Like Philadelphia Eagles star Jordan Mailata, no-one knew exactly how far this dream could take him.

Now Faalele is following in the footsteps of his fellow Polynesian Australian, drafted into the NFL with the 110th overall pick by the Baltimore Ravens.

But Faalele was not always on that path to American football. In fact, before he had even heard of the IMG Academy, Faalele was an “unstoppable” force in the same suburban basketball factory that produced Ben Simmons.

‘JUST A DIFFERENT BEAST’: MAKING HIS MARK ON THE COURT

There is no other school in Australia that produces as many basketball players as Box Hill Senior Secondary College. Simmons is its most famous alumnus.

Kevin Goorjian — brother of former Australian Boomers coach Brian — thought Simmons had the potential to be one of the country’s best players. Now Simmons is a three-time NBA All-Star.

But when Faalele walked into Box Hill SSC in 2014, he stood out for very different reasons.

“The size factor was unbelievable when I first saw him,” Goorjian, who was Faalele’s basketball coach, told foxsports.com.au.

“It was like: ‘Whoa, what do we have here?’. He was later than Ben Simmons. Daniel came after and it was just a different beast because of his strength and size and power around the basket. If it was a half-court game, he’d get around the basket and he was unstoppable there.”

Damian Dwyer was Box Hill SSC’s assistant principal at the time. He described Faalele as a “freak of nature”.

Daniel Faalele poses with Damian Dwyer. Supplied: Box Hill Senior Secondary College.Source: Supplied

“He was over 200 centimetres tall, 170 kilos and ran like the wind,” he told foxsports.com.au.

But it was not just Faalele’s size that made him stand out.

“Daniel’s story was different – I knew he was going to be a good athlete, I just didn’t know if basketball was going to be him,” Goorjian said.

Faalele had played rugby union when he was younger but left the sport because he would unintentionally injure opposition players when he tackled them.

Goorjian described him as a “gentle giant” — even when on the court, mindful of always playing the right way.

“There was no-one his size at that age,” Goorjian said.

Daniel Faalele posing with a medal during his time at Box Hill SSC. Supplied: Box Hill Senior Secondary College.Source: Supplied

“You knew he was always going to be big and strong but he was a gentle giant when he was with me. He could’ve wiped people out but he didn’t. He could run right over you. But he didn’t play like that.”

That is not to say that Faalele did not make his presence felt on the court though.

“There were scrimmages and plays where he stood out,” Goorjian said.

“All the senior kids would be like: ‘Whoa, he’s going to be good’…. you knew he was going to be an athlete and do something special.”

Which exact sport Faalele would end up in remained up in the air though.

“He just needed to be put in a direction as to what to do with his prestigious talent,” Dwyer said.

Faalele found that direction after a knee injury led him to a gym in southeast Melbourne.

A NEW DREAM IS BORN: HOW IT ‘ALL CHANGED’ FOR FAALELE

Dave Tuinauvai is the head of performance at Conquest Athletic Performance. He also happens to be friends with University of Hawaii football coach Chris Naeole.

When Faalele walked into Conquest in 2015, he was still an aspiring basketball player. Tuinauvai saw something different.

“He definitely had the size and presence of a football player, not a basketball player,” Tuinauvai told foxsports.com.au.

“As soon as I saw him, I knew that if he wanted to and put his head towards it, he could transition to football.”

Daniel Faalele with Conquest’s Head of Performance Dave Tuinauvai and Eneasi Kavapalu.Source: Supplied

But all Faalele knew was basketball. It is why he went to Conquest in the first place, wanting help not only rehabbing his knee but improving his athleticism to become a better player.

“I think at the start, like any 16 year old who has dreams and aspirations to play basketball at the time because that is all he knew, that is what he wanted to chase,” Tuinauvai said.

“That is, until he met us and started seeing [that] I also had other kids in my program that were also 6-foot-6 big kids, playing rugby and also willing to make the transition (to American football). It made him a lot more comfortable to know that if he was to transition, he has the ability to do it.

“With coach Chris’ help that is where it all changed for him and he flew down and offered him on the spot a scholarship to the University of Hawaii.”

But it was not that simple. Making the decision to pursue football was one thing, actually committing to it was another entirely.

