Nov. 11, 2013
Lonnie Palelei vividly recalled the moment when the career path of his son, Evan, took a dramatic turn.
It was during Evan’s senior year at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, where he had been an integral part of two undefeated, state-championship teams, and part of a class that would produce 10 Division I players. Months after he had made a verbal commitment to Stanford, Evan had been informed that the scholarship offer was off the table. Suddenly, Evan was a star high school player without a desirable, Division I football destination.
The father and son sat together at home one night, contemplating an uncertain, unsettling future.
“Even though he had been committed to them for a year, there was something about Stanford that just didn’t fit Evan. It was going be his decision what to do next, and I remember sitting at the table with him wondering what are we going to do? I told him that we had better pray on this one,’” recalled Lonnie, his voice choking back tears.
“I swear, maybe 30 seconds later, the phone rings, and it’s Navy calling. I’m not overly religious, but we were in shock when the answer came that quickly. Immediately, we set up a visit [to Navy].”
Just like that, after speaking with Navy assistant coach Steve Johns, Evan Palelei was on his way to visit the academy, on his way to finding a new home. And four years later, after spending two seasons in relative football anonymity in Annapolis, Palelei has become the senior dean of the Midshipmen’s defensive line.
Along the way, Palalei, one of numerous Mids of Samoan descent, has knocked down the obstacles that typically come with being a Navy football player.
He has battled through the emotional and physical exhaustion common in the life of a plebe, and has fought in the trenches as an undersized defender that gradually figured out how to seize and hold down a position. Originally slated to be an outside linebacker, Palelei was moved to defensive end near the end of his sophomore year. Up to that point, he had struggled to thrive in defensive coordinator Buddy Green’s system “in space” as a cover man, pass rusher and defender against the run. Navy’s option – which the Mids face annually against rivals Air Force and Army – gave him fits.
As a two-year starter at end for the Mids, the 6-feet-3, 247-pound Palelei by no means is comfortable. As is the case with many Navy linemen, Palelei routinely must tangle with blockers that outweigh him by 60 pounds or more, as he tries to clog running gaps while preserving his own health in those one-on-one confrontations against massive opponents. Proper technique is absolutely essential.
“You’ve got to get your hands into [offensive linemen] before they start moving, before they get to their second step,” Palelei said. “When those big dudes start moving downhill on you, you’re going to need a couple of people to stop them. If you don’t stop them early, it hurts.”
Palelei’s job is all about blue collar and sacrifice. It’s about clogging up lanes well enough to allow Navy linebackers to get opposing ball carriers on the ground. It’s about using his quickness to get after quarterbacks when he has room to operate from the edge. And it’s about survival while absorbing a pounding.
“It’s been a grind, and I’ve had a great time doing it,” said Palelei, alluding to the two seasons he spent trying to earn a spot on the varsity roster before gaining a place in Navy’s starting lineup as a junior. “I felt like I wasn’t physically prepared in my freshman year. I hadn’t seen much of the option and it was tough adjusting to the reads and responsibilities at linebacker. The coaches kept giving me chances to make plays. I just didn’t make enough of them.
“At first, I took it pretty hard when I fell so far on the depth chart [as a freshman and sophomore]. I was definitely feeling lost in the sauce. I couldn’t get on the bus [to travel with the Mids] for almost two years. My first goal was just trying to dress on Saturday.”
Since the outset of the 2012 season, Palelei has dressed every Saturday as a fixture with the Mids. In last year’s 8-5 season, he started all 13 games, produced 29 tackles and forced two fumbles. He had a season-high six tackles in Navy’s 11th consecutive victory against Army. Through the Mids’ 4-3 start in 2013, Palelei helped anchor the defensive line with 13 tackles and a sack. And it’s the tireless, unheralded work of linemen such as Palelei that helped linebackers Cody Peterson, D.J. Sargenti and Chris Johnson average a combined 25 tackles through the first seven games.
“We try to rotate our linemen as much as we can to keep guys fresh as possible. Evan is one of those guys who tend to stay out there, sometimes for 50 to 60 snaps a game,” said Green, who compared Palelei’s tough presence to past Navy linemen such as Michael Walsh, Billy Yarborough and Matt Nechak.
