The boy blacked out just before the SUV ran him over.
When he came to, he saw his dad looking down at him.
He was numb, at least until he looked over and saw his arm, bloody and torn up. That’s when it hit.
The pain and the horror.
He screamed as he bled from everywhere.
Through the blood filling his throat, he spoke.
“Dad, I don’t want to die.”
Then he blacked out again.
* * *
The call was coming any moment now.
Tautala "T.J." Pesefea Jr. was with his brother Nick Pesefea-Chang in a back office at the Best Buy where they worked.
A few days prior, T.J. had been told to expect this call and that it could deliver some life-changing news. Or another setback.
The phone rings.
And rings...and rings...
He just wants to make sure it was for real.
T.J. still bore the scars from the horrific accident that nearly killed him when he was a boy. But beyond the physical marks, the brush with death left behind something else, a realization that cut him far deeper.
He wasn't supposed to be here.
But he was, which he felt was a sign that God still had a purpose for him. T.J. had endured so many hardships over the years to get to this very moment. Strengthened by his faith and supported by his family, he had made a bold bet on himself to chase a better life. His story, whatever it may be, still needs to be told. The next chapter could unfold with this call.
T.J. said one last prayer and answered the phone.
Moment later, he got the news.
“T.J., you have a full ride scholarship to Arizona State.”
Day to Day
Every night, the terrifying soundtrack of their neighborhood played.
Police helicopters and gunshots.
The third of four children of Tautala Pesefea and Annie Chang, T.J. Pesefea was born and raised in Hayward, California, a city in the east San Francisco Bay area. It was a rough and dangerous environment in which to raise a family, one that deprived the Pesefea children of common childhood experiences most take for granted.
“As a kid, you don’t fully understand why things are happening and why we have to do things a certain way,” T.J. said. “We couldn’t go outside and play with anybody. It was just different.”
While most children dream about what they want to be when they grow up, the gang- and drug-ridden streets of the Pesefea's neighborhood forced their focus to be much more immediate.
“Kids weren’t looking that far ahead,” said T.J. “They’re worrying about the next day or right now because we didn’t even know what we were going to eat that night. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Every day brought new challenges. It was hard to look forward. We just lived day-to-day.”
Growing up in the East Bay, T.J. was quiet, shy, and a self-proclaimed “momma’s boy.” Without the ability to play outside with other kids, T.J. mostly hung out with his family. He was a good student who chose his friends well and managed to keep himself above the troubles and peer pressure found at school. The family was well respected, and the kids’ teachers helped keep them on the right path.
“We had good relationships with the teachers at school, and they loved our family,” Nick said. “Our parents instilled with our teachers, ‘Hey, we want our kids to stay away from those things.’ So the teachers helped.”
Rather than shield them from reality, Tautala and Annie helped prepare their children for the dangers in their community by being open and honest with them.
“We knew a lot of things that were going on didn’t have to be said,” Nick said. “We just knew and understood each other. That’s just how we were. They did an amazing job of letting us realize the environment we were in and why we had to do the things we did.”
Inside the home, tough love was the order of the day. Like many Samoan families, they were hard on their children, keeping them to a strict and steady schedule of school, chores, and church. After all, if they were busy with those things, they’d have no time for getting into trouble.
As busy as they kept their kids, Tautala and Annie were even busier, working long hours to provide for their family. Over time, the Pesefea children began to understand and appreciate why their parents were gone as much as they were. Not only did it put food on the table and keep the lights on, it became an example to follow.
“Growing up, we didn’t have a lot,” T.J. said. “They were working day in and day out. Seeing their struggle coming up, and no matter what happened, every day they suited up for work and went and did what they had to do to support the family. It’s one of those things that I took from my parents.”
With Tautala and Annie often away at work, Nick, as the oldest child, was thrust into a parental role. He was taught how to run a household, and starting when he was around 10 years old, he helped to make sure the house was clean, his siblings were fed, and put to bed on time.
“He took us under his wing,” T.J. said of Nick. “He was always right there protecting us and also being a parent in a way. He let us know right from wrong and sometimes having to do the tough talks and letting us know why our parents are out late.”
Life in Hayward was hard. Money was tight. Gangs and drugs lurked on the streets.
Every day was a challenge, and it was through their faith that the Pesefeas found the strength they needed to continue and grow. They prayed together daily. One of their uncles, who the children called “grandfather”, was a reverend who helped guide the family’s spiritual lives. The kids were heavily involved in church activities, even if it did provide an occasional struggle.
“My family has always been deep in our faith,” T.J. said. “As a kid, you go to church and you believe, but you don’t really do the work God commands of you. It’s helped me and my family get through so much.”
