Destiny Vaeao: A Warrior By Birth

Inside one rookie's 7,000-mile journey from American Samoa to Philadelphia, and the challenges it brought.

Destiny Vaeao. (USA Today Sports)

Destiny Vaeao. (USA Today Sports)

Destiny Vaeao doesn’t remember much. He was little when it happened, just 9-years-old, so he doesn’t offer many words during a conversation in a corner office inside the NovaCare Complex after a recent training camp practice. His voice is so quiet the words barely make it out of his mouth.

He’s asked about his father, Tepatasi, and what happened on October 24, 2003 in Pago Pago, American Samoa. Tepatasi was known for being a quiet giant, who, at 6-3, 320 pounds, was an inch shorter and 30 pounds heavier than his youngest son on this day. Tepatasi not only kept his words to himself, but his pain as well, which he had much of.

When Tepatasi was in the seventh grade, he was working on a plantation one day with his father to provide food for his family. They liked to grow taros, bananas, and grapefruit, and they had to maneuver across varying terrain as they worked on the land. That’s how Tepatasi found himself atop a tall palm tree, before tumbling down dozens of feet to the ground. He survived, but the incident prompted a decades-long battle against seizures, which sometimes occurred as frequently as every 30 minutes.

Still, three decades later, Tepatasi was back on the plantation, doing what he always did to feed his wife and five children. But on this one Friday 13 years ago, he went out to the plantation and worked by himself. Suddenly, he suffered a seizure and died with no one around to help him.

He was 41-years-old.

WHEN DESTINY WAS IN SCHOOL as a boy, others sometimes mocked his name. His middle name, Lalotoa, or “Toa” as his family calls him, means warrior, and classmates sometimes took aim at that.

“What kind of name is Destiny Toa? Like Destiny Warrior?” Moana, Destiny’s sister, recalls. “But it’s ironic now.”

It’s ironic because Toa evolved from a name to an expectation to a reality. A couple of years after his father’s death, Destiny, before he even became a teenager, had to become the man of the house as his brothers graduated from high school and were no longer around.

Destiny, the youngest of the five siblings, had the least amount of time with his father, but he somehow ended up being the most like his Dad. The two are described in similar terms: humble, even-keeled people who speak with their actions, not their words.

Destiny still proudly tells his family how he looks — and eats — just like his father. The one difference? Tepatasi never came back empty-handed when he went fishing, but Deansol, the second-oldest sibling, jokes now that Destiny never catches anything.

“It was pretty bad. He always hung out with my dad, so it was tough for him when he passed away. He had no father figure,” Deansol says. “The thing about him, nobody was there with him. He just likes to be alone. He likes to do stuff by himself. He doesn’t like to be surrounded by people. He’s just a quiet kid. That’s why he’s like that.”

Destiny’s life was already consumed by doing chores around the plantation, going to school and going to church. But then he had to take on more responsibility, such as looking after buses for his uncle’s transportation company.

Life in American Samoa is tough enough as it currently is. The unemployment rate has hovered around 30 percent, and the average per capita income is just $8,000. About 54,000 people live in the United States territory, which is so far away from America that the capital, Pago Pago, is twice as close to Sydney, Australia than it is to Los Angeles.

“Most families look to find ways to get out of there,” says Desmond, the middle child. “Just growing up, it was rough. It’s very limited for opportunities. There’s stuff that surrounds you that’s tempting that you can easily get involved in. With not very much as a child, you could do a lot of dumb things. If you don’t have much, you’re going to go out and look for other people’s stuff. There are a lot of kids out there that just steal from other families.”

But when you’re competing with tens of thousands of other people to find a way out while few opportunities exist, most people find themselves stuck. Many work on plantations at home, enlist in the military or are employed by StarKist.

Destiny, meanwhile, turned to the most popular alternative: football.

DESTINY SAT IN THE GYMNASIUM at Tafuna High School as a former NFL player from the islands discussed his journey from American Samoa to the league. While he talked, one thought looped in Destiny’s head: This is how I can help my family.

According to a 60 Minutes report, a boy born to Samoan parents is 56 times more likely to reach the NFL than any other kid in America, so football was always on Destiny’s radar. He started playing soccer when he was 3-years-old, and later added rugby, volleyball and football, the sport each of his three brothers played at the same high school, to the mix.

But when he saw these successful professional football players first hand and what the NFL did for them, it lit a fire under him even more.

“Football is your meal ticket,” Deansol says. “It’s something that can get them away. If there’s no football back home, there’s nothing they can do. You can’t come out to the United States just to come out here and live here thinking you can get a job and live with other people. That was something we could look for: ‘Okay, when we graduate from high school, we got something. At least we can play football and get a scholarship.’”

Because the economy is so weak, the resources — even for football — are extremely limited. Destiny’s siblings made it a point to buy their youngest brother equipment when they could so he didn’t encounter the same challenges they did. Still, early in Destiny’s high school career, he recalls having to search for shoe laces to tie his shoulder pads together.

Desmond remembers how his team shared helmets because they didn’t have enough (“We would run off the field and toss our helmet to somebody else,” he says), while Deansol can still picture how the football fields were often a mix of grass, gravel and even broken glass.

