The succinct, impactful and curiously-worded one-paragraph letter, 37 words in all, was signed by BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall.
It arrived unexpectedly at the doorstep of Hunter High School’s (Utah) Ryan Mulitalo on Monday, July 7 – two days after his 50-year-old mother, Tioata Purcell Mulitalo, passed away suddenly in her sleep. She was not ill and the official cause of death has not yet been released, but a coronary event is suspected.
Mendenhall’s letter wasn’t a formal scholarship offer, but it was as close to one as you can write it.
Asked what his reaction and response was, Mulitalo said, “I’m just kind of anxious to see what happens and see what Coach Mendenhall has to say.”
He found out Friday afternoon, exactly 11 days after receiving the letter, as he was sitting for the second time in as many months in Mendenhall’s spacious office, reading his official BYU scholarship offer letter. Accompanying him was his father Foga’a, brother Raymond, and sister Mohannah. Noticeably absent was his beloved mother, a lifelong BYU football fan.
In an exclusive TBS interview before his meeting with Mendenhall, Mulitalo confided, “If he offers, I will accept immediately because that’s my dream. I was having second thoughts about it, but now with my mom gone, I’m going to accept it on the spot.”
Mulitalo’s decision has the full support and endorsement of his family.
“My mom got me started on being a BYU fan and I just got hooked. I can picture her reaction. She’d be so happy and overwhelmed. I wasn’t really expecting to get an offer from BYU. I was just hoping.
“Mom would have been so happy. BYU was her favorite school and she wanted as least one of us to make it there. She was a big fan from the old days when Steve Young and Ty Detmer played. She told us she had great memories of those days,” Mulitalo remarked wistfully.
It is interesting that Mulitalo, a 6-foot-3-inch, 295-pounder that is “built like a house” according to elder brother Raymond and that has 4.9 forty speed, has not received any other major college scholarship offers as he prepares for his senior season.
But it is even more noteworthy that his future BYU position coach envisions the starting prep defensive lineman as a potentially main-stage college offensive line and NFL prospect -- despite the fact he only played sparingly on offense as a backup last season as a junior… and never before that. This season, however, Mulitalo said he expects to be a two-way starter on offense and defense.
Indeed, Cougar offensive line coach Mark Weber told the Mulitalo family friend that accompanied Ryan to the BYU camp that the 17-year-old’s potential – after only three days of drills in a completely new position – reminded him of a raw version of an Outland Trophy winner he had previously coached at UCLA.
Time will tell if BYU’s and Weber’s eye for recognizing phenomenal talent long before other college coaches bears ripe fruit.
“At BYU’s Junior Day this year, I played on defense,” Mulitalo noted. “At the BYU [non-padded] camp in June, I was working out with the defense again and Coach Weber told me to come over and do drills with the offensive line. He spent a lot of one-on-one time with me. Instead of going with the rest of the team, I was working out with him on offensive drills.”
Though BYU has been the most active college recruiting Mulitalo since his sophomore year, his camp interaction with Weber was his first indication the Cougars’ interest in him might be more than just a passing fancy.
“Coach Weber said I was better suited on offense than defense because of my size. He said I’m a fast learner and got everything down quick. He told me I have more potential to not only do good in college, but also at the next level in the pros,” Mulitalo said.
Mulitalo added: “I didn’t really think I had that much [pro] potential, but he said I have a better chance than a lot of other people, and that really boosted my confidence level a lot. He said I was the most improved player in just three days at the BYU camp.
“He said I could really be better than Ray Feinga.” Feinga is another Hunter High graduate who was Utah’s top prep recruit four years ago. He will anchor BYU’s offensive line this fall as a senior standout starter and is widely projected as a can’t-miss 2009 NFL draft selection.
In light of Feinga’s dominating gridiron presence as a prep star and three-year starter at BYU, if Weber’s reported projection becomes a reality for Mulitalo he will likely be hailed as a talent evaluating genius – considering Ryan’s bare-minimum exposure as an offensive lineman.