It would soon provide the light they needed during their darkest hour.
It was Annie’s birthday.
While she was away at work, Nick and Tautala were busy in the garage setting up a surprise: A new PlayStation.
T.J. wanted to play, but…
“Being an older brother, I was hogging the games,” Nick admitted.
So T.J. made do with whatever he could find.
At that time, the family was living in a two-story duplex, and each unit in the complex had a sloped driveway. Combined with a four-wheeled dolly the family owned, it made for some fun for the eight-year-old boy.
Up to the top and ride it down.
From the garage, Nick overheard an argument at a neighbor’s house that involved a woman who was behind the wheel of a grey Dodge Durango SUV.
While the argument was going on next door, the dolly slipped from T.J.’s grip, so he ran into the road to fetch it.
He tripped and fell.
That’s when the woman in the Durango began to back up. Perhaps amped up by the argument, she was going much faster than normal.
And headed straight for T.J.
Nick and Tautala began yelling.
Stop! Stop! What are you doing?!
Annoyed by their shouts, the woman rolled up her window.
“As I was laying there, the car got closer and closer,” said T.J. “I blacked out before it happened.”
She ran him over “back tire to front tire, all the way through,” Nick remembered.
To make things much, much worse, it happened slowly.
After the initial contact, with one tire still on top of T.J., “she was trying to force her way off and not go too fast because she was still shocked by the moment. It looked like she didn’t know what she was doing.”
Seconds seemed like hours.
“The car was on his body for quite a bit,” said Nick.
Finally, she got the SUV off of T.J., but not before running the other tire right over him.
As the other children were crying and screaming, neighbors came out to see what had happened. Nick and Tautala were both in shock from what they had just seen, and they ran over to T.J.
“It was gruesome,” remembered Nick. “Blood was all over his body. Lacerations all over his arms, blood coming out of his head.”
Tautala sat near his son’s head and picked up his body. Thankfully, he held CPR certification and immediately worked to save his son’s life.
T.J. finally came to.
“The first thing that I saw was my dad.”
Numbness came over him, but it didn’t last.
“I looked at my arm and saw a big scar,” said T.J. “From seeing that, not even from the pain, I started crying. It damaged my lungs.”
He also was coughing up a significant amount of blood. Nick remembered his little brother repeated something over and over.
“Dad, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”
T.J. then passed out again.
Neighbors made sure the driver stayed on scene. She was crying and trying to apologize, but Tautala ignored her. He continued to work on his son, trying to make sure T.J. kept breathing.
It's an image Nick will never forget.
“I still remember the blood all over my dad’s shirt and all over his mouth."
* * *
T.J. was rushed to the ICU at the Children’s Hospital of Oakland.
That night, the siblings were sent to stay with some cousins, but Nick recalls the horror of seeing his little brother hooked up to medical machines, with tubes going down his throat.
T.J. had sustained a lengthy list of serious injuries: Fractured skull, damage to his lungs, spleen, face and teeth, deep lacerations across his body, and more.
However, doctors were amazed the young boy hadn’t suffered more broken bones given the severity of the accident. Because of this, the hospital staff nicknamed him “Rubber Boy.”
“We thank God every day,” Nick said. “An accident like that, kids his age don’t survive.”
For much of the next week-and-a-half, T.J. remained sedated. Eventually, he was able to start taking walks around the hospital halls. He also began work to rehabilitate his damaged lungs, undergoing daily tests until he was able to hit the doctor’s benchmark.
As they stayed by T.J’s side, the family received immense support from family, friends, and teachers.
“It was warming to have the support we did,” Nick said.
Members of their church congregation came by. There were prayers. So many prayers. They leaned hard on their faith, asking God to help T.J. recover.
And T.J. exceeded all of the doctors’ expectations.
“It was a big reassurance with how fast T.J.’s recovery was,” Nick said, “just how blessed we were as a family to get past that as quick as we did.”
The prognosis had initially called for a recovery period of six-to-eight months. T.J. was discharged in less than three weeks.
The family credited the power of prayer. But to T.J., his survival and rapid recovery represented something more.
A second chance.
“My family was saying ‘it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle’ but you don’t really understand it,” T.J. said. “As I grew older, I told myself that I wasn’t supposed to be here. Being a believer, each day God has a purpose for me.”
It was now on him to find out what that was.
Shortly after T.J. was discharged from the hospital, the family left the Bay Area and moved to Sacramento. Now that they were living in a better and safer community, outdoor activities were a viable option for the kids.
Wanting to get his children to be more active, Tautala signed his boys up to play football. While Nick was eager, T.J. initially resisted.
