MINNEAPOLIS — The biggest player in college football doesn’t have much to say about the subject of being the biggest player in college football.
At 6-feet-9 and 400 pounds, Daniel Faalele fills a jersey and pads like no other. Offered a scholarship before he ever saw a football field and getting the chance to start as a freshman at Minnesota, his soaring arc shouts how the game values size and potential. Not necessarily in that order.
Recruited out of Australia with only two years of playing experience at a U.S. high school, Faalele became All-Big Ten honorable mention right tackle in 2018.
At this point, it’s best to let others speak for those accomplishments.
“I offered him first,” boasted Chris Naoele, then the offensive line coach at Hawaii. “When you see the size of him. it’s like, ‘Are you for real?’ He was like a big mountain.”
“It’s like the bearded lady,” said Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. “It’s like, wow, you’re going to pay to see her.”
“He’s a cool dude to be around,” Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson said. “He’s funny. He’s huge. I don’t know if he gets questions like that, ‘How is the air up there?'”
Asked how his mighty frame might rise up when he becomes enraged, Faalele simply says, “It’s just a mindset. I’m not really mad. It’s just a mindset. I’m just going to dominate you.”
There is no official standard by which Faalele is the game’s biggest player. But what other player do you know who wears size 18 shoes, whose head seems bigger than his helmet, and who stands a head bigger than of his offensive line teammates (typically the largest players on the field)?
But he is more than that bearded lady, that circus act. Four years ago at age 16, Faalele walked into Conquest Athletic Performance in Melbourne, Australia, to rehab from a basketball injury with head of performance David Tuinauvai, who ended up training him.
“He was very quiet,” Tuinauvai said of Faaele. “A lot of time, my role with him was bringing out the beast. … I can’t tell you we got it out of him. I do know — down there and inside him — there is that beast that college football is starting to see.”
Naoele saw it without Faalele taking a snap. The 13-year NFL veteran had convinced then-Hawaii coach Norm Chow to send him to Australia on a recruiting trip.
Faalele was so imposing when Naoele saw him at Conquest that Naoele offered a scholarship on the spot. Tuinauvai and the giant lineman took a photo together. It got noticed, and Faalele’s anonymity was over.
He went to a Jim Harbaugh camp satellite camp Down Under. Oregon came sniffing around. Alabama and LSU were interested. The secret was out about this massive Australian giant.
Hawaii was quickly out of the picture.
“Being Hawaii, you’re only going to get the three- or four-star kids,” Naoele said. “If these [Australian] kids, if they were trained properly, they’d be four- or five-star kids.”
If there were more Faaleles, Minnesota would be knocking on the door of a Big Ten title. (You can see the marketing department churning out the hype: Build That Wall!) As it is, the Gophers finished 7-6 last season, winning at Wisconsin for the first time since 1994.
Ruth Faalele, a single mom, moved her family from Australia to the Twin Cities to be witnesses.
“He was very raw,” Fleck said. “But pretty much everyone saw the potential. He could go one of two ways. Just because he goes 6-foot-9, 400 pounds doesn’t mean it’s always going to pan out.”
Faalele is sort of a common outlier. For years, players have been coming to the college game from overseas — Canada, Europe and Faalele’s Australia. More so, it’s the way the Gophers’ sophomore got here.
Someone got to the kid’s mother, who placed him at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, for his junior and senior high school seniors.
“It’s like the power of the internet,” Naoele said of the photo that started it all. “You can’t hide these kids. There’s no way. … The sad part is, he’s not the only one down there. There’s a lot of big Polynesians.”
Polynesians have long been the backbone of American football. Their family structure builds character. Their love of football builds winners.
Faalele’s maternal grandfather was born in Samoa. His grandmother is Tongan and Swedish. His brother Taylor, 12, is 6-foot-1, 260 pounds.
Fleck sold Faalele as only Fleck can sell — hawking a bigger and better deal.
“[Faalele] moved halfway across the world for the right culture, the right people, the right education and the right state to help change him,” Fleck said.
“I didn’t understand any of it, really,” Faalele said. “I understood where football could take me.”
Let’s pause right here. Maybe Faalele playing basketball is the weirdest thing about this story. He grew up playing rugby, but even as a youth, he was so big.
“My mom would tell me stories about kids trying to tackle me, and I would just drag them along with me,” he said.
“He thought that rugby was his passion,” Tuinauvai said. “He didn’t know football. He didn’t know what college football was.”
In the spring game, Fleck wanted to make an example of a former rugby dropout. Faalele scored a short-yardage touchdown.
“Especially in our game, with how violent it is, there’s got to be something inside you that is a little bit different,” Fleck said. “It’s kind of like talking about a monument. They’re enjoying him. They love coming to see him.”
Only the bearded lady could be jealous.