Young Samoan moves toward N.F.L. dream

A 17-year-old on an athletic scholarship at a California high school has graduated after two difficult years as the school's only Samoan student. But he is now one step closer to his dream of playing in the National Football League.

Rimoni Junior graduated with a high school diploma from the Santa Margarita Catholic School in Rancho, Los Angeles, a school he was attending on an American football scholarship 

The youngest son of Lealailepule Rimoni and Tagaloa Sharon Aiafi, Rimoni was 15 years of age when he flew to America in 2019. He had just been selected for a scholarship after being scouted by one of the National Football League's (N.F.L.) most influential Polynesian players in its history. 

Two years later he graduated with a high school diploma. Last Saturday and he told the Samoa Observer that the journey wasn’t easy, especially being separated from his family and parents for a long time.

Rimoni still remembers vividly how he got his call-up to a potential N.F.L. career two years ago when Samoan former American football player Jesse Sapolu visited Apia in 2019.

"I remember when Jesse Sapolu and [Molesi Time] came to Samoa for their football initiative in 2019, thinking 'this is it, this is my calling’,” he said.

“Luckily I had experience as a rugby player so it wasn’t too hard picking up on the football plays and I had great coaches and support.”

And settling into life in Santa Margarita to launch his football career also had its challenges and he recalls being the only Pacific Islander student in a school dominated by children with caucasian parents.

"I was honored to get a scholarship to Santa Margarita, one of the top high schools in America, it was overwhelming as the school is dominated by white kids,” Rimoni said.

“I had major culture shock and I was probably one of five students who took the bus as everyone drove themselves to school and kids even made fun of me for owning a 'Samsung'.”

However, he decided not to throw in the towel and instead make use of those challenges to motivate him to do well in his studies. 

"I've always looked up to my parents and siblings who've always been hard-working and have done well education wise and now have stable careers. 

“I often felt like I was the odd one out..and so when I moved to the U.S. despite being only 15 years old I was motivated and hungry to make a name for myself and make my family proud, it hasn't been easy."

Adding that he was the “baby” of his family, Rimoni said he was coddled all of his life and to suddenly become independent when he left for the U.S. made him realise that he was now the captain of his own fate. 

“My future is in my own hands, people back home think that I'm living the life being in America but the truth is it's hard," he said. 

And his training regimen reflects his commitment: it includes 5.30 am training sessions and his days usually ending sometime between 8 pm to 9 pm.

"I have to wake up at 5.30 am [...] for school and [to] train for football afterwards so I get home around 8-9 pm with assignments to complete; it was a challenge to adapt to this lifestyle," he said. 

“But I'm grateful for this opportunity and am proud to have overcome all obstacles and come this far.”

Rimoni's studies also meant he missed his grandmother’s funeral service in January this year and had to mourn her passing alone.

Despite these challenges, he remains transfixed on his dream of playing in America's biggest sporting league, the N.F.L., and is currently awaiting his chance. 

"I am really grateful to God that this chapter of my life has ended successfully and I am awaiting a college scholarship to hopefully fulfill my dream of becoming a N.F.L. player," he said. 

“It's been great so far only last week we had the Polynesian Bowl game where all the top poly footballers complete (roughly 400 students) and I was one of the top O Line players, which is my wish is for my family could have been here to witness it all especially my parents.”

Rimoni acknowledged the support of his parents and families in Samoa and the U.S. throughout his journey

"I acknowledge my parents dearly, who have sacrificed so much to get here, I miss them every day but this is all for them," he said.

"'Work hard and play harder' – that is my motto since I got to the States.

“Not forgetting my families, our church who have been in Samoa who have prayed and supported me, it means the world to me and my journey.

"[A] 'thank you' has to go to my U.S. parents, uncle Molesi Time and Aunty Imeleta, uncle Tasi Afamasaga and Aunty Eteline. 

“I'm very grateful because even though I really miss my family in Samoa, I already feel at home with you all. 

“Thank you to my brothers Michael, Marcus, DJ, and Manase, thank you for the support and treating me like a real brother. 

“Not forgetting Seiuli Manase Sapolu and aunty Lisa whoever thought that I will be lucky to be trained and working closely with Jesse Sapolu, a Samoan former American football player in the National Football League who has four super bowl rings. 

“Thank you so much for the sponsorship.”

Rimoni Junior hails from the villages of Vaitele, Alafua, Vailoa-Faleata, Asaga and Samatau.

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