“I didn’t really know about football,” T.J. said. “I wasn’t really an athlete or anything.”
However, they were carrying on something of a family tradition. Their cousin Thomas was the quarterback at the local high school, and some other cousins had played junior college ball.
Over the course of his first year on the gridiron, T.J.’s attitude towards the game evolved. He began loving the physicality of the game. Coming from a close-knit and strict Samoan household, the discipline and brotherhood of the sport felt natural to him.
What also helped warm his attitude? He turned out to be a good player, and so was Nick.
Even with the five-year age difference, the two became a dynamic defensive duo in training. They’d play in pickup games against older high school kids. They would scour YouTube for training videos that they could emulate. With money for gym memberships and transportation scarce, they—often along with their younger brother Raymon—would get resourceful and use “anything around the house to get an extra workout in.”
Playing on the defensive line, T.J. modeled his game after NFL stars like J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald. He wanted to be the player making the big plays, but he was equally driven by seeing those NFL players who used their fame and resources to give back to their communities.
“That’s what he really wanted to imitate,” said Nick.
Football could be the way they could get out, to succeed, and to give back.
“We have that mentality that we want to be the kid that makes it out of nowhere,” Nick said. “From a small-time school to make it out and try to make a name for our community. We’re really proud of the community we live in.”
Starting in third grade, T.J. became the waterboy for the Foothill High School football team, a role he kept for several seasons. A few years later, Nick would go on to play for those Mustangs, and he would often help coach T.J. in his youth leagues.
Did he take it easy on his little brother? No way.
“It was worse than having anybody else,” T.J. said of Nick's coaching. “He’s so hard. He expects so much. Especially with linemen, he knew what he was talking about. He knew what he wanted and what people could do.”
Tough love was the Pesefea way on the football field too, it turned out. But it paid dividends.
“When I would be nervous, I looked to the sideline, and I’d have my brother right there,” T.J. said. “I knew I was going to be alright.”
* * *
As they were about to head to school, they heard their mom talking to their aunts.
He should be home by now.
Since their dad wasn’t home, 11-year-old T.J. and his siblings had to walk to school that morning. But when school was over, their uncle was there to pick them up.
That was unusual.
“If he picks us up,” Nick said, “we’re either going to get McDonald’s, go shopping, or something is off.”
It wasn’t the first two.
The kids were brought straight home, which was filled with family members. That was also strange, as they knew there wasn’t anything special planned for that day.
And Tautala’s car still wasn’t there.
The mood was somber. They overheard a cousin talking.
I think it’s one of those guys that did it.
Mom wasn’t around either.
Does anyone know where our dad is?
No one answered them.
Finally, everyone gathered into the living room, and the kids were seated on the couch. Their uncle looked at Nick.
“Nick, I need you to be strong for your brothers and sister.”
* * *
The night before, Tautala had gone to a nearby bar that he frequented for some drinks. During the course of the night, some bikers began starting some trouble. Being friendly with the bar manager, Tautala helped get the bikers out of there, and then went back to enjoying his evening.
But to the bikers, this wasn’t over. They waited outside the bar for Tautala.
When he finally left, they brutally attacked him.
He was beaten, mugged, and stabbed seven times in the chest and torso.
The bikers fled and left Tautala bleeding out.
* * *
The kids started crying as they heard what had happened. They were then told to grab some things and were taken to the hospital.
Annie was crying in the ICU. The family hugged and cried some more. After letting the nurse know the kids had arrived, they went in to see Tautala. He had still not regained consciousness.
“It took us back to when we were looking at T.J. for the first time after everything that had gone down, all the tubes coming out of his mouth and all the machines running,” Nick remembered.
They learned that it was quite some time after the attack before the EMTs were able to get to him, during which time their father had lost nearly half of his blood.
Like they had just a few short years earlier, the family gathered strength from their faith. Every day and night, they prayed as a family.
Unlike with T.J., Tautala’s recovery was anything but quick. He remained hospitalized for months, during which time he lost a lot of weight. Although the rehab was extensive, he still has not made a full recovery.
But he did survive and grew stronger over time. He’s able to work and to provide for his family.
He’s also able to see how his son’s story is unfolding.
“He was built to be a phenomenal athlete.”
Long before he enrolled at Foothill High School, T.J. Pesefea had been on Tim Trokey’s radar.
Trokey—then Foothill's head football coach—had coached Nick at FHS while T.J. had made a name for himself by earning All-Star honors at the youth level. Some coaches at more prominent high schools in the area had even lobbied for T.J. to attend their schools instead of Foothill, but T.J. ultimately opted to follow in his older brother’s footsteps.