“He had to prove to me he had that drive and determination to play football,” Tuinauvai said.

So, he trained everyday, before and after school, doing “everything” from boxing with professional fighters to strongman sessions where he lifted a 200-kilogram tyre.

“I had to pull the trigger on Daniel and make him work extremely hard,” Tuinauvai said.

“He really had to find something within him to be able to persist and continue. Once he flicked that switch in terms of him wanting to do this, as we know, the rest is history.”

Word quickly began to spread about Faalele, this unknown Australian giant, and fellow offensive line prospect Eneasi Kavapalu. So much so that University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh held a scouting camp for Australian prospects in Melbourne in 2016 and naturally, Faalele stood out.

Daniel Faalele with Conquest’s Head of Performance Dave Tuinauvai, Chris Naeole and Eneasi Kavapalu.Source: Supplied

“I would say most of them would have been punters,” Goorjian said.

“But him at that size, he would have turned everybody’s heads because he had good footwork because of football and he had good hands.”

Suddenly, Faalele was a target for multiple Division I schools but in the end he transferred to the elite IMG Academy, a football powerhouse.

Within two months of that satellite camp Faalele was on a plane, flying over 15,000 kilometres to Florida, not sure what would come of it, whether it was just the first stop of many.

After all, forget Faalele’s larger-than-life size or unique skill set, he still had to learn the game first. But none of that mattered, not when one of Faalele’s former coaches first laid eyes on him.

FROM THE ‘WORLD’S BIGGEST WATER BOY’ TO IN-DEMAND TALENT

Billy Miller can still remember the moment Faalele walked through the gates at IMG Academy. It was a 10am walk-through and the Academy was playing later that evening.

“All of a sudden, all of the kids just stopped and looked over at the gate,” Miller said in an IMG Academy video.

“So I peeked over and I saw this humungous kid walking through the gate. It’s the first time practice had ever stopped without a whistle before.”

New Orleans Saints guard and IMG product Cesar Ruiz weighs in at 143 kilograms himself but even he admitted that Faalele was a different beast.

“I know he was way bigger than all of us,” Ruiz told foxsports.com.au.

“Immediately from his physical appearance, I was just like: ‘This kid is huge’.”

So huge that he once delivered a hit that sent Kansas City Chiefs defensive end and former IMG teammate Josh Kaindoh airborne.

“He used to do that all the time,” Ruiz said.

“He was just so much bigger than everybody and so solid that there would be times, we’d be doing things [at] 50 per cent, 70 per cent [and] Daniel would have to slow down. He didn’t understand he was way stronger than everybody on the field. I would have seen him send people flying constantly.”

Daniel Faalele in the weights room. Source: IMG Academy.Source: Supplied

But before Faalele was sending people flying, he was doing it in his spare time on the video game ‘Madden’. You see, Faalele had not watched an actual football game before he got to IMG.

“He had no idea,” Don Zoloty, the IMG Academy’s football properties manager, told foxsports.com.au.

“He didn’t know if there was air in a football, he didn’t know what a first down was, nothing. But he was really gifted, smart and athletic. The first year he was pretty much the world’s biggest water boy. He travelled with us and learned the game.”

So Faalele turned to his teammates, including Ruiz, and less than a year later was running out against East Ridge and Colston for that high school game.

“Danny is still learning and just that alone is kind of scary,” Zoloty said.

“He basically took a year to learn a game that he didn’t really know. That light probably came on when he figured: ‘Hey listen. You know, this is something that a lot of people dream about and I’ve got the opportunity to really use what I have’. Not only athletically, but the resources that he has to get him not only through college but to the next level.”

Faalele playing for IMG against Carol City in 2017. (Photo by Casey Brooke Lawson)Source: Supplied

That point was not lost on Goorjian either, who knows just how significant it was for Faalele to make it to IMG in the first place.

“It’s like an American kid trying to play cricket,” Goorjian said.

“It takes 10 years to learn, so if you grow up with it you’re fine. If you get into IMG, you have to be the best of the best. They only take a certain amount of kids. You don’t get chosen unless they know you’ve got unbelievable potential and those coaches don’t make mistakes. They don’t pick many guys who aren’t the best in their field.”

