LOGAN, Utah – Growing up in Oakland, Calif., things were not always easy for Paul Piukala. The Utah State senior defensive lineman often found himself in tough situations and in the middle of bad decisions.
“I don’t know why, but I was one of those bad kids back in the day,” Piukala said. “I didn’t make the best choices, and I didn’t like it.”
The day he saw his mother cry because of some troubles he had gotten himself into was the day he decided he’d had enough.
“My parents made me change,” he said. “Seeing my mom cry after hurting her so many times, that made me feel very low.”
As a senior in high school, Piukala earned first-team all-East Bay honors by Bay Area News Group. Additionally, he was one of 20 players selected to Contra Costa Times Bay Area ‘Cream of the Crop’.
From high school, he began his collegiate career at Laney Community College, close to home in Oakland. He was a first-team Region I all-California selection after posting 43 tackles, including 12.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Add to that a pass breakup, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, and he was named Laney’s Defensive MVP during his sophomore season.
During Piukala’s time at Laney, several schools got in contact with him, but Utah State quickly had all of his attention.
“Utah State was the first school that recruited me, but I had other schools talking to me,” Piukala said.
The difference in the mind of Piukala and his parents was the effort former Aggie head coach Gary Andersen and his staff put into their recruiting.
“Coach A was the only coach who came to my house and sat in my living room to talk to us,” Piukala said. “My parents were crying after he talked to us, and I’d never seen them like that. They were crying because they were happy and excited that I didn’t have to pay for school.”
For Piukala, it was refreshing to see his mother’s tears as a result of something positive, rather than the negative things he’d done with his life.
While Coach Andersen had Piukala convinced solely by his desires for the program, he was also swayed by the strong Polynesian influences at Utah State. With the building of the program, the coaching staff began to incorporate Utah players, LDS missionaries and Polynesian kids into their recruiting plan, knowing it would make a difference in the brand they wanted to create.
For the Polynesian players now at Utah State, having that connection is huge for Piukala.
“You connect right there when you see another Polynesian,” Piukala said. “You have the same background and the same struggles. Seeing them is just like being with your family.”
Piukala originally signed with Utah State for the 2011 season, but put things off a bit until the 2012 campaign. He came to Logan ready to make an impact and show the team and fans what he was capable of.
“Junior college is kind of like high school. You could do whatever you want,” Piukala said. “When I got here, everything changed. I became more focused. Coming to Logan was the complete opposite of Oakland, and it’s been great.”
Piukala played in 11 games last season, finishing the year with 14 tackles to go along with one tackle for loss. He had a pass breakup at UTSA and blocked a 34-yard field goal attempt at BYU. He hit his season-high of four tackles twice, against both Wisconsin and San Jose State.
Though he didn’t experience the rougher years of the Utah State football program like some of the other senior class members, he recognizes the growth and development in the program and is proud to have been a part of it. He is here to give his all and be successful.
“I just do my job, that’s it. Football is the only thing I know and the only way I do that is by giving 100 percent of my effort. That’s what I do,” Piukala said. “I just want to contribute to the team.”
Driven by the hope of pleasing his parents, Piukala now also has another motivator in his drive and determination.
“My parents and my daughter are what drive me,” he said. “She just turned one and she’s what keeps me striving for success.”
So much of the Utah State football system is about teaching its players to be more than that. It is understood that a football career can only last so long and there is so much more ahead.
“Everything they’ve taught me here can be applied in the real world,” Piukala said. “Our core values are huge: treating women with respect, honesty and not stealing.”
Those core values are lessons instilled in every player that steps foot onto the third floor of the Jim and Carol Laub Athletics Academics Complex. While the coaches are out to win games and create a legacy for the program, it is more important to them that their young men leave campus with the tools necessary to be successful once they are done playing football.
As the team continues in its inaugural season in the Mountain West Conference, the goals for most of the players are simple. The team is bound and determined to come out of the season as conference champions and each athlete has dedicated themselves to that mission.
“This season is it. We’re going to win the Mountain West. We’re determined to,” Piukala said. “I just want to do my job and execute everything. I’m going to give 100 percent effort.”
Piukala will graduate this December with a degree in sociology. Like the rest of his graduating class, he has his sights set on a stint in the NFL. After his football career comes to an end, he plans on becoming a firefighter and continue to make his family proud.