Having seen T.J. in action when the boy was playing for Foothill’s Junior Mustangs team, and knowing the family he came from, Trokey felt T.J. had a chance to be special.
“I knew that he was going to have the support at home that he was going to need to be a successful athlete,” said Trokey, who currently serves as Foothill’s Vice Principal. “He did things right in the classroom and on campus. He made a lot of great choices to set himself up.”
Being the proud big brother he was, Nick boasted to those around Foothill that “my little brother is going to come in here and he’s going to be the best player to come out of Foothill.” He told people that T.J. was “twice the player” he was.
Looking back, Nick believes that he may have bragged “probably a little too much.”
Or maybe he didn’t.
“I didn’t really have T.J. cast as Nick’s little brother,” Trokey said. “I saw a lot more potential in T.J. just in his mobility and some of the things that he could do that Nick probably wasn’t quite able to do.”
T.J. was big, he was quick, and he was athletic. He was also very raw.
“Technique-wise, he wasn’t ready for the next level,” Nick said of T.J.’s freshman season. Nevertheless, his size and talent stood out that first year.
T.J. took a step forward as a sophomore, proving to be a powerful presence along the lines. He went on to earn all-league honors on both sides of the ball, and the rest of the team, regardless of his lack of seniority, began to look to him as a leader.
“I was the biggest kid and the strongest kid, so people automatically are like, ‘If I can stand behind him, he’s on my team,’” said T.J. “I just wanted to let them know that I’m with you until the end. I’m with them to the Nth degree. It made it easier for them to follow me. I loved it. I looked at them like all my little brothers.”
Despite only being a sophomore, T.J. was named a team captain.
“Almost everybody, from my coaches to the youngest players just joining the team, I was able to relate to everyone and be that bigger brother to them,” T.J. said. “That’s what the coaches saw in me and they blessed me with the opportunity to be a captain.”
It was perhaps unconventional, but it was the right thing for the team.
“I had no problem with T.J. being a captain,” Trokey said. “I don’t think your captain is always a senior. I think it’s the person who is truly leading, that’s not just leading verbally, but by example. It doesn’t matter what grade you’re in. If you’re out there and putting in the work, and you have the right attitude, then you’re the guy I want as a leader.”
T.J. was the player who gave the pre-game speeches in the locker room. He led the team in prayer and got the chants going in the huddle. He was the unquestioned physical and emotional catalyst for the Mustangs.
During that season, Nick was off playing football at Sacramento City College. Even though he wasn’t coaching his little brother in practices anymore, Nick still made his presence felt.
“I was that annoying older brother in the stands always yelling to the field,” Nick said. “He’d look up and listen to me, and I’d be telling him something different from what his coaches were telling him to do, and he’d go make a play.”
People took notice.
T.J. started to receive invitations to camps. Junior college coaches in the area reached out to Nick to gauge his little brother's interest. Nick even brokered a deal to let T.J. join him in using the Sacramento City College facilities to train.
As a junior, T.J. further expanded his game when he began seeing some time at tight end.
“He had that athletic ability,” Trokey said. “He has great hands and had decent speed and agility to be able to do that. Plus, he was a massive guy at the end of the line at tight end to be able to come down on some of those down blocks.”
Defensive line. Offensive line. Tight end. Special teams. There was rarely a play when T.J. wasn’t on the field, and as the Mustangs’ best player, opposing teams were game planning to stop him. But he continued to give everything he had for his team to help them win.
“He never complained about being moved around,” said Trokey. “Whatever the team needed, he’ll play it and he’ll do it.”
Even if Nick thought T.J.'s unselfishness was hurting his recruiting profile.
“He was always about trying to get the team win and not his own individual agenda,” said Nick. ”To me, it hurt his recruiting. But at the same time, it helped him become that team leader. He’s always been one the kids looked up to and wanted to be around.”
Following his junior season, T.J. received his first scholarship offer, and it was from none other than the University of Arizona. Even with his individual success on the field, T.J. had not really thought he was the caliber of player to play NCAA Division I college football.
“I honestly didn’t, especially going to a small school,” said T.J.
Foothill was far from a prep football powerhouse. A smaller school with enrollment around 1,100 students, the Mustangs had gone just 4-16 during T.J.’s first two seasons, and they hadn’t posted a winning record since 2009.
T.J. had the size and potential to play at the next level, but it was proving challenging to get the attention from college programs that those around him felt he deserved.
“Anytime we see a kid like T.J., we’re certainly going to put his name out there and send film and do everything we can to get them recruited,” Trokey said. “He certainly got the exposure to local D-I type schools. I think had we been a little more successful as a program, it probably would have gone a little bit more nationwide.”
Nick tracked other local players who received quality offers, and was miffed at what he saw.
