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Navy head football coach surprises son with video announcement that he’s on scholarship at Utah

Navy head football coach surprises son with video announcement that he’s on scholarship at Utah
Ali'i Niumatalolo received the Rhodes Trophy as the most outstanding player in Anne Arundel County as a senior at Broadneck High. Niumatalolo is now a junior tight end at Utah and was recently awarded a scholarship. (By Paul W. Gillespie, Staff)

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo played a starring role in a video that went viral last weekend.

Niumatalolo had the honor and privilege of informing his son that he had earned a scholarship with the Utah football program.

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Head coach Kyle Whittingham decided after August training camp to award a scholarship to Ali’i Niumatalolo, who switched from defense to offense and has developed into a valuable tight end.

Utah has become well known for producing videos that capture the moment a former walk-on finds out they are being put on scholarship. In the fall of 2017, Utah surprised kicker Matt Gay after a practice by unfurling a long banner outside the football facility informing him he was on a full scholarship. This past spring, offensive lineman Kyle Lanterman had the news broken to him by his mom over the phone at a practice.

Maddie Hansen, creative director for Utah football, knew immediately how to surprise Ali’i Niumatalolo. Hansen was aware that his father was head coach at the Naval Academy and would be an ideal part of the plot.

Prior to practice on August 14, Niumatalolo felt his phone buzzing in his pocket. He pulled it out and recognized the 801 area code for greater Salt Lake City.

“I normally wouldn’t answer my phone during practice, but I was worried that something happened with my son,” Niumatalolo said.

While the phone call was indeed about his youngest child, the news was welcome. Niumatalolo knew Ali’i had passed up scholarship offers to other Division I schools in order to walk on at Utah so the pride the veteran coach felt about the scholarship decision was enormous.

“I was absolutely ecstatic,” said Niumatalolo, who immediately called his wife Barbara. “My wife cried tears of joy. It’s really exciting for our whole family because we know how much Ali’i loves the Utah program and how hard he’s worked.”

Hansen then pitched the idea of having Ken Niumatalolo be the one to tell Ali’i he was getting a scholarship. She asked if the Navy football social media team could put together a short video that could be played the following night during a Utah team meeting.

“I said I’d love to be part of that. Our team very graciously allowed me to selfishly do that for my son and it was very cool,” Niumatalolo said.

Following practice on Thursday afternoon, Niumatalolo stood in front of the entire Navy team and delivered a prepared speech. He told the Utes he knew they were “grinding” during August drills because the Midshipmen were doing the same.

Niumatalolo then declared “Go Utah, beat everybody. Go Navy, beat everybody.” Then, all the Navy football players held their hands high and put their thumbs together to form the “U” symbol.

In a rather decent job of acting, Niumatalolo then noted that he had forgotten to say one other thing. “Ali’i, my son, congratulations on getting your scholarship,” Niumatalolo declared while punching the air with his left fist.

Back inside the meeting room at the Eccles Football Center, the Utah football team went wild in celebration and mobbed Ali’i Niumatalolo with the entire scene being filmed for the video.

Later that night, Ken and Barbara Niumatalolo contacted the youngest of their three children via FaceTime.

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“We’re very grateful that Ali’i earned a scholarship. Utah is a big-time program so that’s an awesome accomplishment,” Niumatalolo said. “To know that his hard work had been rewarded and was valued meant a lot to Ali’i.”

Ali’i Niumatalolo was a two-time All-County and All-Metro linebacker at Broadneck High and received the Rhodes Trophy as Anne Arundel County’s Most Outstanding Player as a senior. The consensus All-State selection initially accepted a scholarship to Boise State then had a late change of heart.

As a freshman walk-on linebacker at Utah, Niumatalolo played in 12 games on special teams. He was moved to fullback as a sophomore and continued to make an impact on special teams. This season, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound junior is pushing for the starting tight end spot.

Meanwhile, Ken Niumatalolo found himself thinking about some of the unsung players within the Navy football program after watching his son’s reaction to the video announcement about the scholarship.

