October 25, 2011

Asiata leaves his mark

Utah's bruising fullback Shawn Asiata will indelibly leave his mark on the Utah football program. Not as younger brother to former Ute running back Matt Asiata, who left his own mark, but as a prime example of sacrifice, leading by example, hard work, being accountable, and maybe for his pure love of the game.

"Shawn loves to play football, and he plays that way. He leads by example and he's not a big rah-rah guy who flies under the radar a little bit. I don't think he'd like the attention, and he likes to do his thing kind of behind the scenes," praised head coach Kyle Whittingham. "But the players watch him. He's a walk-on who earned a scholarship and that's something that is respected on this team. He did it with a great work ethic and a fearlessness that is, admirable."

Case in point as Asiata has earned the respect of dynamic newcomer John White.

"Being new to the program, you look for certain stuff like, who does his job right on every play, who's working hard. You want to follow a guy who's doing things right, not the guy who keeps messing up," said Ute running back John White. "Shawn, he's a guy you want to follow, because that's the guy who's doing his job, doing things correctly on every play. He just does everything right, on and off the field, and that's a leader."

Asiata will leave his mark in that way, intangibly, but literally, he is sure to leave a mark after laying the wood on anyone who dares line up opposite him.

"When you see a defender duck out of his way, it's for a reason. He hits ... hard. I mean, he's one of the hardest hitters I've ever been around," continued White in his assessment of Asiata. "He brings it to people, he'll fly out there at you, you know. He's a fullback. He's the Lorenzo Neal of Utah."

In fact, Asiata may be the toughest Ute whose name most don't know. As Ute backs run through gaping holes for touchdowns, high-profile statistics and glory, most don't look closely enough to realize that it was Asiata knocking would-be tacklers out of the way for his running back.

"He's my blocking, and the guy I run behind. So he's a big part of me," said White of Asiata. "I mean, I'm the king, but he's the ace. He's bigger than me, nothing happens without him."

It's not only White who appreciates Asiata's presence on the field for the Utes.

"Shawn is an integral part of our offense. And he is tough, and when he hits you, you know it. Shawn thrives on contact, which is what you look for out of your fullback," Whittingham acknowledged. "This is a guy who loves contact, and at 260 pounds, he's a prototypical fullback who brings physicality and toughness to this offense."

Even in practice, Asiata goes full out, and most days can be seen leaving practice with a bloody jersey, gashes and literal chunks of skin missing from his face; evidence of the intensity and carnage left over from that day's battle.

"Shawn is a true fullback. He has that mentality, and there is a certain personality to that. He isn't going to tell you what he's about, he shows you what he is about," said running backs coach Dave Schramm. "That's the most important thing. He does the work, no complaints, no talk. He comes out on a daily basis and leaves it all out on the field. He gives everything to this team."

It's no coincidence that Schramm has high praise for Asiata, as the two have formed an extremely close bond since Asiata's arrival at Utah.

Asiata left the Utes after the 2010 season due to frustration related to multiple knee injuries as well as financial worries. As a result, he missed spring ball, but would ultimately come back to the team in time for fall camp. Asiata credits the support of, and relationship with, Coach Schramm for his return to football.

"Coach Schramm always had my back from day one. He's the only one I trusted here with everything. He kept on top of me, saying he supported me whether I came back, or not. It was big for me at the time," recalled Asiata of Schramm's support. "He was always calling me and checking up on me and making sure I was good. He made sure I was going to class and doing rehab, and everything."

Another issue that had Asiata contemplating giving up football was money, something that has since been resolved.

"I wasn't on scholarship at the time, so that was hard for me, " said Asiata. "I just got on scholarship and it's a blessing, so it's good for me now."

From the Utes' perspective, the welcome mat was permanently left out.

"The door here for Shawn was always open. He had some things to work out, but he was a guy that we felt we needed," Whittingham said. "We hoped to get him back, and now that he is, we're very fortunate."

Asiata's total statistics for his career at Utah consist of 6 receptions for 32 yards and one touchdown. Also to his credit is a 10 yard kick return against San Diego State in 2010, and one career tackle.

By it's very definition, at least in the Utah football program, the fullback is destined for statistics like these. What they indicate is a different type of role and therefore, a different level of character in order to accept the role wholeheartedly, then excel at it as he has in his short time at Utah.

"Knowing the type of guy that he is, and what he does on the field makes me feel more comfortable doing my assignment. I can depend on him whatever play we have called, that he's going to do his job or make the play," said said offensive lineman and roommate Jeremiah Tofaeono of his close friend. "I'm pretty sure all the guys on the offensive line feel that way about him. You just feel comfortable with Shawn back there, because you know he'll get it done. He'll do his job, and he might even do yours if you don't do it right."