You outperformed these guys at camps, why can’t we get those offers?
Yet there were some glimmers of hope.
Before his senior year, T.J. was invited to the Army Underclassmen Combine. The Foothill team, coaching staff and administration banded together to help get T.J.’s name out there. They received an invitation to attend UCLA’s spring game, but “we were sold on not even considering UCLA just because of how different we were treated down there,” said Nick.
Driven by his desire to play college football, Trokey saw T.J.’s maturity take a major step forward as a senior. On the practice field, T.J. worked with Nick on the finer points of the game to “perfect the defensive line as a craft.”
As a senior, T.J. stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 290 pounds. At that size, he was still quick enough to “move laterally up and down the line and work flat down the line. He was able to work towards the sidelines, keeping contain,” said Trokey. He was athletic enough to star on the school’s basketball team, averaging 9.5 points-per-game as a senior.
But, frustratingly, the major offers remained elusive.
A senior season in which his Mustangs again went 1-9 didn’t help raise his profile. Even though he had played well, T.J. took the lack of recruiting attention personally.
“I felt like it was my fault,” he said. “Since I was the leader of this team, or since I’m looked upon as the leader of this team, and I can’t get my team to get over that hump, I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I used to hang my head for it.”
He had not received the major college offers he wanted, but he did have some scholarship offers from some smaller FCS-level schools. With the time to make a decision drawing close, T.J. could take the safe route and choose one of those lower-division programs.
Or he could take a leap of faith.
A Bold Bet
When he was a junior at Foothill, T.J. attended a training session at Linemen Win Games, a technical program created by Jon Osterhout that focused on developing aspiring offensive and defensive linemen.
Unfortunately, due to church obligations, T.J. was only able to participate in two sessions. But it turned out to be just enough.
“What stood out was (T.J.’s) sheer size and length,” said Osterhout, who is also the head football coach at American River College. “Unbelievable athletic ability for a man his size. He’s extremely athletic. Very bouncy. Has a natural ability to bend. You could tell right off the bat during the first day of training that he had the ability to play big-time collegiate football one day.”
Osterhout was intrigued, enough that he would attend a few Foothill practices during T.J.’s senior season.
“I feel like I made a mark and stayed on his mind,” said T.J.
* * *
With his senior season over, T.J. still held out hope for a premier offer. USC, Washington State, and Washington all showed interest, but none made a scholarship offer. The prior offer from Arizona, along with one from Mississippi, were lost in the shuffle of coaching changes at those schools.
“We were waiting for the process to be done,” Nick said. “We were so over him being overlooked as a player.”
But one person had been paying attention the whole time.
“We had been watching him,” Osterhout said. “We track some of the guys who maybe slip through the cracks.”
Even though American River College (ARC) is one of the top junior colleges in California, Osterhout had assumed they wouldn’t have a crack at T.J. But as the recruiting process dragged on, and the bigger schools oddly stayed away, he pounced.
“We assumed that he was going to be attractive to four-year level coaches,” Osterhout said. “But he slipped through the cracks, and we started the recruitment process.”
T.J. was receptive to ARC’s overtures, even as Sacramento State and the University of California, Davis made full-ride scholarship offers. But they were both FCS programs, one step below college football’s top FBS level.
So T.J. had two options. Go with one of the guaranteed four-year scholarship offers at a lower level than he wanted, or take a chance by going the junior college route and hope the impact he made there resulted in an FBS offer.
T.J.’s parents, especially Tautala, wanted him to take one of the FCS offers.
“From their point of view, they see four years paid out,” Nick said.
“Not that my family said I should go, but my parents never knew anybody in the family with an opportunity like that,” said T.J. of the FCS offers. “They were encouraging me to take it. They felt like it was best for me.”
Another reason they were hoping he’d take the Sacramento State or UC Davis offers was the recent disappointment they experienced with Nick.
Coming out of Foothill, Nick also held an offer to play for Osterhout at ARC but opted for Sacramento City College. But he soon got himself into trouble. He began skipping class and became ineligible to play football. That eventually forced him to drop out and get a job to help the family pay the bills.
Tautala didn’t want T.J. to fall into the same trap, especially with the other scholarships right there for the taking. But deep down, Tautala knew his son.
“Throughout the process, my dad was mad,” Nick said, “because he knew T.J. wasn’t going to take those two offers.”
“With my dad making me a man at a young age, I always realized the bigger picture,” T.J. said. “There was nothing wrong with Sac State or UC Davis, but I felt like I deserved to give my family better after everything we’d been through.”
So T.J. asked his parents for one year to prove it to them, and most importantly, to himself.
“I took a gamble on myself and went to ARC."
