Davie, Fla. • There are said to be only two ways to get off “The Rock,” and Paul Soliai was ready to take his less favored one.
The opportunities to get away from American Samoa, remote volcanic islands in the South Pacific, after high school graduation are limited.
“We call it ‘The Rock,’” Soliai said. “If you want to get off it, you either join the [U.S.] Army or you get a scholarship to go to college. I was going to join the Army.”
That was Soliai’s plan in 2002 during his senior year at Nuuli Technical in Pago Pago. Soliai, who played football and volleyball for the school, didn’t have any scholarship offers, so he took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery in preparation to join the Army.
But the University of Utah stepped up just before graduation. Soliai was offered a scholarship to play football for the Utes.
It turned out that Soliai didn’t have the grades to play immediately. But the Utes sent him to Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College and vowed to stand by him. It was a promise the university kept when he enrolled at Utah in 2004.
“Hardly any schools were looking at me,” Soliai said. “I figured my football career was over, but Utah gave me an opportunity.”
Soliai, who is in his seventh year as a top-notch defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins, hasn’t forgotten that. The 29-year-old recently donated $250,000 to his alma mater to help fund a player recreation area at the school’s new football center. It will be known as the Paul and LeTasha Soliai Player Lounge — named after he and his wife — in the newly opened Eccles Football Center.
“I wanted to show my appreciation to them,” Soliai said at Dolphins training camp. “If not for them, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’d probably be in the Army, so I wanted to give back.
“I told my wife the whole story [about Utah offering a scholarship], and she said, ‘They deserve it.’ When I told how much I was giving, she said, ‘You’re giving how much?’ But she liked it that I put her name on it.”
Soliai, who redshirted at Utah in 2004 before being a Ute stalwart in 2005 and 2006, hopes his donation helps recruiting. He said the football program didn’t have much of an area for players to relax during his time at the school.
“It’s great that he’s able to give back to the school because they gave him the opportunity,” said Dolphins cornerback R.J. Stanford, who was Soliai’s teammate at Utah in 2006. “I’m jealous [about the new lounge]. I’m going to go back to school just to hang out with the players and play some games with them.”
Until then, the Dolphins have some games of their own to worry about. They’re expected to be much improved over last year’s 7-9 mark thanks to several key additions on offense, most notably wide receiver Mike Wallace.
But the defense has been solid for a few years. One reason is Soliai, a fourth-round pick in 2007 who made the Pro Bowl in 2011. He signed a two-year, $12 million contract before last season and is regarded as one of the NFL’s best run stoppers.
“He’s a great football player,” Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said. “I love coming out every day and going against him because he makes me better. He’s a heck of a player. He’s a load to block.”
Soliai was too much of a load early in his career, weighing as much as 380 pounds. He played sparingly in his first two seasons because of that. But Soliai, now a rock-solid 342, eventually got control of his weight and became a starter in 2009.
“I started being professional,” he said. “I’m just blessed. I’ve had great coaches and teammates who have helped me on and off the field. I learned from them. That’s why I always try to sit down with the rookies every year and try to teach them some things.”
And, yes, Soliai has told them the story about how he was able to get off “The Rock.”
Hometown • Pago Pago, American Samoa
College • Utah
NFL team • Miami Dolphins
Position • Defensive tackle
Soliai NFL career statistics
Season Games Tackles Sacks Forced fumbles Fumble recoveries
2012 16 29 1.5 0 1
2011 16 27 0 0 0
2010 16 39 2 0 1
2009 14 25 0 1 0
2008 14 3 0 0 0
2007 8 3 0 0 0
Total 84 126 3.5 1 2