It isn’t easy being Nico

Marvin Westwestwords

So much is expected of Nico Iamaleava (pronounced ee-ah-MAH-LAY-ah-va), common sense says it may take a while for production to catch up with potential.

At the very end of his high school career, On3 sports website told us Nico is No. 1 among America’s prep football stars. That must have come as quite a shock to Texas and young Arch Manning. The Longhorns thought they had the only superstar quarterback partnership in the semi-civilized world.

Now we know Tennessee has a share of first prize.

In Honolulu the other evening, when he could have been watching the sun sink into the Pacific, nice-guy Nico was signing autographs and cooperating with amateur photographers who just had to have one more.

The five-star from Warren High in Downey, California, officially checked out on a high note, earning most valuable player honors in the Polynesian Bowl after leading Team Mauka to a 22-17 victory over Team Makai at Kapalama.

Iamaleava completed 13 of 20 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown. He ran for 63 yards on five carries. Nico crafted a fourth-quarter, 10-play, winning drive. Maybe you saw the show. The game was televised nationally.

“It was a great ending and I had a whole week in Hawaii and I enjoyed every day,” Iamaleava said. “It was good to get the win and get MVP. It feels good.”

After the game, he was surrounded by hundreds of kids, relatives, fans and Tennessee caps. He was taking pictures and signing autographs for so long that officials finally stepped in, cleared the field and turned off the lights.

Yes, before you ask, somebody pretended to be Willie Nelson and sang “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”

“It’s important and it feels good to see all the little kids,” Iamaleava said. “They look up to me and I’m very blessed to be in that position.”

Nico wears a steady smile. He seems genuinely happy to talk with those who want to talk. He tells the little people to “not be good, be great.”

There was some conversation from bigger people about whether Nico is the multi-millionaire beneficiary of the first really big name, image and likeness payoff. OK, he probably is.

Nico’s father, Nick, offered a quick “no comment” when he heard the key question.

Nico’s little brother, Madden, (6-3, quarterback, class of ’25), grinned. He’s heard a lot about the marketing collective Spyre Sports. It is famous.

The Nico story returns to Tennessee – classes, conditioning, maybe even meet the press. 247 analyst Greg Biggins offers a preview.

“No one came here with more hype and he definitely lived up to it. We’ve said it a thousand times but we’ll say it again, he has arguably the highest ceiling of any quarterback in this class. It’s tough to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t succeed at Tennessee.

“Physically, he has all the arm talent you could want and is a high-level athlete. He’s a tough kid who can beat you in multiple ways. His coaches (Mark Richt, former Georgia coach) have recognized his leadership, work ethic and how coachable he has been.”

Kevin Pearson, his coach in California, talked about how toughness showed against blitzes and on designed running plays.

“He’ll take on the hitters and hit back.”

He’s 6-6 and 200. He is filling out from skinny. Is he really tough?

“He suffered a compound fracture of the left index finger. His first reaction was “How can we tape this to play?”

He protested but went to the hospital. Doctors said he might be out a month or six weeks.

“He did miss a game but the following Friday, he passed for 361 yards and six touchdowns.

“He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached, and in a position where you don’t get a lot of tough kids,” Pearson said. “He’s just different. His mentality is different.”

According to Nico, it is grit that exists in his DNA, passed down from generation to generation. He has heard that the Samoan bloodline carries strength.

His father told him: “We’re warriors. That’s where the toughness is from.”

Good guy? Biggins says there are zero character concerns.

“He is a future captain, a natural leader with a high compete level and a great off-the-field work ethic.”

Josh Heupel awaits a new look. Nico was with the Vols during Orange Bowl preparation but the next phase will be more complex.

What did you see in December?

“A lot of things,” Heupel said. “He’s athletic, and I say that meaning that he understands his body. He can self-correct … he understands when something happens, why it’s happening … the raw skills are there. Arm talent and extremely athletic and explosive inside of the pocket. Can make plays with his feet. In a short amount of time, we’ve been able to see …”

Marvin West welcomes comments and questions from readers. His address is [email protected]

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