* * *
T.J. Pesefea enrolled at American River College, and the one-year clock started ticking.
Unfortunately, like his brother before him, things began to unravel after making the jump up. The transition from being a big fish in a small pond to being just another fish proved difficult.
“After going to high school and getting this attention from colleges and people around, I feel like I kinda got a little too high,” T.J. said. “I almost forgot from where I came from.”
Riding that false high was just one problem, however. At Foothill, he had an extensive support system in place, both on and off the field. Plus, the expectations weren’t necessarily high from a football perspective.
At ARC, things were much different.
“Coming here, we operate our football program like a Division I institution on a JC budget,” Osterhout said. “The expectation level in regards to the commitment on the field and off the field is everything that entails being a great football player. We try to cultivate an environment to drive student success in that area. For T.J., it was probably like drinking from a fire hose initially.”
“That first semester, we could tell he was a little lost,” Nick said.
Nick and the rest of the family did what they could to help. They provided whatever school supplies they could afford. Nick would check up on T.J.’s school work and keep him accountable to show up on time to practices and strength sessions. They’d make sure he was eating right, and on the days when there was no money for lunch, Nick would bring his brother food.
T.J.’s struggles to adjust carried over onto the football field.
“He had some inconsistency in regards to day-in and day-out practice habits and effort habits,” Osterhout said.
As the issues mounted, his ultimate goal seemed to slip further away. It got to the point where T.J. pondered whether he wanted football to be a part of his future.
“Nobody was holding my hand,” said T.J. “It was harder being at a competitive school. The work ethic with school and how everything was, it was overwhelming to me. I went through a dramatic change so fast. I was considering if I really did love the sport.”
* * *
T.J. Pesefea was at a crossroads.
In his search for answers, he looked inward and, of course, upward. He prayed hard, cut out the distractions, and “left the rest to Him.”
He also looked to the example set forth by his parents.
“What I’m doing is easy, what they’re doing is hard,” said T.J. “I didn’t have as much of a workload as them so I didn’t have a lot of excuses for myself to not do what I needed to do.”
He went back to his roots. Hard work and the grind.
“It gave me a ‘remember where you’re from’ type view of things,” T.J. said. “One of the main things that makes ARC so great, and Coach O who leads it and the staff around him, they don’t have all the fancy equipment or a lot of money to help their athletes, they just teach you to work. They teach you to grind, because that’s the only way you’re going to get to where you want to go. You have to seize it for yourself, because nobody is going to come and hand you the lottery ticket. It brought me down to earth and brought me back to where I come from.”
With the “wake up call” behind him, T.J. got back on track to fulfilling his promise. He took things one day at a time, and he inched closer to his goal.
“His transition from the meeting room to practice field, you could see that light bulb go on,” Osterhout said. “As he got in that comfort zone and into that sweet spot, you could see him layer days upon days and see the evolution of him moving forward.”
The ups-and-downs off the field were mirrored on game day. T.J. was a spot starter during the year and put together an uneven, but promising, freshman season.
“His game was inconsistent week-in and week-out, but as the weeks progressed towards the backend of the season, you saw the best football ahead of him,” said Osterhout.
T.J. played in nine of the Beavers’ 11 games, posting 17 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass breakup. Beyond the stat line, T.J.’s skillset began to evolve. His technique had improved, and the raw talent was taking shape thanks to his reinvigorated work ethic. He was becoming the type of prospect that could get those coveted FBS offers.
“(ARC) developed me a lot as a player, but even more as a man,” T.J. said. “They were able to tighten up the screws.”
With the NCAA’s early signing period approaching in mid-December, colleges were growing interested. Just not enough to close the deal.
“I was really shocked that he wasn’t signed, sealed, and delivered in December,” Osterhout said. “There were a lot of people that were flirting with him in the recruitment process as they came by in the contact period.”
T.J. continued to put in the work as the calendar crossed into 2019. He was one of the program’s standouts in the winter strength and conditioning program, during which Osterhout saw “the evolution of T.J. and the motivation for where he’s trying to go.”
T.J. also picked up a part-time job with Nick at Best Buy, as he felt “being able to communicate with those people in a professional manner is something that is going to help me a lot.”
The days and weeks rolled by. By late January, with February’s National Signing Day closing in, the idea of spending a second year at ARC seemed increasingly likely.
Then came the headline that changed it all.
ARIZONA STATE HIRES JAMAR CAIN
“He was sitting down when I walked in the room, and he kept getting taller and taller as he stood up.”
Whoa. You’re what we’re looking for.
Jamar Cain was impressed.
