BYU defensive lineman Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua is going out on his own terms.
Leiataua, a 25-year-old college graduate, thought he might be starting law school this fall. Instead the “super senior” is taking advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver to return to Provo for a sixth season with the Cougars to take care of some unfinished business.
“Some people might think it’s kind of awkward and stuff [that] I was blessed with another year, and I’m going to take advantage of it,” the Compton, Calif., native said. “There are people where I’m from that are my age, that are doing something I can’t imagine myself doing, like living on the streets and stuff like that. I have a lot of classmates who are doing stuff like that. So, I could be in a lot worse places, but it’s pretty dope where I’m at right now.”
Healed from a broken leg that derailed him in 2020, and back on track for a normal season after a global pandemic upended the college football world, Leiataua wants to use his last season in Provo to end his collegiate career on his terms.
Now, the defensive lineman is just one of two seniors — both super seniors — on a predominantly young defense. His return not only ensures the Cougars have returning talent but returning leadership.
“That’s huge for us because, especially at the D-end spot, we don’t have very much experience,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said. “And Lopa brings a lot of experience and it’ll be huge to have him back.”
What makes Leiataua’s decision to come back even more special is that the Compton, Calif., native graduated from BYU more than a year ago, in April 2020.
Leiataua, who’s been with the Cougars since 2016, believes he was primed to have a breakout season last year but broke his leg just before the 2020 season. Immediately, the coaching staff got started on paperwork in an attempt to get a medical waiver for Leiataua, who had already redshirted his first year at BYU.
Luckily, a few weeks after Leiataua broke his leg, the NCAA came out with the blanket waiver.
That allowed Leiataua to be able to rush back and start to get back in the swing of things in time for the UTSA game in October.
“Mentally, you’re like ‘dang,’ that’s a lot,” Leiataua said. “I have a lot of unfinished business I guess, and it’s weird because I feel like the team needs me now, too. Last year was unsatisfying. It was a great year for everyone — not going to lie, it was fun going 11-1 — but for someone who knows he’s good, it’s kind of unsatisfying. I have so much left to prove.”
Through the last year, dealing with the pandemic on top of the usual adversity a regular college student faces, Leiataua has also had the chance to look back at his journey as a first-generation college student. Although the decision to take advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver to come back for another year was initially inspired by a season-ending injury, it was made that much easier because of the impact BYU had on Leiataua’s life.
All five of his sisters are also college graduates, so he was able to rely on them if he needed any help. But Leiataua also recognizes that he had an easier transition through college because of football.
Through all of the resources and help football provides, Leiataua felt there was no reason not to succeed and graduate, unlike other first-generation students who may have to deal with financial or home insecurities while trying to earn their degree.
“I get fed three times a day by football, I have an academic adviser that makes my schedule,” Leiataua said. “I’m not naive to know that that’s a blessing. I’m really grateful to football.”
That feeling of being needed by a team that had already given the 25-year-old a place to play and get an education made the decision even easier. Leiataua is well aware that football doesn’t last forever, but is willing to take every advantage he can to extend his playing career.
The business world is going to be waiting for him whenever he’s ready, but it’ll have to wait at least a little longer.
With his degree completed, Leiataua is now focusing on taking the LSAT in August. If the NFL gives Leiataua a chance to continue his playing career, he’ll take it, but if his playing days come to an end this fall, then the 25-year-old will head to law school.
When it comes to what kind of law he’ll study, Leiataua isn’t too sure yet. He’s considered becoming a sports agent because he’d like to stay close to the NFL, but everything is still up in the air.
The only thing Leiataua is certain of right now is that he wants to close out his BYU career on a bang.
“I just want to make sure I gave it my all,” Leiataua said.