TBS managing editor Brandon Gurney, unaware of BYU’s deeper interest in Mulitalo, made this astute summer camp observation in a June 24 article on TotalBlueSports.com: “Mulitalo … was going through offensive line drills for the first time in his life. He was being worked out hard by Coach Bruce Weber, and the word is that BYU is very interested in offering the promising senior-to-be. Mulitalo has spent his prep career playing on the defensive line, but is looking to prove himself as an offensive lineman this week at camp.”
Apparently he did.
On Mulitalo’s verbal commitment to BYU, his father Foga’a commented: “I feel really good about BYU. I want him to go to BYU because it’s the best one [college]. I’m really proud of him and I told him he has to do his best from now on.”
Still mourning the sudden passing of his wife of 21 years just two weeks ago, Foga’a admitted, “I feel awful without Tioata. Everything’s all mixed up without a mom. It’s kinda hard and everything’s undecided. I don’t know where to start; it’s very hard without a mom or wife in the family.”
Ryan’s brother Raymond admitted his younger sibling has received the scholarship offer he himself desperately yearned for but never received as a standout senior at Hunter, but he couldn’t be happier for Ryan.
“I love BYU. We’ve always been BYU fans our whole life. I know mom would definitely want him to go to BYU because it’s the Church school. Her life was dedicated to the Church. My mom pushed Ryan the most. She also pushed me and all my brothers, but especially Ryan.”
In a frank and revealing assessment of his brother’s gridiron abilities, Raymond pointed out, “I’m the one that knows him best. Ryan hasn’t reached his potential or come close to it. His potential is unlimited. If he plays to the best of his ability and not down to his opponent, he can smash any opponent. He’s built like a house and, if he really wants to, he can be great. Sometimes he goes with the flow and, sometimes, when he decides to, he dominates like he should. He’s done good, but he’s going to be way better…”
For her part, Tioata was the driving force of the family pushing and encouraging her boys in football and especially in the classroom. She worked fulltime for the LDS Church while Foga’a remained housebound on disability, attached to his oxygen line 24 hours a day.
The family’s very limited budget is the primary reason Mulitalo has not received other major college offers yet, which indirectly aided BYU. The family did not have the money for Ryan to attend any football camps except BYU’s this summer.
He was invited to participate with other elite Utah prospects in Tom Lemming’s national recruiting showcase at BYU’s stadium earlier this year, but he couldn’t find a ride to the event. That was why he also did not attend the All-Poly Camp.
“Next to BYU, Washington has been recruiting me the hardest,” said Mulitalo. “One of their recruiters said if I went to their camp, they’d probably offer me if I did good up there. Arizona State and Boise State also wanted me to come down and meet their coaches, but I couldn’t go.”
Mulitalo shared insights from his half-hour private meeting in Coach Mendenhall’s office during the BYU camp.
He plans to serve an LDS mission after playing one year at BYU, noting that “when I was talking to Coach Mendenhall, he told me how they really push their players to go on missions. He said they want you to serve the Lord and not just focus on football.
“It kind of surprised me, but he said part of their [recent BYU players in the NFL] success was because they went on missions. He said he wants his players to focus on family and Church before sports.
“He said they weren’t really focusing on making players NFL stars, but to become better citizens that help others and grow from their experience at BYU and not just come for sports.”
Mulitalo added, “It made me feel great because I know I need to grow up a lot more and not just be good at football. Coach Mendenhall said he wants his players to be as good off the field as on the field.”
Mulitalo said Mendenhall then said he couldn’t do anything more until they checked his transcripts.
Apparently they did. Ryan reports a 2.7 GPA and plans to take the ACT in October.
The loss of his mother will likely have the greatest impact on Ryan and the youngest, Riley, who is 12.
“With mom gone, my eyes are wide open now,” said Ryan. “I know I’ve got to be better as a person in the community and at Church. As a player, she would expect me to be the best I can. She was the one that always pushed me to get a better education. She always said if I didn’t get my grades up, I wouldn’t play football.”
On a concluding thought, he committed that “I know I’m going to be more focused on helping out my family and especially my little brother. My family has always been there for me. Now it’s time for me to give back and show them how much I love and appreciate them.
As an Eagle Scout, that is Ryan Mulitalo’s Scout’s Honor.