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Sports Illustrated writer Joan Niesen might as well have been asked to visit Mars and report on the impact of spores on red sand when she took on the task of dissecting LDS missionary Motekiai Langi, a giant 425-pound BYU-bound Tongan serving in Phoenix.
That’s where Niesen began the task of learning how Mormon missionary work works. She did her homework. An outsider, she hit it out of the park. Niesen’s July 21 piece on “the soon-to be biggest thing in football” takes an inside look at how Langi is coping on his mission, his battle to fit in with his unique monster size, his background growing up in Tonga, his lack of football experience and his recruitment to be a Cougar through BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi.
It’s a good read.
“I got the lowdown, everyone in the athletic department was very helpful. I didn’t want to get it wrong,” said Niesen on Friday.
Niesen said both she and her editor at Sports Illustrated, independent of each other, got the idea for a story about Langi when they separately came across an internet video of him decked out in a white shirt, racing and beating his companion in the 40-yard dash at a gas station parking lot in Arizona.
“We both thought it was great, that it would be a cool story.” Both were unaware of LDS Church protocol or if they could even spend time with Langi while he was serving. Langi is slated to return and play at BYU in 2017. Arrangements were made and Niesen spent most of a day following Langi and his companion around.
“I didn’t realize how the schedule is at all, that you are with a partner literally all the time and how the schedule is planned right down to the tenth degree. I’d heard about it before going out there obviously, but spending the day with him and seeing how they went from one thing to another, to change clothes and be here, or do this or that, it was like a well-oiled machine, very impressive and kind of surprised me, even though I was told beforehand.”
Niesen believes it will definitely be a challenge for Langi to adjust to Division I football, a game he’s never played, especially coming off two years without formal workout training, just a little exercise here and there.
“But from everyone I’ve talked to, and now seeing him in person, he definitely has the inclination to be in shape. Even at 425, you don’t look at him and say, ‘wow, that guy looks obese.’ I’ve been in NFL locker rooms and have seen offensive linemen who don’t have their shirts on and usually they have a big pot belly, but he doesn’t seem to be cut that way. From my perspective, that’s promising.”
Niesen was stunned by how big Langi was in relation to tables and chairs, that his size made furniture look like something in a doll house. “But he seemed to move and carry himself with athleticism, without awkwardness for a man as big as he is.”
Niesen didn’t put it in the story, but she was watching him do physical work installing a sprinkling system in somebody’s yard in the hot desert of Arizona and he was working hard. “It was 110 degrees and he had his shovel and he was going at it and I thought in my mind, ‘this might resemble a summer football workout.’ He was a hard worker, he seemed like a guy who was committed to getting things done. When he was talking about his childhood, I could tell he is a person who gives effort and doesn’t expect to roll in and have things handed to him.”
The toughest part of doing this feature story?
Niesen said it was initially just “connecting” with the 6-foot-7 Langi. It took a few hours of being with him for Niesen to get him to understand what she was all about, what she was doing and what she wanted. “Obviously, he isn’t a person who’s used to doing interviews. It was new to him.”
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