“That whole situation has made me reflect about guys on our team. Maybe guys on the scout team deserve to know that everyone recognizes their value to the program,” Niumatalolo said.

Updated Depth Chart: Navy issued an updated depth chart on Monday and the biggest surprise was that inside linebacker Tyler Pistorio wasn’t on it.

Turns out Pistorio, who is slated to start at the WILL position, is injured and questionable for the season opener against Holy Cross. Niumatalolo was tight-lipped when asked about the status of Pistorio following practice on Tuesday.

“We’ve got to check with the trainers. We’ll have to see how that goes,” he said.

This is just the latest setback for Pistorio, a senior out of Providence High in Matthews, North Carolina. After not seeing any varsity action as a freshman and sophomore, the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder earned a spot on the depth chart and a prominent role on special teams last season.

However, Pistorio suffered a season-ending injury during the opener at Hawaii after making his debut on defense and recording a tackle.

Pistorio was recovered enough to participate fully in spring football camp and performed very well, emerging as the starter at WILL. Now senior Walter Little sits atop the depth chart with junior Austin Talbert-Loving No. 2.

Another interesting change came at placekicker where freshman Bijan Nichols is now listed even with Ben Fee and Owen White. Nichols was a two-time, first team All-District kicker at Rockwall-Heath High in Texas. The 6-foot-1, 165-pound plebe has forced his way into the competition along with Fee, White and J.R. Osborn.

“Bijan has done a good job. He’s kind of emerged. He was a big-time recruit and has done a really good job,” Niumatalolo said. “You never really know how a kid’s legs will be after plebe summer. Bijan still has a lot of pop in his leg.”

Nichols is one of five freshmen on the latest depth chart along with wide receiver Devin Mathews (No. 3), nose guard Alefosio Saipaia, outside linebacker Tama Tuitele and free safety Chelen Garnes.

An Officer and an NFL Player: Niumatalolo was asked his reaction to news that two service academy graduates had been granted permission to sign with National Football League teams.

Brett Toth, a 2018 graduate of Army West Point, was granted a waiver to pursue pro football and quickly signed a three-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Lieutenant Toth serves as an engineer officer and the Army is expected to allow him to remain on active duty as an instructor with an ROTC program in Philadelphia when he is not at football practice.

“The Army is very excited that (Toth) will now have the opportunity to simultaneously pursue his dream as part of the Eagles team while continuing to serve as an active-duty soldier,” Cynthia O. Smith, an Army spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Previously, Air Force Academy graduate Austin Cunning was granted permission to join the Minnesota Vikings, who made the 2019 graduate a seventh-round draft pick. Cutting will also simultaneously serve on active duty as a recruiting officer in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, according to his agent.

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Typically, service academy graduates must serve five years on active duty and three years in the reserves to fulfill their military obligation. These most recent exceptions come after President Donald Trump issued a memo in June asking the Defense Department to revise a policy whereby service academy graduates must serve at least two years before pursuing professional athletic careers.

Trump’s memo directed the defense secretary to develop a policy allowing student-athletes from the service academies and ROTC programs to pursue professional sport opportunities immediately after graduation and to defer their military obligations until after their playing careers had concluded.

“To see two guys that it actually happened for is good for them and it’s good for us in recruiting,” Niumatalolo said.

There are currently two Naval Academy graduates playing in the NFL – New England Patriots starting long snapper Joe Cardona and Seattle Seahawks slot receiver Keenan Reynolds. Cardona served one year on active duty before being allowed to serve in the Naval Reserve instead.

Reynolds was permitted to pursue pro football immediately after graduation and will perform all his military service through reserve status.

“I’ve always played this stuff year-by-year, case-by-case. It’s not like the three of us (Army Air Force, Navy) have a bunch of draft choices on the roster,” Niumatalolo said. “If guys are good enough to play at that level and are given the opportunity it’s great for them and great for the service academies.”

Niumatalolo noted that all four of the aforementioned NFL players are still serving their respective military branches in some capacity.

“I don’t think anybody is getting completely out of anything. Even guys like Keenan Reynolds and Joe Cardona are all doing service. There is always going to be some type of service,” he said.

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