When looking to label, or attempt to define Asiata's time with Utah, closer examination reveals that his legacy is not one defined by martyrdom or the unsung hero persona, but rather that he did his job. It wasn't the highest-profile, glory-hogging role, but an important one no less. And Asiata played his role to the best of his ability, and beyond even. Every down, every day. No fanfare, no drama. End of story.

"I think it's good that Shawn isn't hyped up like that. He's not that type of person that likes the hype. He doesn't talk too much, he just lets his performance do the talking for him," said Tofaeono. "He doesn't like attention, and he just shows leadership by what he does in practice and on the field. That's how he communicates."

There have been a few moments in his career at Utah that he allowed himself to celebrate, and indulge in. Several came in one memorable game in 2010; a home contest against San Jose State. In that game, Asiata caught his sole touchdown pass, a 10-yard strike from Jordan Wynn, and later, blocking for his brother, Matt, for a 1-yard score.

"The touchdown was fun, but being on that field with my brother Matt was special. That was kind of the big moment, because it's what we worked for, and kind of waited for, I guess," confided Asiata. "We played together in high school, and I blocked for him then. But in college, at home in front of all the fans in my first year, it was special."

Asiata continued his recollections of the moment.

"It was cool. I remember when I ran in there [for that play] and [Matt] was like, 'this is it'. He was standing right behind me, and I just remember getting goose bumps hearing my brother telling me let's go, that this was it," Asiata said. "Next thing, we hiked the ball and I hit the person I was supposed to get. I just did my job, but it was definitely something I'll always remember."

The moment capped off a journey that was a long-time in the making, as unlikely timing had to have fallen perfectly in place in order to allow for the experience.

Older brother Matt suffered two different season-ending injuries while at Utah, resulting in a rare sixth season of eligibility thanks to a medical redshirt year granted by the NCAA. If not one, or the other of Matt's injuries, the two brothers would never have been on the field together.

Both Asiata brothers took circuitous routes through the junior college ranks prior to their one over-lapping season at Utah. Out of Salt Lake City's Hunter High School, Shawn was originally a Utah commit, but would later attend Ephraim's (Utah) Snow College due to academic issues.

At the time, Asiata says, his priorities weren't in the right place, and academics for him were an uphill battle.

"It was hard. School. School was the biggest challenge for me at the time, and my academics just weren't where they needed to be," Asiata admitted. "It was a really big struggle, but I had to do it, and I did. Now I'm about to graduate next semester. So it's something I'm proud of. Something big for me that I overcame."

After graduating from Snow, Asiata admits he had eyes for the team down South, Utah's hated rival, BYU.

"It wasn't anything except what I thought was better for me. It wasn't 'this team is better because of this, or I don't like that team because of that'," explained Asiata. "They ran a good offense for me, I felt. At Utah, they were running the spread, which isn't good for the fullback. Now I'm all good since Chow came with the pro offense, so I'm good now.

Ultimately however, the family ties held true and strong, and Asiata followed his brother to Utah.

"I made the right choice. This was definitely the right thing, the right place for me. I got to play with my brother, which was what we wanted," Asiata said. "Then just the team and the guys, and everything here has been good."

As Asiata prepares to move forward from his huge, extended family, his goal is to try his hand at the NFL, but is prepared with a backup plan if that doesn't pan out. Approaching graduation with a degree in sociology, Asiata seems as passionate about helping and working with kids as he is about football. Perhaps even more-so.

"I've already worked at facility, a treatment center where we help out at-risk kids. It's sad, they're kids and they're drug addicts, and alcoholics," said Asiata. "They've all got potential, they just need help. They need someone to help them believe that, so we talk to them and try to help them through that. I figure, there's a reason they're like that, they didn't choose it. So that's what I want to do."

The selflessness in career choice isn't surprising, considering the fact that Asiata has, from the moment he stepped on campus, done nothing but sacrifice for the good of the team, and play a low-key role so that others might succeed. The parallel is there, and Asiata's comments on the matter highlight what he's about, and what his mark will be after he is gone.

"Just playing for my brothers. Everyone here on my team is my brother so I go all out every play," he said of his teammates. "I just lay it all out for the brothers. What we have here is something you don't have anywhere else."

In the midst of one of the toughest stretches in recent football history, it is Asiata and others like him who talk of sacrifice for the common good, and family, who need to find a way to translate those words into something positive. Only time will tell whether or not that comes to fruition, but one thing is certain: if Asiata could do it, or will it for his Utah family, he would. And then he'd probably duck out, giving the credit to someone else as he did.



 

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