Lene Maiava’s first journey to the United States was for — surprise, surprise — a football game.
In January 2011, Maiava, who didn’t speak a word of English, traveled to California for a high-school all-star game, hoping a college or two would like what they saw and offer him a scholarship.
By the time he left, the offensive lineman had offers from Arizona, Hawaii and UNLV.
“It was a blessing coming to that,” Maiava said. “Who knows what I’d be doing if I didn’t travel to California for that game?”
Maiava, who is from Tafuna, American Samoa, watched as his high school teammate and good friend Aiulua Fanene, a defensive tackle, signed with Arizona in 2010. The 6-foot-5-inch, 280-pound Maiava hoped for a chance to play Pac-12 football like his buddy.
“When he first committed, I really wanted to come to Arizona, but I didn’t really have any plans to play football after high school,” said Maiava of Fanene, who played for the Wildcats as a true freshman before departing for a Mormon mission. “I’m from the islands. No one really comes out there to recruit. But then I got my shot in California and things worked out.”
Maiava was one of Mike Stoops’ final commitments for the 2011 recruiting class. He redshirted his first season in Tucson.
“My first year was a struggle,” Maiava said. “I was watching how people communicated and talked to each other and I couldn’t do that. I read a lot of books and just studied to learn English. It was frustrating, but it worked out well.”
Not without some bumps in the road.
Maiava worked his way into the mix at guard last season and, after getting extensive playing time against Toledo and Oklahoma State, the lineman tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the season.
“When I went down, all I was thinking about was about how I was going to come back,” Maiava said. “It was a painful, boring rehab, but you have to push yourself through it.”
That’s exactly what Maiava did.
Though when this season began, it was tough to see where Maiava would fit in on the offensive line. Starting tackles Fabbians Ebbele and Mickey Baucus had each started 25 games in their career. And with Chris Putton and Cayman Bundage patrolling the guard spots, it seemed like Maiava was a year or two away from really contributing.
But things rarely work out the way they’re planned.
Ebbele hurt his ankle against UTSA, and Maiava played the majority of the game at right tackle. Then last week against Washington, Maiava started for Ebbele. When Bundage went down against the Huskies, Ebbele came in and Maiava shifted to left guard for a quarter.
Maiava didn’t allow any sacks, a fact that pleased offensive line coach Jim Michalczik.
“He’s got a lot of upside to him,” Michalczik said. “I like his athletic ability, his strength and the fact that he’s a hard worker. He’s done a good job. Our philosophy is to get the five best guys on the field, so he’s going to play where he can help us.”
Maiava spent the first month of the season waiting for a chance like this.
“I was just watching film and keeping myself stronger in the weight room and waiting for the right time to present myself,” Maiava said. “When I got in against UTSA, there were definitely some nerves. But I got those couple mistakes out of my system and settled down.”
Off the field, he’s settled down as well.
The lineman is as comfortable as he’s ever been. His younger sister, Nerisa, is now on an academic scholarship at the UA; she’s a reminder of their faraway home.
“I just have to keep working hard and moving forward,” Maiava said.