And you don’t have 20 offers, including from the likes of Alabama, Georgia and LSU, if you are not a genuine NFL-calibre prospect.

But Faalele passed on those three Southeastern Conference heavyweights to instead play college football with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

It was a surprise to most, including Minnesota’s own offensive line coach, but there was one “major factor” that pulled him in that direction.

HOW AN ‘UNOFFICIAL’ MEETING SPARKED MINNESOTA MOVE

When Minnesota offensive line coach Brian Callahan first met Faalele, he did not think that much of it. Callahan himself said there was “tremendous” interest in the Australian at the time, to the extent that he left the “unofficial” meeting without any real expectations.

“Well, it’s kind of funny,” he told foxsports.com.au.

“The first time I ever met Daniel was when he came up to Minnesota with one of his teammates from IMG.

“They came up here for spring break and we kind of had an unofficial visit with him. It was one of those: ‘Just hey, let’s say hello to this guy’ but he had all these scholarship offers that were the big-time programs. So we never thought much of it, thinking, we’ll just be nice and who knows what happens? I didn’t anticipate us being able to actually get him.”

Daniel Faalele decided to go to Minnesota. Source: University of Minnesota.Source: Supplied

But they did and while not the obvious choice, Minnesota actually made plenty of sense given Faalele’s circumstances. It can be easy to forget just how much he gave up to travel to the other side of the world, all in the hope of making it in a sport that may as well have been a foreign language.

Faalele was homesick in his first week at IMG, so any sense of security was immediately appealing and that is what he found at the Golden Gophers. A family away from his actual one on the other side of the world.

IMG teammates Zack Annexstad and Curtis Dunlap Jr. both committed to Minnesota, offering Faalele a “support system” which Zoloty said was “a major part” of his decision.

Faalele found a much-needed level of comfort with the Gophers. Source: University of Minnesota.Source: Supplied

So much had changed in Faalele’s life in such a short span of time, even the smallest bit of familiarity would help — including the fact Callahan had an existing connection with his former offensive line coach Derek Shay.

“I think he felt the comfort level here that he didn’t at the other places and that’s how we ended up getting him,” Callahan said.

“Since Derek had worked with me and under me, so to speak, there was some familiarity when Daniel took his official visit here about how we talked about football and how we teach it.”

Daniel Faalele in action for the Gophers. Source: University of Minnesota.Source: Supplied

That did not mean that Faalele was finished learning, that this once distant dream was now a sure thing. Far from it. Faalele still had to prove himself and still had to learn.

In a perfect world, Faalele would have spent the entire 2018 season redshirting, taking the time to learn the game at his speed, like he did at IMG.

But that was in a perfect world… and at Minnesota, the offensive line was far from perfect. In fact, quarterback Annexstad had been sacked 13 times in five games before the Gophers pulled the trigger on Faalele.

Still, Minnesota had to be sure Faalele was ready, not just physically but emotionally and mentally, because his first career start was not just any game.

Faalele’s initiation to college football would come in front of over 100,000 fans and against the eventual Big Ten champions Ohio State.

Running out at Ohio Stadium is a daunting experience. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

“It’s very loud and it’s a tough environment to play in,” Callahan said.

“I think we did spend extra time making sure Daniel was comfortable with the plays and his reactions and those things.”

But Faalele did not wilt under the pressure. Instead, he rose to the occasion and went on to start another eight games as Minnesota reached 20-plus passing and rushing touchdowns for the first time in program history.

Faalele only took his game to the next level in 2019, starting 11 games at right tackle as he helped block for a Minnesota offence that rewrote its record books.

MINNESOTA’S 2019 SEASON IN NUMBERS

Ran for 5,616 yards — third most in school history

Threw for 3,293 yards — most in school history

Scored 443 points — second most in school history in the modern era

Faalele opted out of the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns but returned the following year to start all 12 games while surrendering only one sack on 777 snaps.

He was named to the All-Big Ten first team while capping off his year with a rare rushing touchdown — the first of his career.

But it was what Faalele did at the start of the year against Ohio State that proved just how far he had come.

“He played tremendously,” Callahan said of Faalele.

“He played lights out against arguably the best team on our schedule by far and he was able to more than hold his own and show what he was capable of doing.”

