If it weren’t for a stop for Hawaiian barbecue on the way to the airport, Jets defensive end Tevita Finau might not be in the NFL today.
Finau has lived a life of travel. Born in New Zealand, his father owned a construction company that bid on projects throughout the Pacific, and the family followed. After birth, he moved to Hawaii, Tonga, back to New Zealand and then finally settled again in Hawaii — all by 11 years old. Rugby was his first love and he didn’t play football until his final two years of high school.
And though he was all-state, he didn’t go off to play big-time college football.
“I stayed home and helped the family — money issues and such. I jumped into my dad’s construction company for about two years,” Finau said. “Then some friends that I played rugby with got together and decided they’d go back to school. I said I’d go along for the ride.”
All six players, including Finau, were promised scholarships by the coaching staff at Eastern Arizona College.
“We got there on campus, just off the plane and everything and an assistant coach came out and told us they ran out of scholarships,” Finau said. “We got there and they said they ran out.”
So they turned around and Finau assumed he’d go back to construction work.
With time before their flight back to Hawaii, the group stopped at restaurant for chicken katsu. While eating, they noticed a man staring at them.
“He asks us, ‘Do you all play football?’ We said we did but our school ran out of scholarships,” Finau said. “Straight away he said, ‘Would you want to check out my school? I just got hired as the linebackers coach there.’ He told us it wasn’t that far.”
By the end of the day all six had enrolled at Phoenix College where Finau went on to play two seasons.
“We were meant to go there,” Finau said of Phoenix, smiling and shaking his head. “Everytime I talk with my friends who were they, we talk about it, how crazy it was. But how I got to Utah is even crazier.”
He committed to West Virginia after his two years in Phoenix were up, but after a semester feeling homesick he decided to transfer to Utah, where a cousin played.
“The defensive coordinator called me and said that they could [count] all my classes [he’d already taken elsewhere],” Finau said. “So I took an overnight plane to get there and showed up the next day. And that’s how I got to Utah.”
He graduated with a 3.0 GPA and a degree in sociology. He even roomed with Jets 2014 seventh-round pick Trevor Reilly.
“When he came in, he couldn’t bench press 100 pounds,” Reilly said. “He couldn’t bench press 100 pounds, really. Not lying. The crazy thing is that he was there two years. He left benching 400 pounds.”
At his pro day in 2012, Finau had 26 reps at 225 pounds.
The long road to the NFL included stops with the Cowboys, Cardinals and Eagles before the Jets signed him to the practice squad late in the 2012 season.
“I’m so blessed, so blessed to be there,” Finau said. “I think it was the road I was meant to take.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.