Sept. 18, 2009
by Todd Dybas
Sports Northwest Magazine
A gangly mess, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim wandered onto Hawai'i Prep's football field. There he encountered former University of Washington All-American Bern Brostek, a coach at the school.
Though he had no position, Te'o-Nesheim said he played center. He was shipped over to Brostek, a former NFL offensive lineman. The ex-pro surveyed Te'o-Nesheim. There were a variety of problems.
The freshman was at practice because he saw older cool kids playing football. So, he wanted in, despite his prior football experience spanning just two weeks in seventh grade before he quit.
His mother had bought him shoes two sizes too big. She said he'd grow into them. He would be running around with sore feet because of it.
To top it off, Te'o-Nesheim weighed 135 pounds. He was born in Samoa, a small place known for its big inhabitants. Brostek talked it over with the coaches. They came to a conclusion. Yep, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim was the smallest Samoan they had ever seen.
"That was pretty much the consensus," Brostek says, howling. His freshman year, Te'o-Nesheim "worked the bench" according to Brostek, who also found that statement hilarious.
This was the beginning for Washington's best defensive player. A senior nine sacks short of the school record, flanked by still developing linemates. A renowned goof ball off the field who takes kids from a photo shoot for smoothies at the snack bar. An art major who wants to destroy on Saturdays.
Someone with his own and others' large expectations trailing him into the season where he hopes the Huskies can finally fix it. After all, he's been trying to do that since he arrived on Montlake in 2005.
After his freshman year, things began to change. Te'o-Nesheim, goaded by Brostek, began to eat and lift in a ferocious manner. He gained 30 pounds in a blink, leading to two sprained ankles, Te'o-Nesheim's body not ready for immediate baggage. "That was pretty funny," he says.
He played a bit his sophomore season, during which he started at guard on the offensive line, his fingers in the dirt next to the Seahawks' Max Unger. Te'o-Nesheim continued to eat. Brostek and the other coaches hounded him to turn a typical teenage growth spurt into a mission.
"It seemed liked no matter what I had on my plate, it wasn't enough," Te'o-Nesheim says. "(The coaches) would sit with us and he would yell at me, "That wasn't enough!" and I would have to go get more."
Then he screwed up. Te'o-Nesheim was caught drinking and, according to Brostek, "pretty much got the boot." He went to public school. His aunt decided she wasn't going to pay tuition at the prep school if Te'o-Nesheim was screwing up.
The coaches scrambled to rectify the problem. They wanted Te'o-Nesheim back at Hawai'i Prep for several reasons, football being one. The coaches all pitched in their stipends. Numerous others kicked in funds. Te'o-Nesheim got back in, and his junior year was paid for by the coaches and outsiders.
"He deserved that second chance," Brostek says. "He knew what direction he needed to go."
His junior year, he played both ways. Unger, a year older, was amid the recruiting tango. Thanks to that, Te'o-Nesheim received his first peak of what a productive athletic career could do for him.
"I never even heard of that stuff before," Te'o-Nesheim says. "It kind of made me want to do that. I knew if I was able to get a scholarship, I wouldn't have to bug my mom for money. I was thinking of going into the Marines or something, armed forces if football didn't work out."
Brostek sent tape of Te'o-Nesheim to Washington and other schools. The University of Hawai'i's scholarship offer was the domino tip. Oregon, where Unger committed to, and Washington made offers.
Washington had an advantage from the start. Te'o-Nesheim's dad, David Nesheim, went there. As did his uncle. Te'o-Nesheim lived in Seattle from ages 5 to 12, heading back to Samoa, then to Hawai'i, after his father's death from an aortic aneurysm.
There was always this Washington related loop for him. When living in Seattle, he largely ignored football until it came time to choose sides for the Apple Cup. He always chose Washington.
His father not only graduated from the school, but slathered a layer of paint on Husky Stadium during its reconstruction in the 1980s. Then, of course, there's Brostek, the former Washington lineman.
Different schools wanted Te'o-Nesheim to play different positions. Oregon wanted him to be on the offensive line - they saw Te'o-Nesheim next to Unger on tape - Washington wanted him on the defensive line.
It came down to those two schools, though Te'o-Nesheim, as instructed by Brostek, took his visits, mainly for the free food.
It became a simple choice, especially since Te'o-Nesheim believed the school was poised for big things.
