‘People over there don’t know they’re poor’: Humble beginnings shape Lions’ Penei Sewell

Detroit News

Penei Sewell grew up on the main island of American Samoa, though “main” is a rather relative term, given the island is barely 50 square miles — or a little more than a third the size of his new home, the City of Detroit.

His actual home was even more modest, a pink structure that was less house and more shack, with no true bedrooms. The entire family of seven slept in the living room.

The family didn’t have much, but they always had each other — which, as it turns out, was more than enough.

“My Dad has given us all, my siblings and I, a gift. It was a watch,” Sewell said the other day, after the Lions made him their first-round pick in the NFL Draft, No. 7 overall. “And the case inside had a picture of our home.

“It was saying, ultimately, in this life, we have this time and time shared with family is the most important. That right there, I remember when he gave it to me. I was a little emotional.

“I look at that image in that watch every single day. That reminds me where I came from, that reminds me why I do this, that reminds me of everything that it took to get here.”

Before he signs a professional contract worth more than $20 million, before the Lions erupted in back-slapping and bear-hugging celebration after drafting him out of Oregon on Thursday night, before he was the 2019 winner of the Outland Trophy, before senior teammate Shane Lemieux went to coach Mario Cristobal in 2018 and said he needed to start this freshman, before he received more than two dozen Division I scholarship offers (including from UM) as a prep standout in St. George, Utah, he was just an island boy.

American Samoa is a collection of five islands in the south Pacific Ocean, 3,000-plus miles due east of Australia. It’s an American Samoa, but it’s not to be confused with America, either. Means are minimal.

Football players don’t always play on a football field. One high school has to travel by bus some 20 miles every day to get to its practice field. Often, football is played on the beach. Helmets are often makeshift, made with chicken wire. Some players use two different shoes, if they have shoes at all. A “football” sometimes is a two-liter soda bottle, filled with rocks. Or, it can be a dried-out coconut.

“Needless to say,” said Alema Te’o, a Utah high-school football coach who runs the highly acclaimed All Poly Football Camp, “the run game was in full effect.”

The “good” equipment often was hand-me-downs, arriving in crates from the States.

It’s in American Samoa where Te’o first met the Sewell boys — Penei; Gabriel, who played football at Nevada; Nephi, who plays football at Utah; and Noah, who also plays at Oregon. Te’o, a distant cousin of the Sewells’ father, Gabe, was over there working at legendary Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu’s camp, and he remembers the Sewell boys as “little dudes just running all over the place.”

Future stardom didn’t necessarily come to mind back then, say 10 or 11 years ago. The Sewell boys were just happy, spending time with dad and the sport he loved.

“If you’ve got a roof, poles, a place to sleep, then you’re fine,” Te’o said. “Because food is everywhere … fish, vegetables, fruits. … We don’t have the fine, lovely home or the modern conveniences, but we’re eating.”

You can’t walk through a village or neighborhood in American Samoa — the Sewells lived in Malaeimi, near the island capital of Pago Pago — without being invited in for food, from a friend or a stranger.

“People over there,” Te’o continued, “don’t know they’re poor.”

If it seems like Penei Sewell was always a football prodigy, he wasn’t, he will tell you. He remembers his first experience playing football — he was about 10 years old and going up against 13- and 14-year-olds, and he was getting smacked around. Bad. He didn’t even like the sport at first, he said, though that sentiment didn’t last long. If anything, the humbling experience motivated him. And not long after his dad moved the family to St. George — where Gabe became a state-championship-winning high-school coach — Penei was getting noticed, particularly early in those appearances at Te’o’s All Poly camps. By then, the tables had been completely turned, and it was Penei Sewell who was sending his opponents, often older but this time rarely bigger, flying.

As a high school senior, he was the No. 6-rated offensive-guard prospect in the country, and headed off to Oregon — the one school at the All Poly camp that chose not to kiss Sewell’s behind, but rather ran him through the ringer with the toughest of drills.

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal could barely stop smiling talking and sharing stories about Penei Sewell during a Zoom meeting with Detroit reporters last week, especially his family and background. That should tell you all need to know, given Sewell only played two seasons at Oregon.

“They didn’t come from much, but you would never tell because were so, there was such an abundance of other stuff,” Cristobal said. “The love and the relationship of that family. Togetherness. More riches in that there is in anything else.

“You’re not going to find a better family. I mean, they are, the DNA, the principles and values of that household, the way how they do one thing is the way do everything.

“It’s full-throttle, and it’s doing it the right way. They’re caring, they’re humble.”

That can be tied back to the culture, Te’o said, which is heavy on family. One scroll through Gabe and Arlene’s Facebook photos will tell you all you need to know how important family, including sister, Gabriella, is to the Sewells.

A particular favorite post came in November, when Gabe and Arlene got manicures and pedicures, with Arlene having her nails painted, alternately, green (Oregon) and red (Utah) — and just as much on hard work.

What you get is what you deserve, what you earn. You want more than that living-room-sleeps-seven shack, you work harder than the guy standing across the line from you. The parents often tag their social-media photos with “SEWELL STRONG.” They have custom clothing with that, too, a daily reminder of the bond, and what matters most.

Penei Sewell was blessed with the body (6-foot-6, 325 pounds), but he got to this point, set to debut in the NFL as a 20-year-old (he turns 21 in October), with hard work. Lemieux, now a guard with the New York Giants, saw it on Day 1 of practice at Oregon in 2018. Unlike most top prospects, Sewell wasn’t an early enrollee. His high school system back in Utah didn’t accommodate for that. No matter.

“At 17 years old, he was a beast,” he told The News in a phone interview. “There was this one-on-one pass-rush drill, the first day, and he (drilled) one of our starting d-ends. Dropped him right to the ground. A starting d-end!

“It’s not very common you can almost game plan around an offensive lineman, but I went to Coach Cristobal and said we need to get this guy on the field.

“Every single day, he became a better player, made huge strides. A lot of guys that talented just give up — well, not give up, but just stop trying and rely on their talent.

“But his hard work, it’s awesome.”

Penei Sewell didn’t stop working and grinding after he cracked Oregon’s starting lineup as a freshman and earning freshman All-America honors, or after winning the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman and being a unanimous first-team All-America pick as a sophomore. Or even after making the difficult decision to sit out 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns.

That work ethic stood out to Lions general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell, as did Penei Sewell’s engaging personality.

So did the family — which, for so many years of his life, was all Penei had.

And, as it turns out, all he ever needed.

“That helps me motivate myself each and every day, gets me out of bed to look at mom and dad in the eyes and to see where we were,” Penei Sewell said. “It’s a different motivation.

“I’m literally living my dream. I’m walking in a dream right now. … It’s crazy.

“To see where we’re at and to walk the path that we’re walking right now, man it’s unbelievable and I’m soaking it all up every second.

“I’m not wasting a thing here.”


Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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