Every other day before school, David and Ben Moa would get up at 5 a.m. in the bedroom they shared, head to the living room in the family apartment, and move the couch and dinner table aside to make room for a workout.
The brothers, two grades apart, tried not to wake two little sisters sleeping in their parents’ room.
Their mother, Seini, was often in tears for having to get up before the sun.
Their father, Ben Sr., a former standout Tongan rugby player, watched his high school-aged sons grow into college defensive linemen as they piled weights on the squat rack he bought off Craigslist.
“It wasn’t always easy, but we just made the most of whatever we had,” said Ben, the eldest of the Moa children.
When the pair would tussle, as brothers often do, be it in a workout or on the football field, “It was a fearful sight in itself,” according to Ben Sr.
The physical battles also turned David into a defensive tackle who was able to take on any and all offensive linemen.
Now a sophomore nose tackle for No. 24-ranked Boise State, Moa is listed at 6-foot-3, 271 pounds, a few inches taller and about 30 pounds lighter than Armand Nance, last year’s starter.
Moa has been extremely productive in his first season as a starter, leading the Broncos with four sacks. He’s one of only three players in the Football Bowl Subdivision who have that many in three games played.
Boise State, Miami and Illinois lead the FBS in team sacks, averaging 4.33 sacks a game.
“The guy’s a monster when he gets out there. He’s got another gear, he can go out there against guys that are 30, 40, 50 pounds heavier than he is and still continue to attack,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
A drive to keep moving forward comes natural for Moa and his family.
Born in Tonga, David and the Moas moved to California in 2001, bouncing around relatives’ houses in the Bay Area and settling in Sacramento for nearly five years. Finding a better education for the children and helping take care of Seini’s mother, who had developed colon cancer, brought them to the United States.
Ben Sr. found a job as an electrician, but the recession began to hit hard, so family in San Diego helped them settle there.
About five years ago, Seini suffered constant headaches and was eventually diagnosed with a non-malignant brain tumor that kept her from working for long stretches. Two years ago, the youngest daughter, Angel, injured an artery in her neck on an amusement park ride. She suffered a stroke, and had a second one in the hospital. Today, 12-year-old Angel totes a small medicine bag with her to school each day.
“Life back in Tonga is very difficult, and we’ve been struck hard a few times, but we were ready to handle it,” Ben Sr. said. “We’re all strong in our own way.”
For David, that strength doesn’t show up on just the gridiron.
“One thing I really wish I’d learned from him was being calm under pressure,” Ben Jr. said. “We’d be walking back from school, and there’s bad influences everywhere. ... He’d at times be the older brother. There were a lot of dumb moments when I was almost in fights, whatever, and he would keep me away from it. He’s saved me more times than I can count.”
Once he grew into a standout lineman on defense and offense at Kearny High in San Diego, David took his potential seriously, even after signing with Boise State.
“He skipped his senior prom,” Ben Sr. said. “We were tight for money, but his teachers, his friends, they wanted to pay for him, but he said he’d already gone to his junior prom. He said he’d already been there, done that, and decided to work out instead that day.”
Boise State defensive line coach Steve Caldwell had no hesitation plugging Moa into the starting lineup this season, but said Wednesday he initially planned to substitute for him in most passing situations. Three games into the season, he said Moa’s rise could open up pressure on the edge, not the other way around, which he said “is very unusual.”
“One thing we have in our D-line room, it says (on the wall), ‘Relentless.’ I feel like most of the plays I’m making right now, trying to do it extra, a little more than I usually do,” Moa said. “I can use my quickness to my advantage.”
As he has stepped up, teams have begun to pay more attention, adding more and more double-teams. Moa has only gotten better, getting 1.5 sacks against Washington State on Sept. 10, and 2.5 against Oregon State on Saturday.
“Each week there’s something that comes up different and he’s been able to handle it so far,” Caldwell said.
Senior guard Travis Averill has seen his share of battles with Moa since he redshirted in 2014, and said “that kid’s going to be real good. ... You may think you have him and he’ll pull out another move. He keeps you on your toes.”
“It’s not a surprise to me. I knew David was going to be a great player from the moment he got here,” senior defensive tackle Elliot Hoyte said. “He works hard, puts in the extra effort you need to be good at the position. He’s undersized, but that doesn’t mean anything to him, or us.”
This could have been a story about a pair of brothers creating havoc for Boise State, and it very nearly was. Ben Jr. committed to Boise State out of Grossmont (Calif.) Junior College, intending to join the Broncos in the summer of 2015. But he didn’t qualify, saying “as soon as I was offered, my head got too big, and I stopped paying attention to academics.”
Now taking classes at Division II Azusa Pacific near Los Angeles, hoping to join their team next semester, Ben Jr. watches every Boise State game with extra attention. Recently a father of his own son, Penaia “Ben” IV, three generations of Moas are filled with pride as David thrives.
“I’d take a bullet for my brother,” Ben Jr. said. “Knowing all the struggles, it’s even better. If I have anything to say about it, he won’t be the only Moa to come there. I plan on having a long chain of family playing for Boise State.”
Utah State at No. 24 Boise state
- When: 8:15 p.m. MT Saturday
- Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf)
- TV: ESPN2 (Roy Philpott, Tom Ramsey, Alex Corddry)
- Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
- Records: Boise State 3-0 (0-0 Mountain West); Utah State 2-2 (0-1 Mountain West)
- Kickoff weather: High 50s and clear, light winds, no chance of precipitation
- Vegas line: Boise State favored by 20 points
- Series: Boise State leads 15-5 (last meeting: Aggies won 52-26 on Oct. 16, 2015, in Logan)
Live online chat Thursday
Boise State football reporters Dave Southorn and Michael Katz focus on the Utah State game, and take all your Bronco questions at 11 a.m. at IdahoStatesman.com