"The year before I came, we were 1-11," Te'o-Nesheim says. "When I took my trip here, I had no idea what our record was and when I left, I thought we were Rose Bowl contenders. I had no idea."
So, reality bites. Back in Hawai'i, Brostek convinced Te'o-Nesheim he would help spearhead the turnaround at Washington. Te'o-Nesheim was all for it. Here he comes. Look out world.
"I came in really confident," Te'o-Nesheim says. "I thought I was going to rule the world, but I never talked about it. I just wanted to play.
"Once I figured out I was going to red-shirt, practice became a lot more fun. It was just try to beat up the offense. And if they didn't do well, we would feel responsible, the scout guys. The scout team is a big part of how the team is going to do."
Te'o-Nesheim was named the defensive scout team player of the year. He was put in front of the masses his redshirt freshman season in 2006, and the relentlessness displayed in high school was starting to show up on Saturdays. He started all 12 games.
"There's a big difference between playing with a line that has a lot of experience and playing with a line that has hardly any experience," Te'o-Nesheim says. "My sophomore year I would just stay in my gap and the guy would run into me. It seemed really easy to me. Greyson and Reffett just causing havoc, so sometimes the guy has no idea where to go and he would run into the young guy."
But his junior year, things were reversed. The line was embryonic. Te'o-Nesheim was next to freshmen much of the season. Upon reflection, Te'o-Nesheim's first thoughts of 2008 are no surprise.
"One thing I would never blame it on is the coaches or schemes," Te'o-Nesheim says. "I think good players make good coaches. Honestly, when people say that it had to do anything with our staff, that's ridiculous. They've all won games here and other places. That was really annoying, to have it blamed on the coaches."
"I think if we wanted to know where the problem was, all we had to do was look in the mirror."
Bald, goateed and spitting fire, Te'o-Nesheim's new defensive coordinator explains matter-of-fact expectations for Te'o-Nesheim, who entered the season nine sacks short of the school record following his eight in 2008.
"I expect him to be an All-American and first-team all Pac-10 lineman," Nick Holt growls. "He has a lot of natural athletic ability; he's very strong. He has good speed and great quickness for a big guy. What sets him apart is how relentless he is. He very rarely loafs."
Likely on the line with Te'o-Nesheim this season will be sophomore Alameda Ta'amu, senior Darrion Jones, and junior Cameron Elisara. Holt said Te'o-Nesheim will largely operate at the end after moving around quite a bit in prior seasons.
Wherever he lines up, other Pac-10 schools will be well aware of him. "We want to know exactly where he is," Oregon State offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. "How we want to help out, have some double teams on him. He can take over a game if he is just left alone."
One thing that won't change is Te'o-Nesheim's personality. It's, well ... "He's goofy. He's always kind of been like that," Brostek says. "It's refreshing! There's some goofballs out there, you know? It's a good thing.
"I think that's actually his way of relaxing is to get into this goofy guy. That's his down time. Then he goes and cranks it up and blows it out with both barrels on Saturday. That's his release being that relaxed goofy guy after that."
Prior to spring practice, new coach Steve Sarkisian held a press conference. A handful of players were expected to attend. Only Te'o-Nesheim showed.
All factions of Seattle media horseshoed around him while he sat. When camera lights turned off and recorders beeped to a stop, Te'o-Nesheim was able to take a breath as the media crush stepped away.
"Whoa, that must be what Jake (Locker) feels like," Te'o-Nesheim said to two lingering reporters.
Te'o-Nesheim, not surprisingly, has less to say about his personality.
"Outside of football I would say I'm pretty boring," the art major says. He was second team All Pac-10 last season. If you ask, he'll choose to keep his current goals to himself, though admits he came to Washington with high individual expectations like making the top level of the conference team.
Brostek will say Te'o-Nesheim is working for a shot at the NFL.
"I thought that all Pac-10 stuff would come if you worked your butt off," Te'o-Nesheim says. "You work, work, work, but you just have to get it done on Saturdays. That's where you have to really show that you're a big-time player."
This article is reprinted with permission of Sports Northwest magazine. Sports Northwest magazine is the Pacific Northwest's leading sports magazine and can be found in more than 600 locations throughout the region. Visit www.sportsnwmag.com for daily updates and information.