* * *
Jon Osterhout was disappointed that T.J. wasn’t signed in December, but he was confident that would soon change this next cycle. With over 300 scouts passing through the area before National Signing Day, he believed it was just a matter of time until that offer came in.
But he wanted to give a fellow Sacramento guy the first chance to scoop him up.
Osterhout knew Jamar Cain to be a quality coach and a skilled developer of defensive linemen, so he reached out to let him know about his talented 300-pounder.
Jamar, you gotta get this kid. You gotta get him now. Because if not, he’s going to have 15 offers come spring.
Cain, then Fresno State's defensive line coach, appreciated the call, but the Bulldogs already had a bunch of young players at T.J.’s position.
A few rounds on the coaching carousel quickly changed things.
On Jan. 17, Michigan hired away Arizona State defensive line coach Shaun Nua, but there was no panic in Tempe. ASU head coach Herm Edwards and defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales knew exactly who they wanted to fill that vacancy.
Two days later, Cain was hired by the Sun Devils.
Not long after Cain took the job, ASU’s defensive line depth drastically changed due to a pair of transfers. All of a sudden, the Sun Devils needed help in the trenches, so while on a recruiting trip with Gonzales, Cain made arrangements to meet with Osterhout at ARC.
He arrived at the school on a Thursday.
T.J. and Cain hit it off quickly. They bonded over their Sacramento roots and their shared experiences as junior college players. T.J. appreciated the straight-shooting manner of Cain, while the coach was impressed by T.J.’s physique, character, and academics.
“He’s the type of coach I look for because he’s not one of those guys to sugarcoat things and not be real with you, because that’s not how I grew up,” T.J. said. “He creates one of those personas to where I want to do good so bad because I don’t want to let him down because of the work he puts in for me.”
As the meeting drew to a close, Cain let T.J. know that ASU may have a scholarship available for him. He’d call him on Monday with the news, whether it was good or bad.
“Just be ready,” Cain told him.
“I just sat back and prayed, prayed, prayed,” T.J. said.
Cain had heard great things about T.J. from Osterhout and other coaches, but prior to the meeting, he had not seen the young prospect in action. After he left ARC, Cain scrambled to do some research to see for himself.
“I watched his film and was like, ‘Oh thank God he can play!’” Cain said.
And the deeper he dug, the more he liked what he saw.
“He had the body type we were looking for, and he had three years (of eligibility) left,” Cain said. “Basically, you’re getting a freshman who’s already played enough football where he can just come right in and help us out. Usually with juco guys, once they figure it out, they’re gone because they only have two years. He had that extra third year we can use.”
* * *
This could be it. Or it could be the latest setback.
T.J. and Nick sat in the office in the back of a Best Buy, waiting.
Then the phone rang. Nick began recording video on his phone.
“It took me awhile before I even answered the phone. I let it ring a couple times to make sure it was real,” T.J. said. “I prayed one last time, shut everything off, and answered the phone and just listened.”
I told you I was going to call on Monday, right?
Yes you did, Coach.
I’m a man of my word and I’m going to tell you how it is, whether you like it or not. But at the end of the day, it’s to get you better.
Cain cut to the chase.
“T.J., you have a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State.”
Euphoria. And tears.
“It was one of the best moments as of late,” T.J. said. “It was a sigh of relief that I do have a future, and I can move on with something I love to do.”
“I could not stop crying,” Nick said.
Eventually Nick did, and he sent the video to everyone in the family
We just got offered by ASU!
Cain wanted to close the deal quickly, but T.J. and Nick didn’t want to rush into a decision. They had waited so long for this, so a little more time to ensure it’s the right move wouldn’t hurt.
An official visit to Arizona State was arranged, although it was delayed a week due to a church obligation for the Pesefeas. While planning the visit, the family changed the guest list several times before deciding that Nick and their sister Laalaai would accompany T.J. to Tempe.
The plan for the trip was to take everything in, think things over, and make a decision later. They were adamant that T.J. would not to sign while on the visit.
That impulse was swiftly challenged.
“Once we landed, from then until the end of the trip, the hospitality, the love, being down to earth, and the true nature of what we could see the program was about is when we were sold,” Nick said.
It was ASU’s plan to let the experience speak for itself.
“We never pressured him. We don’t want to pressure kids to be here,” said Cain. “We tell kids that once you’re here, you’re going to have that feeling where you know it’s home. Once T.J. got here and met everybody, it just felt right.”
The Pesefeas toured ASU’s new facilities and met with the academic staff. They also ate well.
“All the food we ate that weekend, it was ridiculous!” Nick said.
And then came Herm.
Prior to meeting Herm Edwards, the Pesefeas were “90 percent sure” they’d sign with ASU. That meeting locked up the last 10 percent.
