Overcoming tough times: BYU football OL Keanu Saleapaga’s road back wasn’t easy | News, Sports, Jobs

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Keanu Saleapaga (61), Dax Milne (82) and Tristen Hoge (69) celebrate a BYU touchdown in a game against USC at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

BYU Courtesy Photo

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BYU offensive lineman Brady Christensen (67) and offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga (61) celebrate with the Old Wagon Wheel trophy after they defeated Utah State 42-14 in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

Eli Lucero/Herald Journal

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Keanu Saleapaga poses for a photo during BYU Photo Day.

Tyler Richardson, BYU Photo

BYU senior offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga is a giant of a man, listed on the Cougar roster as 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds.

But the last couple of years showed Saleapaga with harsh clarity that size and strength don’t prevent difficult times.

“It’s been crazy but I think it has been a huge lesson for me,” Saleapaga said after practice on Monday. “I experienced one of the lowest points of my life in the last couple of years. Just getting out of it and be able to be here today has made me a stronger person.”

He recalled being at a point in his life where things were going well — and then lots of challenges crashed down on him in a relatively short period of time.

“I’d never experienced family members passing away back-to-back,” Saleapaga said. “I’d never really experienced injuries, never had to have surgery until the past couple of years. It was really difficult mentally and physically. Having to be out physically took it toll on me mentally. It made not really want to come back.”

In those times where the BYU senior struggled the most, he said he felt fortunate to have many people in his life who helped him get through.

“The biggest influences were my parents, my siblings, my girlfriend and church,” Saleapaga said. “They believed in me when I really didn’t believe in myself. They saw more in me when I was down and out than I did when I looked in the mirror. If it wasn’t for them pushing me, telling me how much they believed in me, making sacrifices so I could be here today, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Saleapaga’s Cougar teammates knew that being hurt was taking a toll on Saleapaga.

“When I first got here, Keanu was coming off of his first injury,” BYU sophomore offensive lineman Connor Pay said. “Then he was able to come back for a little bit and we were able to play together. And then he unfortunately got injured again. He has spent the last two years mostly on the sidelines wanting to be out here with us more than anything.”

Saleapaga said he felt “physically and mentally injured” and he told his parents that he thought he was done with football.

“They accepted it but they told me that they felt in their hearts that they couldn’t let me quit like that, that I had a lot more to give,” Saleapaga said. “They had me take a week to think it over. I prayed about it a lot. I needed a feeling and it finally came. I sat down and told my parents that I knew it was going to take a lot of work to get back but that I was ready to get to work. They had the confidence in me to help me come back.”

While he was unable to play football, Saleapaga focused a lot on getting his degree — which just happens to be in family studies.

“A lot of times we take situations from home and talk about them in class,” Saleapaga said. “I also catch myself finding a lot of things in class that my parents told me that I didn’t believe, that now my teachers are telling me. I should’ve listened. I love this major.”

Getting the aid and guidance from his family eventually put him in a position to tell his friends on the BYU football team that he was returning.

“It was good to tell my teammates I was coming back,” Saleapaga said. “I got a lot of texts asking how I was doing, so when I finally told them I was coming back they were ecstatic. I think I’m one of the more experienced guys in the room. I’m super hyped to be back.”

Pay said he knows Saleapaga appreciates everything even more because of his journey.

“I think his experiences cause him to not take anything for granted,” Pay said. “Football can be short-lived. You think you will have this long football career but it goes very fast. Cherishing every day and working as hard as you can every day, I think that’s something Keanu brings.”

The Cougar senior said he also pays more attention to what others around him are feeling so he can help them get through their challenges, just like so many people did for him.

“After I got my hump mentally and physically, I started noticing things in my siblings, my cousins, even strangers,” Saleapaga said. “I’m more social, wanting to lend a helping hand. After everything, I’m definitely more understanding. I understand that people come from different experiences, so I’m more sensitive to that.”

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