“Evan is dependable like those guys were. You can always count on him being where he’s supposed to be, and he’s just a fighter on every snap. He’s an example of the effort you need to play with. He understands things very clearly, and he wants to do things right. All good players are hard on themselves. Evan won’t accept anything short of perfection.”
Palelei doesn’t need coaches to get on him for making mistakes. He’s known for being his own harshest critic, even in cases where he has done little or nothing wrong.
“I’m the type that doesn’t enjoy watching myself on film, even after I think I’ve played a pretty good game,” Palelei said. “I never turn on game film and think, ‘Wow, look how well I’m playing.’ I’m more likely to say, ‘Wow, I suck.’”
“Evan is so hard on himself. I’ve never had a player who is so self-critical. He needs to give himself a break,” said Johns, who coaches inside linebackers and has admired Palelei since landing him on the recruiting trail. “He’s such a serious, high-academic, hard-working kid. He struggled [on the field] when he first got here, but he wasn’t going to quit something he had started. He’s very quiet. Some guys might have thought he might be a pushover. But Evan showed early on that, when he was challenged, he wasn’t going to be milk toast. That is a tough kid.”
“[Palelei] has the same, relentless motor every day,” said Tony Sanchez, the head coach at Bishop Gorman High. “When that Stanford deal fell through, he struggled for a week or two. He was down about it, and I felt badly for him. But, like great people do, Evan picked himself back up.”
Lonnie Palelei saw those qualities – quiet, responsible, driven – in his son a long time ago, while Evan’s father was forging an NFL career as a guard, following a college career that took him from Purdue to UNLV after he had suffered a serious knee injury as a freshman. Lonnie, who was drafted in the fifth round by Pittsburgh in 1993 and played six seasons for four teams, said he purposely avoided signing Evan up to play football until eighth grade. Evan enjoyed success in basketball, soccer and baseball during his elementary school years.
Evan’s athleticism and maturity were evident by the time he moved on to Bishop Gorman, where Lonnie coached as an assistant for his son’s first three seasons. Evan made the starting lineup as a freshman. He never let go of that role, and went on to become a co-captain as a senior. One of Lonnie’s fondest on-field memories was Bishop Gorman’s victory over McQueen in the state title game that concluded Evan’s sophomore season. In that game, Evan iced the win and his team’s perfect season by returning a fumble 86 yards for a touchdown.
“You couldn’t get two words out of Evan growing up. He was an analytical, nerdy guy. Getting good grades was never a problem. His room was never messy. He could tell if something had been moved,” Lonnie said.
“I had Evan in [NFL] locker rooms everywhere I went. He followed me everywhere. He saw what that fraternity was like. I just didn’t want him to burn out on playing the game by starting him too early,” he added. “It was real tough for him to go from being a captain on a nationally-ranked high school team to being a nobody [at Navy]. He’s a perfectionist to the core. He has the supreme confidence that, whatever happens to him, he is going to solve it.”
There were times when Evan thought about packing it in, which is nothing unusual for young Midshipmen. Lonnie lost track of the number of phone calls during which Evan stated his intention to come home and start over, only to call back hours later to say he was staying. Lonnie never sent the one-way airline ticket he had purchased to make that happen.
Palelei simply made up his mind that he was going to press on and win the fight to get on the field and contribute to the Mids. “He’s earned respect with the way he works every day,” said senior backup linebacker Mike Tuimavave, who competed against Palelei in high school. “When he’s in game mode, he doesn’t know how to quit. He lives for the competition on every play. He’s that guy who just doesn’t stop.”“There are loud leaders on this team. Evan fits the role of the guy who leads by the way he grinds and does everything at 110 percent,” added senior backup defensive end Michael Huf, who played with Palelei on the scout team for their first two seasons at Navy. “We hit it off once we met after plebe summer. Everyone helps each other get through this place. When I think of Evan, I think of a loyal friend who is super-caring and always has your back.” Lonnie has seen all of those sides of his son. As someone who has been involved in social work for years and now operates a care-giving business with his wife, Catherine, Lonnie has fond memories of Evan bagging groceries for the needy and participating in the largest charity toy drive in the country. In six months, Evan’s parents will bask in his graduation, as he is commissioned an officer in either the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps.“I tried to keep Evan away from anything that could corrupt him. But he kept his Dad on the right path. He kind of grew up with me,” Lonnie said. “Evan is now one of my friends. He’s my hero. He’s my dude. I’m so proud of him for sticking it out.”