Imagine being invited to perform at the Metropolitan Opera before you had even sung a note in public, or qualifying for the U.S. Open before you’d shot a round of golf. Now put yourself in the shoes—or rather the size-18 cleats—of Daniel Faalele, who received full college scholarship offers to play football at powerhouses such as Alabama, Florida State, Michigan and UCLA months before he suited up for his first game.
Even at IMG Academy in Bradenton, where star athletes are as common as ceiling fans, Faalele has become a top attraction, drawing swarms of college recruiters, reporters from Sports Illustrated, USA Today and ESPN and starring in videos on YouTube. “Daniel is the most unique story I’ve ever seen,” says IMG head football coach Kevin Wright. “It sounds like an urban legend, only in this case it all turns out to be real.”
Faalele’s stature makes him impossible to overlook. At the age of 18, he is 6 feet, 9 inches and weighs close to 400 pounds, with a frame so oak tree-like that his coaches say he will get bigger and more muscular as his body matures. “He measured off the charts in our strength test,” Wright says. “Daniel’s just big; he’s not fat.”
Faalele, who is of Tongan and Samoan ancestry, grew up in Melbourne, Australia, always wanting to be a sportsman. But he thought his sport would be basketball. Faalele was working out at a local gym when a football coach from the University of Hawaii approached him and offered a scholarship on the spot. His mother Ruth and he knew little about the American game of football, but they began researching the sport and where it could lead him. That led to a scholarship to finish high school and learn the game at IMG.
“I’ll never forget the sight of Daniel coming onto our field for the first time,” Wright says. “Everybody just stopped and looked up. But he quickly won everybody over. He always has a smile, is a tremendous worker and cares deeply about his academic work. One day, we had a fire drill and all the students had to leave their dormitory. Daniel comes down carrying his books, upset because it interrupted his studying. He’s just a great young man.”
Arriving after practice for the 2016 season had started, Faalele decided to train for a year before playing in an actual game. The adjustment to learning a new sport would have been challenging under any circumstance, but especially so at IMG Academy, the No. 1 ranked high school team in the nation, which has a college-like training program and a roster loaded with pro prospects, including 11 players weighing more than 300 pounds. Faalele’s lack of experience did not dissuade college coaches, who flocked to IMG to watch him practice and woo him with offers.
IMG declined a request to interview Faalele, saying they did not want to interrupt his practice and study schedule. His mother, Ruth, however, was happy to talk in a phone interview from Melbourne, where she works as an accountant.
“It’s all happened so fast, it’s crazy,” Ruth says. “Daniel is very happy. He’s progressing so much. The IMG games come on at 9 a.m. Saturdays here and it’s a whole-family affair for us. I’m trying to learn the game, but sometimes I find myself just watching Daniel.”
That’s understandable. As the Ascenders right tackle, Faalele lines up against high school defensive linemen he often outweighs by 150 pounds or more. Ryan Sudol, IMG’s announcer, likes to pull out his phone and show the unconvinced a video of Faalele “pancaking” an opposing player. But for every taste of glory, Wright says, Faalele is given a daily dose of humility, because his practice assignment is to go against teammate Xavier Thomas, a 265-pound, agile defensive end who’s rated the No. 3 high school player in America.
“Daniel could have gone to a high school where he could have dominated every day in practice,” Wright says. “But that has never been the case here.”
What makes Faalele so intriguing is that he’s just beginning to learn the game. His hands are likened to vice grips, and his lower body is as immovable as an anchor. Faalele is so big that he could consume 6,000 calories a day and not get fat, Wright says. Another coach says Faalele could someday carry 450 pounds, which would make him bigger than any player who has ever played in the NFL.
Ruth, who is 5 feet, 6 inches, says Daniel weighed 9.5 pounds at birth, “but he was very sturdy, not chubby. I couldn’t keep up with him even combining breastfeeding and formula. He was crying every hour for more food. As he grew, I had to carry around his birth certificate because nobody would believe how young he was.”
Now, after only one season of football, Faalele faces another life-changing decision: Which school, among the dozens of suitors, should he choose for college, a path that could lead to the riches of the NFL? College coaches even call his mom in Australia, telling her how much they want her son.
“I try not to talk about it too much because we only get to see him for a short time,” Ruth says. “Daniel is very mature. He wants so much to make the most of this opportunity. He gets very quiet when the subject of college comes up, and I know he is thinking about it very hard.”