“I feel like that was one of the blessings of my life, just meeting him,” T.J. said. “After seeing him on TV for so long, it was a blessing. After talking to him, he talks to me like he’s my grandpa. It was an honor talking to him. I was speechless that I was in front of him.”
Football had brought them there. Faith sealed the deal.
“You could hear God speaking through him,” Nick said of Edwards. “We were tearing up because of how much he reminded us of Dad, the way he spoke, the way he alluded to the Bible. We knew it was the right place for him.”
They all hugged, and T.J. told Edwards was all in. The Pesefeas kept their promise of not signing with ASU during the trip, but only because they wanted to share the moment with their family back home.
Cain drove them back to the airport, and as soon as they landed back in California, T.J., Nick, and Laalaai drove to their aunt’s house. Once there, T.J. made the announcement, the family took photos, and he officially signed.
T.J. Pesefea was a Sun Devil.
“Going through all of these struggles of not being contacted by coaches and getting noticed like I thought I was, then going to Arizona State and meeting everybody was a true blessing,” T.J. said.
“I feel like it was a miracle. God works in mysterious ways, but I feel it was meant to be. This is where I’m supposed to be because everything about this school fit me.”
The Story Continues
The bold bet had paid off.
It was time to make sure his next one did too.
With his move to Tempe looming, T.J. Pesefea stayed busy this past spring. He put in time at the gym to improve his strength and conditioning, and he kept his football skills sharp by participating in ARC’s spring practices. He even was among the people Tim Trokey consulted with during Foothill’s search for a new head football coach.
In June, he move to Tempe with the aim to hit the ground running.
“I want to establish myself in the program,” T.J. said. “I want to be able to be that dependable leader on the team. I want to be that guy that wherever the coaches need me to play or whatever they need me to do, that I’m the guy that they call up. No matter what it is, they know I’m giving 110 percent.”
So far, so good.
T.J. has earned praise for his work ethic during the team's offseason strength and conditioning program. While Jamar Cain is excited about T.J.’s potential, he doesn’t want to put too much on him too soon.
“The biggest thing is he has to come in and earn his spot and learn the playbook,” Cain said. “Anything else beyond that would be a plus. We would love for him to come in and contribute, that’s our goal, but let’s just start with the basics.”
But a look at the depth chart shows that a path to contribute quickly is there.
Cain wants to employ a rotation-heavy defensive line that utilizes eight or nine players over the course of a game. That means the Sun Devils will need plenty of quality depth, something that they didn’t have this spring. With the return of some players from injury, as well as the influx of new signees and transfers like T.J., Cain will have many options to consider.
It will be hard to overlook T.J., who looks the part of a prototypical defensive tackle at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds.
“He’s got tremendous size that you can’t coach,” Osterhout said. “He’s really thick in the lower body, he’s got broad shoulders,long levered. He’s a big man, and it’s a big man’s game.”
Cain plans to start him at defensive tackle, but T.J.’s athleticism means that he could shift to other spots along the line in the future. In ASU’s defensive system, versatility is key.
“They see me as a guy who can play inside and in the 4-tech (over the offensive tackle),” T.J. said. “That’s what they do with a lot of their guys. Any guy can play anywhere. They saw that versatility in me, and I think that’s why they took a chance on me. They see that, after a bit of coaching, that I can be one of those guys that play all of the positions on D-line that they need.”
* * *
It bothers him.
“He does have a huge chip on his shoulder for what transpired coming out of high school,” said Osterhout. “His past history and his family’s support are the reasons why T.J. is really driven to be successful in life and in the sport of football.”
It motivates him.
“More than anything, I think T.J. wants to be someone that people look up to in this neighborhood,” Nick said. “We want to see him develop as a person and become a standout person more than an athlete. The kids in the community can look up to him and say, ‘This kid came from Foothill. He came from North Highlands. Why can’t we do that?’”
It drives him.
“After all these years of growing up and struggling, I just want to put my stamp on college football,” T.J. said. “I want to let people know that even though I came from a small area and a high-poverty area, I can play football and prove the doubters wrong.”
It’s been a struggle. The constant hardships. The brushes with death. The tests of faith.
But he’s still here, stronger than ever.
“It seems like he’s always bet on himself and has always beat the odds,” Cain said.
He never had to face those odds alone. Every step of the way, he’s had unwavering support from his family.
And from Above.
“I just kept faith in Him,” T.J. said. “Even if things were going wrong and no matter how bad things got, I just remembered to stay humble, pray, control what I can control, and leave the rest to Him.”
It may be a miracle that he’s still here, so T.J. Pesefea intends to make it count.
“God still has a story to write for me."