LOGAN, Utah – For most, a leap of faith is a metaphorical experience. A lot of the time, it doesn’t involve hopping on a plane and flying almost 3,000 miles to a new place that is different in almost every way. But for some, taking that one chance changes their life.
Senior nose guard Elvis Kamana-Matagi took that leap of faith. He had the chance to stay home and play for the University of Hawai’i, but after meeting with former Utah State head coach Gary Andersen, he knew what he had to do.
“Coach Andersen has a way with Polynesians. I don’t even know what it is,” Kamana-Matagi said. “My parents didn’t want me to go anywhere else but here with Coach Andersen. Even if I wanted to go somewhere else, I don’t think my parents would have let me go. At the end of the day, I decided, but my parents had a big impact on my decision.”
The changes Kamana-Matagi saw when he moved from the Islands to a mountain town would have been enough to shock most people.
“I’m from Maui. The island of Oahu is more city, but Maui, where I live, it’s just one road,” Kamana-Matagi said. “I had never seen snow and I’ve never seen this many white people in my life, to be honest. I couldn’t even speak good English. I came over here, and I learned to speak better English, too.”
By enduring those changes, Kamana-Matagi was able to be one of the first in a major culture change for Utah State football. Andersen started recruiting Polynesian players to Utah, and the more he did, the more the identity of the program changed.
“This is what he started. Look how many Polynesian players we have now on this team. When I first got here, we had Polynesians, but there was only like four or five of us. Now there’s 15, maybe even 20 of us,” Kamana-Matagi said. “A lot of Polynesians come from Salt Lake City or California, but he would recruit boys like me from the Islands to come over here, which was good. That’s what I liked about Coach Andersen.”
The coaching staff liked what he saw in Kamana-Matagi. In the 3-4 defense, the defensive line, especially the nose guard, has to be able to disrupt the offensive line enough to allow other players to make easy tackles, and Kamana-Matagi has that ability.
“I’m the nose so I have to hold my ground. It starts at the d-line, especially in the middle with me,” Kamana-Matagi said. “I have one of the most important jobs. I have to take up blocks so the linebackers can make plays and the defensive ends can make plays.”
When it comes to this job, Kamana-Matagi is held in a high regard by the coaches.
“Obviously he’s one of our leaders, but he’s pretty much the rock of our d-line because we believe in starting from the inside out,” said defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe. “He’s a great run defender; he takes pride in it. We kind of make him the rock in terms of the solid foundation for both the defensive line, for sure, and for the defense.”
As a nose guard, Kamana-Matagi won’t put up staggering tackle numbers or numerous sacks due to getting double-teamed by offensive linemen. In four years of football after redshirting his freshman year, Kamana-Matagi has played in 37 games and recorded 32 tackles. But by doing his part and eating up blocks, the Aggies are able to execute their game plan.
“As a d-line, we have our individual goals, stop the run,” said Kamana-Matagi. “That’s our main thing for all of us individually and as a unit. Make the other team one-dimensional and we should win.”
Because of his role in the defense, however, it makes it that much more special when he’s able to make a huge individual play.
Kamana-Matagi’s first career sack came against a ranked, in-state opponent that Utah State hadn’t beaten in Provo for 36 years.
“My sack against BYU this year and beating BYU in Provo are my greatest memories,” Kamana-Matagi said.
“It came in such an important game,” said Malloe. “That’s something that he’ll never forget just because of the magnitude of that game and what it means in our state and more importantly for our school. That’s something that he’ll take with him, and I’ll take away for sure.”
While excelling on the field, Kamana-Matagi has been able to excel off the field, as well. He has already graduated from Utah State with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and is pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. It hasn’t been easy, however, for Kamana-Matagi to stay on top of his commitments.
“The hardest thing is balancing school and football,” Kamana-Matagi said. “People think we get it easy because we’re athletes, but we don’t. It’s hard trying to balance everything together.”
After five years and a college degree, Kamana-Matagi’s leap of faith has paid off. He was the first player from his high school to earn a Division-I football scholarship, and he made the most of it.
“I’ve learned so much from being up here instead of on the Islands. Just being social with people. Even the littlest things like driving,” Kamana-Matagi said. “I learned a lot being up here. I’ll take everything I learned up here with me wherever I go. It was a great experience.”
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