Though he's one of the nation's finest linebackers,
was quite miserable during his first four years of organized football.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior from Punahou (Honolulu)
told MaxPreps that while playing offensive line for the Pop Warner Lions from ages 7-10, he wasn't exactly having a great experience.
"On pretty much every play I got run over," said Savaiinaea. "We lost every game (except one win by forfeit). I used to be called 'Old Big For Nothing' and I had anger from all the people talking. I wanted to quit. It was hard. But dad kept pushing me to keep playing."
Then he switched to the Eagles and began to soar. They put him at running back because he had been the fastest offensive lineman. It also helped that he now was on a winning team.
"After being teased that I was not that good, things just clicked," he recalled. "I finally was the person running over people instead of getting run over. It was fun. We lost the championship game, but I scored our only touchdown."
Another major change came during his eighth grade year when he began playing defense in the Halo League, one in which there is no size limit. Prior to this time, he had been forced to play with athletes four years older because of weight restrictions.
The new position took a while to master.
Savaiinaea explained, "The only thing I knew was to find the ball and hit the guy with the ball. I started reading blocks, working on my angles and not hesitating. In the beginning I hesitated, because I wasn't sure what was happening. I overran guys a lot."
His freshman year produced both the good and the bad. The bad was being forced to sit out because he had transferred from St. Francis (Honolulu). The good developed when coach Kale Ane allowed him to practice with the varsity.
Ane said he allowed this unprecedented move, because "He was as big as everybody else and just as athletic. He was mature enough to work with us. We projected him as an excellent player. He had a great attitude and worked hard. The varsity players went at him hard."
Savaiinaea pointed out, "I learned a lot. It was like transferring from high school to college. It was a different speed. I was either hitting someone, or he was running past me. There were a lot of fast guys. That's when I realized I had to work on my speed. I went out for track (he runs the 100 meters) and it was great. I improved my speed a lot."
As a sophomore, he stepped into a starting position and led the Buff 'n' Blue in tackles.
"I was most happy with his quiet leadership," Ane noted. "In big games he always stepped up."
The best was yet to come, of course.
"I think my junior year was my best year," the talented teenager said. "That's when all the (scholarship) offers started coming. I think the first offer was Hawaii. Right after that Stanford offered and it kept going on and on. My game improved twice as much."
He again led his team in tackles (108), along with 12 for losses and three sacks. He had 14 tackles and an interception during a big win over arch-rival St. Louis (Honolulu). He also had 15 tackles and two sacks during a 42-20 loss to powerhouse Kahuku in the Division I state championship game.
Coach Ane continued to be impressed by his young linebacker, who called both teams together when an opposing player was injured and said a short prayer.
Though he missed the first month of his senior year due to a broken thumb, Savaiinaea played every regular-season game and again set the pace on defense.
"He had a magnificent senior year," Ane said. "He carried us defensively. We gave him a lot of freedom so he could roam the field — be instinctive — and he was everywhere. He made everyone around him better and we're going to miss him."
Four years earlier Punahou's premier linebacker was Manti Te'o, who went on to All-American stardom at the University of Notre Dame.
"Both were dominant, but they are different kinds of players," Ane said.
Savaiinaea, who bench presses 375 pounds, runs 40 yards in 4.59 seconds and has a 3.4 GPA, has visited four colleges: Stanford, Texas A&M, Notre Dame and UCLA. He actually committed to Stanford as a junior, but withdrew that commitment.
He explained, "I visited there (Stanford) as a junior. It was the first time I visited a big college. It was the awe of everything. When I took my official visit this year, I saw that it wasn't the place for me."
He said that on signing day he will make his choice between Texas A&M and UCLA.Savaiinaea's take on Texas A&M:
"(I love) the environment of the whole place — the 12th man, the whole culture. There are 40,000 people standing up. Even at halftime, they're still standing. They lost two linebackers (to graduation), but they probably have their biggest recruiting class (31 players, including six linebackers)."Savaiinaea's take on UCLA:
"The location is definitely kind of similar to home. Jeff Ulbrich, their linebackers coach, just left the NFL (one year ago). It's just the person he is. He has that aura about him. His intensity at practice is crazy. Players said he gave them a new love for the game. Jeff is one of a kind and I don't think any coach can match that."MaxPreps' prediction:
Looks like a no-brainer for UCLA.