ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Petelo Leota didn’t know much about football until his two sons picked up the game in America.
A native of Western Samoa, Petelo grew up playing rugby, but the extent of his interest in football was limited to watching an occasional game on the American television network.
“If you called me 10-12 years ago and talked to me about football, I would have said, ‘I’m never setting foot on a football field. I’m not interested. I’m a rugby player,’” Petelo said. “But I came here — the more I understand the game, the more I find it’s not rugby. It’s similar, but it’s different.”
Pika, his oldest son, played rugby when they still lived in Western Samoa.
“It was not organized games, like you would get an organized team versus team,” Petelo said. “It’s a regular game of village kids every evening, except Sundays.”
The Leotas moved to Asheville while Pika and his younger brother, Andrew, were in elementary school.
After watching Andrew play football, Pika joined the middle school team as an eighth grader. Struggles with some of the equipment provided him with plenty of early headaches.
“I didn’t really like putting on the helmet, because my head was too big,” he said. “They didn’t have any helmets that would fit me.”
The coaches finally found a good fit, and Pika eventually grew into a three-star offensive lineman at Asheville High School. Now, less than a week since moving to Columbia, he’s a freshman at South Carolina.
“I’m just grateful. I’m more than grateful that he has an opportunity to keep going with an education … it’s important to me that he goes to school,” Petelo said. “We have our qualities here with me and my wife. If you’re not keeping up with the academic side of things, you’re not playing football. I’m that parent, so if you want to play football, you’ve got to be good at school.”
South Carolina landed Pika’s commitment in September. About a month later, Steve Spurrier announced he was retiring as the Gamecocks coach.
“I thought (Spurrier) had two more years. He said he had four more years, but I really thought he had two more years in him,” Pika said, “But I understand that he had to step down, so it was really hard on my family, but I think I still had to stick in there for (offensive line) Coach (Shawn) Elliott.”
He revisited some of his other opportunities after Spurrier’s departure, but his primary concern was Elliott and whether or not he’d be back on the new staff.
“He’s a really good coach, fundamentally. I think he can get me to the professional level,” he said of Elliott. “He’s really good for my pass-blocking drills, because I haven’t really learned that much about it, since my high school does a lot of running. That’s what I’ll be able to bring to South Carolina, run-blocking. When he teaches me pass-blocking, that will be good.”
Former Asheville High School coach Danny Wilkins, who retired at the end of Leota’s senior season, believes his former player could stay at tackle or move inside to guard for South Carolina.
“He’s got a nice wing-span. Size-wise, he’s actually dropped a little bit of weight. He played around 300 in the fall and he’s about 285 right now — he’s been doing some running,” Wilkins said. “I worry a little bit about his hips. That’s something I told Shawn that’s something he’s going to have to continue to work on. He’s extremely strong from the waist down, but the flexibility in his hips is something he’s going to have to continue to work on. He’s feet are pretty good.”
Wilkins added, “He’s an intense, aggressive guy when he gets in that right frame of mind. Other times, he’s kind of the gentle, easy-going giant. He’s going to have to be able to turn it on and off. I think part of that is going to come to fruition because he’s going to be with folks that are bigger and better than he is, so it becomes that thing you’ve got to step it up.”