The way his Boise State football teammates describe him can be a bit confusing.
Cornerback Avery Williams says nose guard Sonatane Lui is a “big-time monster,” while defensive tackle David Moa contends Lui is a “really cool guy.”
Both are accurate descriptions of the 6-foot-1, 305-pound junior — they’re just in reference to two very different talents.
Lui was chosen as the Broncos’ 2017 defensive line MVP with 18 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and two recovered fumbles. He’s in line to start for a second season and was recently named to the Polynesian Player of the Year watch list.
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He also happens to be a gifted singer and musician.
“It’s a pretty stark difference to have somebody go out and play nose guard, tearing it up in the trenches all the time, and then go play some piano and chill down and sing a little bit,” Boise State safety Kekoa Nawahine said. “It just shows you all the different facets that people have in their life.”
Lui says he inherited his musical talent from his grandmother, Mary Tafuna.
“My grandma’s a really big musician. Ever since we were little, me and my cousins, my siblings, we always had to sing in choirs,” Lui said. “She’s a really big entertainer at parties, so she’ll say, ‘Here are my grandkids,’ and we’ll all have to sing.”
To complement his singing, Lui taught himself to play the guitar, ukulele and piano, and his little sister has recently given him some lessons on the violin.
“I can’t read any music. I just watch people’s hands and then I listen,” Lui said. “Usually I can mimic the sound.”
For Lui, music has served as an outlet and a bonding tool. The Sandy, Utah, native says he loves singing in church, and his rich, smooth tone helped him connect with strangers while serving an LDS mission in Los Angeles.
“It is the biggest stress reliever for me. There’s nothing I love more than going home after a stressful day, play whatever song I want,” Lui said. “Luckily my roommate lets me sing as loud as I want. David (Moa) sometimes comes in and sings with me.”
Lui’s Boise State teammates have come to be just as familiar with his ferociousness on the field as they are with his singing voice off of it.
“He sings in the shower a lot,” Williams said. “You can hear him all the time.”
Lui came to Boise State as a walk-on in January 2016. He said at the time that he was undersized and out of shape. He is now one of nine returning starters on the Broncos’ defense and a solid foundation in the middle.
“Anybody that’s played down there on the D-line, to play that nose guard spot, there’s a lot that goes on. You have to be extremely tough mentally,” Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “He’s got a great personality, and he’s a technician. He’s a coach on the field; that gives him a leadership a lot of guys envy and respect.”
And Lui has proved that he’s more than just a big body.
He’s majoring in political science with minors in business and pre-criminal justice. He’s made the All-Mountain West Academic team the past two seasons and plans to attend law school.
Brains and brawn.
“He’s a hard guy to move, but what’s impressive about Lui, as big as he is, he just plays with good pad level and leverage and he’s just athletic for a guy his size,” Boise State D-line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a said. “That’s a really good trait at nose guard to have. Most guys are just big and take up space, but Lui is an athletic nose guard, and at the same time he’s really smart, too.”