Uriah Leiataua didn’t know hearing gunshots on a regular basis wasn’t normal. He didn’t realize watching his peers join gangs and use drugs in middle school wasn’t something all kids experienced.

It wasn’t until Leiataua left his hometown of Compton, California, to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that he found out his childhood was anything but normal.

“Being exposed to those kinds of things was just something I was used to,” Leiataua said. “It wasn’t that crazy to me.”

Leiataua’s perception of the world changed significantly after serving for two years in the Apia Samoa Mission and spending the following four years at BYU. Looking back, Leiataua realizes now more than ever how his family’s support and example gave him the opportunity to succeed and reach his personal goals.  

Leiataua recently became a first-generation college graduate from his family, earning a bachelor’s degree in experience design and management in April. In doing so, Leiataua followed the path set by his three older sisters, who graduated from UC Berkeley, Cal State Long Beach and UC Riverside.

The fourth of five siblings, Leiataua feels a sense of accomplishment from joining his older sisters as first-generation college graduates after having looked up to them his entire life.

“My sisters are crazy smart,” Leiataua said. “They pushed me so much growing up. They were all so motivated and really wanted to break the stereotype surrounding Polynesians growing up in Compton.”

While attending Dominguez High School in east Compton, Leiataua excelled academically. He took several advanced placement classes throughout his high school years and graduated in the top three of his class.

Uriah Leiataua splits his blockers and rushes the quarterback in a game against UMass on Nov. 23, 2019. (BYU Photo)

Leiataua notes that his parents’ examples also inspired him to excel in the classroom and strive to be the best version of himself possible.

“Both of my parents are devout members of the Church,” Leiataua said. “They live by the principle of obedience, which was something that was instilled in us growing up. They devoted their whole lives to helping us stay focused and keep out any distractions.”

Leiataua’s parents, both Samoan natives, spent countless hours working a variety of odd jobs in order to provide for their five children. They also emphasized supporting their children in whatever extracurricular activities they decided to pursue, which, for their only son, eventually included football.

Leiataua didn’t start playing football until he reached high school, due to a combination of his parents’ protective nature and a delayed growth spurt. Once he started, though, his potential quickly became apparent.

A combination of Leiataua’s high football IQ and sheer size allowed him to dominate on the defensive line. Leiataua figured he could solve his opponents’ offensive strategies the same way he solved problems in the classroom.

In his final two seasons at Dominguez, Leiataua tallied 24 sacks, 11 as a junior and 13 as a senior. He was named the San Gabriel Valley League MVP his senior season as well as a member of the All-CIF Defense First Team. He was tabbed a three-star recruit by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports.

By the time he graduated high school, Leiataua’s success on the field and in the classroom had turned a lot of heads. He received scholarship offers from Stanford, Yale, UCLA, USC and Wisconsin, among others. The one school he had his sights set on from early on, however, didn’t offer him until late in his recruiting process.

“I had actually committed to Stanford because I wasn’t sure BYU was going to offer me,” Leiataua said. “But then, a little while later, BYU did offer me. I was like, ‘Finally, let’s do this.’”

Upon returning from his mission in Samoa, the same country where his dad served and his younger sister was serving until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Leiataua redshirted his first year at BYU in 2016. After spending that first season observing newly hired head coach Kalani Sitake and his staff, Leiataua felt ready to contribute.

Uriah Leiataua celebrates after recording a sack during a game against Toledo on Sept. 28, 2019. (BYU Photo)

As a freshman in 2017, Leiataua played in seven games before missing the rest of the season due to a series of back injuries. As a sophomore in 2018, Leiataua continued to deal with his injuries while seeing limited playing time in nine games and recording six tackles.

“He’s gone through a lot,” BYU defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki said. “He’s battled through some injuries that have slowed him down a little bit, but he’s always found a way to be a contributor. He’s really come a long way.”

While continuing to fight through his injuries last season, Leiataua showed increasing promise as he racked up 19 tackles, including nine solo stops and 2.5 tackles for loss. With a final year of eligibility remaining and Leiataua now feeling 100% healthy, Tuiaki is looking forward to finding out what his defensive lineman can accomplish.

“I’m excited to see him have a stellar senior year,” Tuiaki said. “With his health coming back and with his leadership after being around the guys for so many years, he’s starting to come into his own. We expect a lot from him.”

Tuiaki attributes Leiataua’s resiliency and work ethic to his upbringing.

“His family has always been super supportive,” Tuiaki said. “We just happened to end up getting a really good product, on and off the field, as a result of great parents and a supportive family. He’s a huge inspiration for Polynesian kids everywhere and especially to those coming out of rougher neighborhoods like Compton.”

Leiataua continues to set big goals for himself, on and off the field. While his ultimate football goal is to play in the NFL, he also hopes to one day give back to his hometown.

“I’m putting all my focus and energy on having a standout senior year,” Leiataua said. “I definitely want to get drafted into the NFL. I’m going to work as hard as I can this next year to make that happen. Apart from football, though, I want to somehow give back to the city of Compton. My family always talks about how special it is when Compton natives come back to help make it a better place. I definitely want to be a part of that.”

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