“When you were done with practice, your parents were like, ‘What the hell? What happened to you?’ You’re all beat up,” Deansol says.

“To tell you the truth, it’s frightening,” said Joe Salave’a, a former NFL player from American Samoa who now recruits the islands as Washington State’s defensive line coach. “If I was a high school official sporting event manager, it’d probably be one of those unhealthy, unsafe places to practice on, but they still do. That’s all the kids have down there, but I think those are things that work toward shaping the outlook of a kid like Destiny.”

Because of these conditions, Desmond says the injury rate for football players on the islands is significantly higher than for those who play in the United States. The other contributing factor, Desmond argued, is a lower football IQ as they don’t always learn the appropriate techniques.

But intelligence is one of the reasons recruiters, such as Salave’a, came calling for Destiny. As his desire to play in the NFL grew, he began researching the game to better understand it, which his brothers believe is one reason he became so good. Soon, the question wasn’t if Destiny would be able to go to college, but where.

MOANA LOOKS BACK AND LAUGHS, because she thought the college coaches were wasting their time. When her little brother was an upperclassman in high school, he reached the Island Championship game both years, winning it as a junior. He was selected to play in the International Bowl all-star game for high school seniors from Samoa and Canada against seniors from the United States. He also participated in the 2011 Samoa Bowl, the 2012 IFAF World Game and the 2012 IFAF Somoa vs. Australia game.

But here the coaches were, pleading with her in a parking lot after a cultural showcase one night when she was still a student at Washington State, to get her to convince her brother to simply visit the school.

“I just told them, ‘I know you guys know that he’s already gone to these other big schools. To be honest, I don’t even think you have a chance. I think my brother will probably come visit just so that he can see me,'” she said.

And Destiny did exactly that. He had already taken three official visits to Alabama, Oregon and Washington, but he added a fourth in Washington State for the sole purpose of seeing his sister.

Then, he visited Pullman, Washington, and shockingly settled on Washington State, the only school that recruited him as a defensive player instead of a tight end, within a week or two after the visit.

“When I got there, my first meeting was an academic meeting. They said they’d help me get my degree so I could continue to play football. And it all clicked for me, because if I flunked out of school, I couldn’t play football. I realized then that was the best fit for me,” Destiny says. “The only reason I went to Washington State was the school. It wasn’t about football. All of those other schools, all they talked about was football.

“The school system back home is way different than the system up here in the mainland. Especially in college, you have to do a lot of research papers. Back home, we lack at that kind of stuff. I knew I’d need resources and people to help me with school, and WSU got that. Their academic support program really, really helps athletes do well academically. Between that, my sister there and Coach Joe, it was an environment where I could get help if I needed it.”

Destiny’s siblings, who almost unanimously thought he would — and should — attend Alabama, were stunned by their little brother’s decision.

“I was surprised, because I was like, ‘If that was me, I would have liked ‘Bama all day. WSU? Who the hell is that?'” Moana says. “When they asked me to ask my brother if he wanted to come on a visit, I was laughing at them. But my brother was totally coming from a different point of view. He was like, ‘I don’t care about football. Anybody can play football. But I have the chance to go to school and be with my sister.'”

IF YOU ONLY talk to Destiny for a few minutes, you wouldn’t be able to tell English is his second language. But that barrier was one of the many he faced when he left home for the first time and attended Washington State, which was more than 5,000 miles away from Tutuila, his home island. Some changes, like the weather, he couldn’t do anything about. Others, like learning English, he realized he could tackle.

“When I got to college, I was so bad at being social with people,” Destiny says. “What caught me up was listening to other people’s conversations, how they talked and how they approached each other. That’s how I learned how to communicate and talk with other people.”

In addition to his sister, who soon became the first person in his family to graduate from college, Coach Joe worked hard to ease Destiny’s transition as well. Their shared Samoan heritage helped Washington State during the recruiting process, because Coach Joe understood the challenges Destiny would face, while Destiny’s family completely trusted the baby of the family with him.

Destiny was the first Samoan Coach Joe signed to Washington State, but others soon followed, so Destiny had teammates he could play the ukulele with and throw bonfires with to make him feel at home. While Washington State’s location in Pullman appealed to Destiny because it was a small college town, it’s population was still almost 10 times the amount of people in Pago Pago (~3,600).

“Joe’s a great man. I just thank God. I wish all the coaches were like him,” Naomi, Destiny’s mother, now says, struggling to hold back tears. “He’s like a father to him; that’s his second father. Everything in life he shared; he’s helped my son. And I truly believe that’s why he’s succeed because of Joe’s help and Joe’s support. I owe everything to Joe, and I thank him for what he has done. Not only for him, but for all the students from the island. Thank you, Joe. Thank you.”

Academically, Destiny’s transition wasn’t overwhelming. He frequently relied on one-on-one tutoring sessions to stay on track to graduate, even getting to the point to helping one of his teammates, who had a learning disability, in criminology, which Destiny earned his degree in. Destiny would break down how certain policies fit into different criminology theories, explaining them in terms his teammate quickly grasped.

