'It was just so exciting.' Tyrone Taleni's parents saw the USC lineman achieve his dream

Five years after their son left Samoa in search of a future in football, Jack and Lise Taleni gazed up from their seats Saturday, awestruck at the sight of his face flashing across the Coliseum videoboard while tens of thousands of fans cheered him in unison.

The last time they’d seen Tyrone in person, he’d barely ever watched an American football game, let alone played in one. Now their son was chasing down an opposing quarterback for USC, pulling him to the turf for his first sack as a Trojan. It was a surreal moment. Around them, family and friends screamed and jumped for joy. So Jack and Lise, having never attended an American football game, followed their lead, smiling wide as they celebrated their son.

“It was a new experience for us, being there,” said Lise, Tyrone’s mother. “So we just went along with what everyone else was doing, screaming and shouting and tapping each other. It was really exciting for us.”

It was already an emotional day for the Taleni family. Five excruciatingly long years had passed since Lise and Jack were last together with their son — so long that Tyrone told himself to prepare for his parents to be different people than he remembered.

But the same was true for Tyrone, who’d been through a life-altering journey since leaving Savai’i in the fall of 2017 with the hope of financing his education with football. His improbable pursuit of a scholarship in a sport he’d never played had taken him from Mt. San Antonio College to Manhattan, Kan., before USC coach Lincoln Riley scooped up the defensive lineman from the NCAA transfer portal.

Along the way, he longed for the day his family could watch him play football. But travel restrictions remained in place for the independent state of Samoa for more than two years of the pandemic, limiting those who could enter or leave the island. A few days before USC’s season opener, Tyrone found out his parents and sister, Qudaela, would be there for his Trojans debut.

When Tyrone woke up that morning, he went straight to meet his family at the hotel. Lise burst into tears as soon as she saw her son. Jack marveled at how much he’d grown.

“I started treating him like he was my little boy, slapping his cheeks and feeling his muscles,” Jack said with a laugh. “He’s a lot different now with his body!”

It had been heartbreaking for both Jack and Lise to watch him leave behind their small village of Vaiola half a decade earlier. They worried about Tyrone traveling so far to play an unfamiliar sport in a place so different from their home. But they told themselves to let Tyrone find his own way.

“When he left, we didn’t have enough money to support him,” Jack said. “He was just going out there to see where he would end up. And so to see him on that field that day, all of those feelings came back to us.”

“We’re just happy and thankful,” Lise added. “We know he had a lot of struggles when he came to America. At the very beginning, having to go through what he did, look at him where he is now.”

As they took in the scene around the Coliseum, wandering through the tailgates on the South lawn, they could hardly believe what they saw.

Inside, they marveled at a stadium bigger than any they’d ever seen, which filled up Saturday with more than 60,000 fans.

“Their eyes lit up,” said Ula Matavao, Taleni’s cousin. “They couldn’t believe how big it was. There’s nothing like that back in Samoa. It was a culture shock for them. They’ve been to the States before, but they’ve never experienced college football.”

And at the center of it all was Tyrone, who played 31 snaps in his USC debut, more than he played in any single game last season at Kansas State. They knew enough about football to understand he’d come a long way for that sort of role.

Kansas State defensive end Tyrone Taleni sacks Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels.
Kansas State defensive end Tyrone Taleni sacks Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels on Oct. 24, 2020 in Manhattan, Kan. (Peter G. Aiken / Getty Images)

“It was such a wonderful thing,” Lise said. “The whole time I watched him everywhere he went, whether he was on the field or on the sideline. It was just so exciting to see him there.”

That thrill was evident in Tyrone as he celebrated his first sack, knowing full well his family was watching from the stands.

They’ll be in the stands again Saturday when USC takes on Stanford in Palo Alto. With defensive lineman De’jon Benton probably out because of an injury, Tyrone could play an even bigger role at defensive tackle this week. Riley singled him out Tuesday as someone who had “stepped up” along the defensive front.

His parents finally saw that for themselves last Saturday. It left them swelling with pride at the life he’d built for himself since leaving Samoa.

That night, Tyrone was awake in bed, still stunned that his parents had actually seen him play college football.

“I was just so happy,” Tyrone said. “I was proud of myself, that I was able to be here, to give the best that I can and finally having them be a part of it.

“Words really can’t explain it.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.