Why BYU’s game at USC will mean something more to Uriah Leiataua

“Lopa” Leiataua grew up in Compton, Calif., in the shadows of the Coliseum.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua joins BYU football coaches, players and staff participating in BYU football media day in the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

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Uriah Leiataua grew up 10 minutes from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the USC football team plays its home games. And while the BYU lineman and his family grew up UCLA fans due to family connections with that school, the aura of the historical stadium was always prevalent.

But as the sound of Trojan fans roaring with every touchdown reverberated around the community, 10 minutes away Leiataua and his family found sanctuary from the sounds just outside their small one-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Compton, Calif — the helicopter blades whirring, the police sirens blaring, the gunshots pop-pop-popping.

It was in that home where Leiataua lived with a total of 26 family members, his sister says. In that home where he got support from his three older sisters, who he saw firsthand pursue higher educations. In that home where he saw his father, Sigu, make ends meet by working in a sausage factory, delivering the L.A. Times, and collecting and reselling wooden pallets — and thought if he wanted his dad to get a break from that backbreaking work one day, he too would have to get a good education.

So the game Saturday against USC — the final one of the regular season for the Cougars — is more than just an opportunity for a 10-win season. For Leiataua, it’s a chance to return to the area where it all began and the hometown that shaped the man he is now.

“Symbolically and literally, this is a really big game for him,” Leiataua’s sister, Amaris, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Leiataua — known as “Lopa” to those close to him, a reference to his middle name taken from his grandfather — said last week that in the entirety of his BYU tenure, the closest he’s ever come to playing in Los Angeles is a San Diego State game. San Diego is about two hours south from L.A.

“It’s going to be interesting and exciting to actually play at home — like actually at home — for the first time,” Leiataua said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua (58) picks up South Florida Bulls quarterback Timmy McClain (9) after tackling him in game action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the South Florida Bulls at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Leiataua is one of several players on the BYU football team from California who are looking forward to the trip to the Coliseum. Junior defensive back Kaleb Hayes, who hails from San Bernardino, was practically beaming when he spoke about playing USC.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Hayes said. “I’m very ecstatic to go back home, seeing family, friends now that are supporting me. Just going back to Cali, I love that area. I love the school USC — I love and I respect them.”

Junior wide receiver Gunner Romney said the players from the L.A. area have been abuzz about going home or close to it.

“They’ve been talking about it this entire week,” Romney said. “They say that every kid that grows up in Southern California, it’s their dream to play in the Coliseum, whether it’s for USC or against USC. So that added motivation is leaking into everybody.”

But Leiataua and his family’s introduction to college football was through the Bruins and his two cousins, Shannon and Sonny Tevaga, who played on the offensive line for the team. Sonny Tevaga’s last season was 2008, and Shannon’s was in 2007. He even remembers his introduction to BYU football as a game where UCLA got blown out, and he thought, “I hate BYU.”

Now, of course, Leiataua wears the Cougar blue every day. His sister attends law school at BYU, and some of the other family members he grew up with have moved to Utah, Amaris Leiataua said.

Leiataua’s sister has seen up close how he took the experience of growing up in Compton and took it to Provo.

“He’s thriving at BYU, a place that is the complete opposite of Compton,” Amaris Leiataua said. “I think he also thrives here in Compton.”

The Leiataua family still lives in that modest house in Compton. When he was little, those that lived in that house didn’t have much. Ramen noodles and canned sardines were regular meals because of their inexpensiveness. When the kids wanted something to do, they’d spend time at the park and take advantage the basketball courts and no-cost lunches provided there.

“We did things that were free,” Amaris Leiataua said, adding that her brother didn’t start playing football until high school because her parents could not afford the cost of youth football programs.

But the love and sacrifice of Sigu and his mother, Vaosa, were all that Leiataua and the rest of his family needed.

“Even though my parents didn’t have a lot of money,” Amaris Leiataua said, “we grew up rich in the sense that there was a lot of love in our family, and that had really made a difference.”

Now Leiataua has love for and from BYU, and he’ll showcase that against USC at the Coliseum in front of his friends, family and members of the Compton community in which his parents still so ingrained.