On the field, Destiny earned the respect of his teammates even quicker. He bounced around positions defensively, initially playing outside linebacker as an underclassman. As Coach Joe says, the Pac-12 is like “basketball on grass,” so Washington State didn’t mind having a 260-pound outside linebacker in coverage who moved like he weighed 30 pounds less.

During his sophomore year, Destiny played defensive end as well, and as a junior, he played both defensive end and defensive tackle. It wasn’t until his senior year when he played defensive tackle exclusively for an entire season.

Destiny’s coaches always though the versatile defender had the mentality and work ethic to potentially play in the NFL one day, but his upcoming opportunities crystallized in his final year at Washington State. His colleges coaches say he played particularly well against Stanford and Oregon, as he increasingly encountered double teams. The Hyundai Sun Bowl win over Miami may have been Destiny’s best, and before long, people like’s Lance Zierlein identified Destiny as a fourth-round draft talent.

“Thickly muscled, well­-proportioned frame,” Zierlein wrote. “Shows some looseness of hips and above average athleticism for the interior. Excellent quickness off the snap into the neutral zone and laterally when called on. Quickness and pad level creates leverage advantages in the gaps. Disruptive against the run and makes impact stuffs. Possesses powerful hands and functional punch.

“Tough guy with desired motor.”

WHILE DESTINY IS STRIKINGLY SIMILAR to his father, it’s his mother who taught him how to embody his middle name. She’s the reason he has not just the motivation to be that warrior, but the tools to do so.

As an educator who taught a plethora of classes to kindergarteners up to fourth graders for three decades, she’s the one who instilled the importance of academics in him. As a single mother trying to provide for her family in an already challenging environment, she’s proven to him how powerful perseverance can be. And as her son’s number one supporter who called him before every college game to ensure she was the last person to wish him luck, she makes him feel like he always has at least one person in his corner.

“My Mom is my motivation,” Destiny says. “She drives me. She’s done a lot for us. I need to do something for her now.”

That’s why when she received the news several months ago that she had breast cancer, it was heartbreaking. Deansol witnessed Destiny cry for the first time, as they saw their mother lying in a hospital bed. God had already called home one of their parents, and they wondered how much longer they would have the other one for.

None of the siblings want to talk much about their mother’s condition, but they’re happy to report the cancer was successfully removed. Their mother says now she feels no pain, and the lump on her left breast was removed in June without a problem, but it’s still been tough for her kids.

“Growing up, our mom was our foundation and just holding us together,” Desmond says. “With Destiny, he had the most time with our mom. He got that one-on-one time.”

Destiny Vaeao. (Jeff Fusco)

Destiny Vaeao. (Jeff Fusco)

EVEN AMID HER BREAST CANCER BATTLE, no one was more excited that Destiny signed with the Eagles than his mother. She wasn’t concerned that he wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, or that he went undrafted. While awaiting her surgery to remove her cancer, she maintained her positive outlook, and couldn’t have been happier with her son’s NFL destination.

Four months after Destiny signed, her excitement is still palpable over the phone, as her voice rises and her pace quickens.

“I was so excited when the Eagles signed him. What a name! What a team! What a city! Philadelphia! The birthplace of the United States! An Eagle represents America! It represents this great nation,” she says. “I thank God he’s there.”

On Philadelphia’s end, Destiny caught their eye during his impressive Pro Day, according to defensive line coach Chris Wilson. After the draft, assistant defensive line coach Phillip Daniels, who played with Coach Joe for three seasons in the NFL in Washington, convinced Destiny the Eagles were his best option.

Daniels described how Destiny would fit in the defense, and Destiny believed every word. Coach Joe also played for the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, for three seasons in Tennessee as Schwartz moved up the coaching ladder. Destiny’s mindset on the field — “knock people out” — combined with his quickness off the ball and his ability to penetrate, seemed like a perfect fit in Philadelphia.

So far, his coaches seem to agree. Fletcher Cox recently called Destiny an “eye-catcher,” while Doug Pederson named Destiny when asked about undrafted free agents who have stepped up during training camp. Wilson explained why after a recent practice.

“He has really good size. He’s got some good short-area quickness, so you really like that. He’s really explosive, and there are only so many of them in the world,” Wilson says. “He’s very instinctive. He has a really high football IQ. He has the mental capability to learn all four positions we play, so that’s been really impressive. The other big thing is his attention to detail. He really takes a lot of pride in his performance, showing up every day and having great fundamentals. He gets it. He really gets it.”

With uncertainty at backup defensive tackle for the Eagles, Destiny could steal a spot on the 53-man roster, or earn a designation to the practice squad. As he trots out to Lincoln Financial Field tonight for the Eagles’ first preseason game against the Buccaneers, he’ll do what he always does when he takes the field: take a knee, say a prayer and ask God for strength to continue on his journey.

But what he may not realize is his mother’s prayers have already been answered.

“It’s a blessing. The name that I named him, I truly believe that’s a name that God fulfilled his dream — my dream,” she says, unable to hold back her tears. “To have my youngest son come here and not only play football, but earn a degree, that’s the most wonderful thing I have.”