Faalele came a long way at Minnesota. Source: University of Minnesota.Source: Supplied

Faalele had shown glimpses of it in his first career start against the Buckeyes, enough to have Callahan declaring: “He doesn’t know how good he can be… he has the potential to be an outstanding football player for a long time”.

The Baltimore Ravens saw that potential in Faalele when they drafted him with the 110th overall pick.

It completed an “unbelievable” journey to the NFL, one Goorjian reckons some Australians still don’t fully appreciate for just how “hard” it was.

THE ‘INSPIRING’ IMPACT OF FAALELE’S JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN

The 174-kilogram Faalele enters the NFL as its heaviest current player and the fifth heaviest in league history. But Faalele is so much more than his size.

To make it out as if that was the only reason he made it to the NFL would be doing Faalele a disservice, as his former basketball coach Goorjian explained.

“It wasn’t just because he was born with the size that made him the player,” he said.

“Sure, that was wonderful, but he worked. He went to the weight room, did all his individual sessions, did extras.”

And he had to. Every other athlete, be it at IMG or Minnesota, already had a headstart on Faalele. Ruiz, his former IMG teammate and now Saints guard, had been playing since he was 11 years old.

“You have to have a work ethic I don’t think a lot of Australians understand,” Goorjian said. “The sports ones would but the normal Aussies, you would have no idea how hard it would be to get through two years of IMG and four years at the University of Minnesota. There are a lot more coaches in that college than in the AFL. Everything he did would have been watched and fixed, it’s a lot of work.

“You can’t just be talented. If you’re not dedicated, you’re not going to get there, I don’t care how much talent you have. They would’ve taken him to where he had never been before. The workouts he would have went through would have been unbelievable, how hard it would have been.”

Faalele has been on quite the journey. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

It was all worth it, for that moment when Faalele had his name called out, once a blank canvas now officially an NFL player. Of course, he is not the finished product. Like Mailata, there will still be more lessons to be learned, hurdles to overcome.

But Zoloty still remembers the Faalele that first arrived at IMG, the one who six years ago had not played a football game in his life.

“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, just what he’s accomplished,” he said, reflecting back on Faalele’s journey.

“Watching him in college, scoring touchdowns and blocking a tackle, it’s almost mind-boggling the things that he could do.”

Faalele speaking at the NFL Combine earlier this year. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Callahan clearly has a high opinion of Faalele but just like any good coach, he was careful not to get too carried away when asked just how good the Australian could be in the NFL.

“I don’t want to jump ahead too soon on this interview,” he said, not wanting Faalele burdened by expectation.

“But he’s a guy that I still think has a tremendous upside. Daniel’s always gotten notoriety because he’s the biggest college football player and he’s bigger than anybody that we’ve had and his size has done that. But he’s also a dang good football player.

“He’s also a guy that did do a lot of extra work on his own to progress and I still feel he still has got room to grow in the NFL.”

Regardless of just how much Faalele grows in the NFL, he has already left his mark on the sport here in Australia — even if he may not realise it yet.

Just ask Tuinauvai, the gym director who Faalele came to seven years ago, at that point an aspiring basketball player. That is, until he met Tuinauvai and saw other athletes in his program like him who were making the transition to American football.

They gave Faalele a reason to believe and now he is doing the same.

“Daniel has definitely changed the scope for kids coming through Conquest,” Tuinauvai said.

CURRENT AUSTRALIAN PROSPECTS FROM CONQUEST:

Eneasi Kavapalu (Juco), Ben Key (Missouri SEC), Junior Ta’ase (University of Hawaii), Joe Ta’ase (LA Tech), Fau Tavai (North Alabama College), Izrael Uili (East Los Angeles College), Sione Foliaki (Mt. San Antonio College), Tom Smith (New Mexico Military Institute)

“It does inspire not only the kids in Australia but all across the Pacific. It [football] is unknown here in Australia but now things are starting to open up and we’ve got a lot more kids coming through the pipeline who will be on the same path as Daniel.

“I’m pretty hard on all the kids I work with because the opportunity that they have is life-changing. To see him [Faalele] now going into the draft, from where he was, it is inspiring for the rest of the kids I have now, chasing the same dream.”

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