Provo • At first, the slender and outgoing freshman BYU swimmer from a small town near Sacramento wanted nothing to do with the big, burly and annoyingly persistent freshman football player who wouldn’t stop trying to flirt with her at a bonfire in the mountains above campus.
Too many tattoos. Too crude in his language and jokes. Too rough around the edges for her liking. So what if the sweet-talking guy with the unique sounding name — Sione Takitaki — was one of the prized newcomers on the BYU football team?
“I am the type of person where I have my standards, and I don’t break those for anybody,” Alyssa Penney said. “That’s kind of what I told him. I said, ‘If you want to date me, you have to have the same standards as me. And if you don’t want to do that, then it’s not going to happen.”
Takitaki’s version: “I wasn’t really her type of guy. I had tattoos and stuff like that. But I kept trying and eventually it took just one time for us to go on a date, and it took off from there.”
But before this story of love and redemption could take hold, there were a lot of dark days, Takitaki was kicked off the BYU football team once and suspended from playing three times. He got arrested for theft and sat out a year to get his mind right and life in order.
What followed, however, was a remarkable turnaround — the latest chapter coming on Monday, when Takitaki was named a team captain for the 2018 season.
BYU AT ARIZONA
When • Saturday, 8:45 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN
When Alyssa and Takitaki met that fall of 2014, Takitaki had already had one brush with trouble. Days after arriving in Provo from Fontana, Calif., he was involved in a fight in the student dorms and briefly kicked off the team by then-coach Bronco Mendenhall. But after allowing players to vote on whether he should be given a second chance, Mendenhall reinstated the youngster whose father, Vaimaua, died of cancer when he was in the eighth grade.
“I was raised by a single mother [Fissipeau] my high school years and came in to BYU as a knucklehead and a troublemaker freshman year,” Takitaki said.
The couple were friends for a year, then dated for almost another year — an eternity, by BYU dating standards — before getting married in the Salt Lake City LDS Temple in June of 2016.
“She’s a wonderful wife, an absolute angel,” Takitaki said last week as preseason camp wrapped up and the senior linebacker and his teammates turned their attention to Saturday’s opener at Arizona. “I got so lucky. I could go on and on about her. She is going straight to heaven.”
Alyssa said when she first met Takitaki, despite his outward appearances, “I could tell that he had a good heart. I could feel the type of person he was, deep down, after talking to him for an hour or so that night.”
Still, she did her best to avoid him or “string him along,” especially after Takitaki made headlines for all the wrong reasons again in 2014 when, after a standout game against Middle Tennessee State, he failed to show up for a subsequent practice and was suspended for the next game against Nevada.
Alyssa was as puzzled as everyone else.
“I didn’t know much about him until some of those negative stories started to come out,” she said. “I was like, ‘woah, that is so weird because he doesn’t seem like that type of person.’”
Relentless in his pursuit, but still in the friend zone, Takitaki called her at her home in California on Christmas Day in 2014.
“When I left for Christmas, I was relieved to get away and I was thinking maybe he won’t like me when I get back and will leave me alone. Then he called me. I was like, ‘what are you calling are for?’ And he was like, ‘I really like you and I really miss you.’”
Alyssa was with her entire family at the time and they asked who it was.
“Oh, just some football player,” she said.
When she returned to campus the following winter, Takitaki would do little things like show up at church services and save her a seat, or bring food to her when she had to run from swimming practice to a class.
“He saved me a spot at my ward, but I didn’t sit by him,” she said. “I said, ‘OK, good for you, but I am not going to go on a date with you just yet.’”
Slowly, Takitaki was getting his life turned around, with Alyssa’s help and friendship.
However, in August of 2015 he was arrested for allegedly stealing apparel from the school’s track and soccer teams while he worked on the custodial staff at Smith Fieldhouse. Mendenhall suspended the sophomore for the season opener at Nebraska.
Then, nine days after pleading guilty to one count of Class B misdemeanor theft in mid-October of that same season, Takitaki was suspended for the remainder of the year for violating team rules.
“It was rough. I was low. I was in the dumps,” he said.
By that time the couple was dating a little bit, and Alyssa was determined to stay the course with the man she was falling in love with. Her family was, too.
“He was really, really respectful around my family,” she said. “Just seeing how he is around my family, my nieces and nephews, touched my heart. He is a really respectful person. For instance, he wouldn’t eat until my parents had taken their first bite. Just little things like that that most guys don’t do any more. Just a very caring person. Everyone loved him.”
Her parents and siblings read all the “bad things in the papers” and wondered what was going on as well, she said.
“He was just lost and all he needed was for someone to push him along,” Alyssa said. “Because he always wanted to end up here — back in [good standing] in the church and with BYU.”
Last week, Takitaki credited his mother, his in-laws, Mendenhall, current BYU coach Kalani Sitake, BYU President Kevin Worthen and BYU Advancement Vice President Matthew Richardson for sticking with him and “lending a hand” to his transformation. But Alyssa, he said, was most responsible, by far.
Alyssa retired from swimming in 2016 and graduated earlier this month. She’s undergone a transformation, too, from those reluctant beginnings to best friend, wife and biggest fan. Takitaki said she turned his life around. She says he turned his own life around, with her timely nudging.
“Leaving BYU was a thought, I will admit,” Takitaki said. “But I always wanted to stay here and finish at BYU. I have always been a BYU kid and even though I started off on the wrong foot, started off rough, I always wanted to prove to myself I can do it here. I have one more year, and I am so happy and blessed for all the support I’ve gotten along the way.”
SIONE TAKITAKI TIMELINE
February, 2014 • Signs with BYU after standout career at Heritage High in Menifee, Calif.
July, 2014 • Dismissed from the team by then-coach Bronco Mendenhall for his role in an altercation in the student dorms, but allowed back on the team when Mendenhall allows players to vote on his reinstatement
September, 2014 • Meets his future wife, BYU swimmer Alyssa Penney, at a bonfire in the mountains above Provo
November, 2014 • Fails to show up for a practice after a standout game against Middle Tennessee State and is suspended for the next game against Nevada
August, 2015 • Arrested by BYU Police for stealing apparel from the school’s track and soccer teams while he worked on the custodial staff at Smith Fieldhouse and suspended for the season opener at Nebraska
October, 2015 • Nine days after pleading guilty to one count of Class B misdemeanor theft, troubled sophomore suspended for the remainder of the season for an undisclosed violation of team rules
June, 2016 • Weds retired BYU swimmer Alyssa Penney in the Salt Lake LDS Temple
Fall, 2016 • Uses 2016 season as a redshirt year to get his life and schoolwork back in order
Fall, 2017 • Starts in all 13 games, primarily at defensive end, and makes 79 tackles and five sacks
Summer, 2018 • Moves back to linebacker in spring camp and is named a team captain at conclusion of preseason camp