BRADENTON, Fla. — The legend of Daniel Faalele is growing on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
He stands 6-foot-9, weighs 394 pounds and possesses a rare combination of power and speed. He is of Tongan and Samoan ethnicity and was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. He’s 17 years old and wears size 18 shoes.
Faalele (pronounced Fah-ah-LAY-lay) hasn’t played a single game of high school football yet, but he already has received scholarship offers from Arkansas, Fresno State, Hawaii, LSU, Miami, Michigan and Oregon State. Even at the internationally acclaimed IMG Academy, a facility overflowing with coveted recruits and budding superstars in multiple sports, Faalele has the ability to turn heads.
“The only human I’ve ever met in person who was that size was Shaquille O’Neal,” said IMG head football coach Kevin Wright. “We have pro athletes on our campus. We have college athletes. But those guys aren’t imposing. He was so imposing where it just made all of us stop and look and say, ‘He really is that big.’ “
Faalele was discovered at a Melbourne-area gym by a University of Hawaii recruiter in 2015. Word travels quickly in the football world, and other colleges were soon inquiring about this colossal raw talent. As a result, he became intrigued by American football and attended a University of Michigan satellite camp in suburban Melbourne last June. Not long after that, the fable of Faalele reached the IMG coaching staff in Florida — nearly 10,000 miles from his hometown.
The story sounded too good to be true when Wright first heard it, but he did some checking and learned that Faalele was the real deal. At that point, Wright contacted Faalele’s mother, Ruth, to see if Daniel would be interested in coming to the renowned sports institute and joining one of the top high school football programs in the United States.
Ruth and Daniel researched IMG and decided it was a great athletic and academic opportunity. He arrived last August at IMG, where he has immersed himself in development as an offensive tackle.
“For about a week, I was really feeling homesick,” Faalele said. “But after that I just started to enjoy the team atmosphere and the friendliness and welcoming of everyone.”
Faalele had never even watched an actual football game until he arrived at IMG, and Wright’s staff took a deliberately slow approach with him. They started by teaching basic technique before advancing to the strategies and responsibilities that have to be quickly dissected in real time during games.
“He didn’t know what a yard was,” IMG offensive line coach Derrick Elder said. “He didn’t know what a first down was. It was like taking a newborn out of the womb. But he isn’t burned out. Everything is new and exciting.”
Wright and Elder said Faalele is a quick learner with a terrific work ethic. After only about a month of instruction, he joined the scout team and began squaring off against the starting lineup in practice. He had to learn on the fly against some of the top players in the country.
“HE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT A YARD WAS. HE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT A FIRST DOWN WAS. IT WAS LIKE TAKING A NEWBORN OUT OF THE WOMB. BUT HE ISN’T BURNED OUT. EVERYTHING IS NEW AND EXCITING.”
Offensive line coach Derrick Elder, on how raw Daniel Faalele was when he arrived at IMG Academy
Wright recalls one memorable play when Faalele was responsible for trapping 6-foot-6, 260-pound defensive end Josh Kaindoh, a five-star recruit bound for Florida State, at the line of scrimmage. Faalele delivered a hit that sent Kaindoh airborne, and although Faalele sheepishly denied trying to do it intentionally, Wright isn’t so sure.
“I stopped and thought, ‘Did that really happen?’ ” Wright said. “Then I got in the huddle and said, ‘Daniel, did you aim to do that, or did you just run into him?’ Daniel said, ‘Coach, what was I supposed to do?’ I said, ‘You were supposed to hit him.’ He goes, ‘That’s what I did!’ “
Thanks in part to a background in rugby and basketball, Faalele has quick feet and extraordinary agility for someone his size. Despite weighing close to 400 pounds, he doesn’t appear fat because his frame is so solid.
“He’s just a freak of nature, obviously,” IMG strength coach David Ballou said. “As thick as he is and as big as he is, you wouldn’t expect him to move like he does. He’s a powerful dude, but he’s had limited strength background before coming here. From our perspective, his training age is 1. He’s an untapped gem.”
Matt Rhea, IMG head of sport science, said Faalele boasts the highest jumping power he has ever measured — including some pro athletes — and that the Aussie phenom has acceleration speed that is off the charts compared to typical prep running backs or linebackers. All that said, Ballou and Rhea are molding Faalele to be leaner.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he gains 40 pounds of muscle,” Rhea said. “Even as good as he looks and moves now, there’s still a transformation that is coming. He may gain 40 pounds of muscle but lose 80 pounds of fat. That kid at 350, with that muscle mass, is going to be impressive.”
To hear Faalele tell it, he’s not the least bit overwhelmed by the whirlwind of changes he has experienced in recent months. On the contrary, he’s on track to graduate after the 2017 fall season and could be attending college classes a year from now.
“There hasn’t really been a big challenge for me,” Faalele said. “It’s pretty straightforward. I love a good challenge, and I love learning new things.”
Said Wright: “His mom had to make the decision to trust people who she had only talked to over the phone to raise her son. You kind of forget the journey he has gone through, because he makes it seem so seamless. It’s quite a story.”
The next benchmark for Faalele will be spring practice, and he’s expected to join the first team. There will be a lot more information to process, and he won’t be able to huddle up and read a play card during stoppages. He will also be tasked with blocking new IMG defensive end Xavier Thomas, who just happens to be the No. 1-ranked player in the Class of 2018. Ultimately, looking ahead to the fall, Faalele can’t wait to finally hit someone wearing a different uniform and show his skills under the lights in a game atmosphere.
“I know I’ll definitely play well, just because I’ve wanted it so bad,” Faalele said. “I’m definitely going to dominate my position, lock down my side and secure the win.”
Considering Faalele’s uncommon size, strength and speed, maybe it’s only fair that most opposing players will have considerably more experience than he does. Just imagine if he had been discovered a few years earlier and had the opportunity to play four varsity seasons. With that in mind, consider that Faalele has a younger brother, 11-year-old Taylor, back home in Melbourne.
“I think he’s actually projected to be bigger than me,” Faalele said. “He’s 6-foot, 250 pounds and [wears] size 13 [shoes]. He wants to come to IMG as well, so hopefully he can follow in my footsteps.”