When Isi Sofele was 11 years old, he made it to nationals in track. There was just one problem — it cost $1,200 to go. Sofele had one question: How much would it cost to bring his whole family too?
“He knew money was an issue for us,” his mother Langi says. “He said, ‘this is what we can do to raise money.’”
Isi raised almost $4,000 all on his own, easily topping the $3,000 needed. Friendly in nature, Cal’s starting running back would walk up to anyone and ask for help. He contacted a big company near where he lived in Utah and walked out with a $1,000 check.
All so he could take his family with him. He wanted his seven siblings to be there with him. He wanted his mom to be there with him. He wanted his dad to be there with him.
Isi’s father HuiHui never had the chance to play college football, so he made it his mission to give his eight children the opportunity he never had.
“I wanted my kids to not do what I did,” HuiHui says. “I didn’t have the support behind me.”
By attending college and playing football, Isi Sofele is living the dream of his father.
HuiHui Sofele emigrated from Tonga when he was 13. Despite being an elite athlete — he played in the 1994 Rugby World Cup — he could not pursue sports. His family was uneducated and his mother was often sick, so HuiHui was forced to become the breadwinner at an early age.
Langi, whom he married when they were both 18, recalls HuiHui saying he wanted 10 kids because he knew they were going to be special.
“He said, ‘I know my kids are gonna get somewhere one day,’” Langi says. “‘I want my dreams to come true. If I would have had my parents support me, I wouldn’t be here at this time.’”
So when the Sofele’s first child turned eight and was old enough to play sports, HuiHui quit his job and committed himself to being a full-time dad — training his kids at sports during the day so they could go to college, all the while finding odd jobs at night.
“Football is gonna be the end,” HuiHui would tell Langi. “They’re gonna take football and make it into college.”
That’s exactly what Isi, their third child, did.
Isi idolizes his dad, but he doesn’t want to be his dad. He remembers growing up watching his dad work, getting whatever job he could, working with everything from a lawn mower to concrete. He’d work after his kids’ football practice, asking people for different jobs, Langi says. Just to make enough to pay the bills — and pay for his kids’ sports.
“That motivates me, to stay in school, do good in football and take care of my family after,” Isi says. “I’ve worked all my life to do this, I’ve worked all my life to get to this point.
“My dad pushed me all my life to have a job like this.”
HuiHui Sofele pushed Isi to get to where he couldn’t. As a kid, Isi would tag along to watch his older brother practice with their father. Isi sometimes took part; one time, Isi was told to sprint to the wall and back.
“I was just juiced that first time I got out on the field,” Isi says. “I sprinted super fast. That’s when I found out I was fast.”
With his elite speed, strong work ethic and, most importantly, his family’s support, Isi knew he could make it to where his father didn’t. All throughout Isi’s childhood, HuiHui trained him. He would take Isi to a big hill in the hot Utah summer and have the youngster run up. HuiHui had Isi doing ladders and running around the park everyday.
“I’d be wondering, ‘why am I doing this? Why do this, why do that?’” Isi says. “Now that I’m older, I’m like, ‘oh, that’s why my dad did this, this is why he did that.’
“I see everything that my dad has done for me — it paid off.”
Sofele was a multi-sport star in high school. He was a wing and fullback for the prestigious Highland Rugby Club team as well as the running back for Cottonwood High School in Murray, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City.
“You put a ball in his hands and you couldn’t catch him,” says Cecil Thomas, Isi’s head football coach at Cottonwood. “He was always the fastest kid. He had cat-like reflexes.”
Speed he had; size he didn’t. He’s listed at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, but he says he’s 5-foot-7.
“5-foot-8 on a good day,” he says. “I’m 5-foot-8 today. 5-foot-8 and 3/4.”
As a sophomore in high school, he only weighed 153 pounds, Thomas says. Yet he led the state of Utah in touches, tallying 37 carries in his first game.
Isi was equally impressive in rugby but ended up choosing football because it gives him the potential to make more money — so he could literally pay his parents back for all they did for him.
He would tell his mom that he was going to get far to make sure she wouldn’t have to work again.
“I’m just trying to work hard to take care of my parents,” Sofele says. “They’ve been through struggles.”
His parents are just happy he’s in college, a dream they never had a chance to attain.
“He doesn’t owe us anything,” Langi Sofele says. “For us, it’s already paid off. We have to remind Isi that all the time, so he doesn’t feel the pressure that he has to make the NFL to pay us back.”
Sofele says he’s never had a job due to his athletic pursuits, but he has a position that’s far more important to him — role model for his siblings. He’s the first person in his family to attend college and is making sure he’s not the last.
“I try to be the example, try to get everybody else to go to college, have the same opportunities and experiences I did, as I do,” Sofele says.
He’s a family man, above all else, and calls his parents and siblings constantly. He calls them first thing in the morning, between every class and before he goes to sleep. He checks in on his youngest brother, who at 10 years old is destined to be the best athlete in the family, according to their dad.
Isi calls his siblings to let them know he cares and he’s looking out for them, especially since he’s not home to watch them play sports.
“He tells them, ‘I’ll make it somewhere someday, you guys just hang in there,’” Langi says.
Isi’s always been like that, and he’s always been fueled by his family. He’s had their support during adversity on and off the field. While Isi’s high school squad was in the state playoffs, his grandfather died. Isi was devastated. But through the support of his family and coaches, he went out and got three touchdowns the next game, helping his team win, 21-14.
“He’s got the will and desire of 100 men,” Thomas says. “Instilled in him from his dad. Knowing that he’s not gonna be denied, I think that goes a long with that kid. He’s gonna prove everybody wrong.”
Isi proved he could play right away at Cal. He didn’t redshirt as a freshman, instead serving primarily on special teams that season. In 2010 he was the backup running back. Now he’s the starter, averaging 99.8 yards per game, one yard short of being third in the Pac-12.
And HuiHui’s dream has come true. The father was once an incredible athlete with a constantly-moving ceiling; now that’s his son.
In a family full of athletes, Isi is the ultimate speedster. He says he’s the fastest out of all his siblings. Yet there’s still one person in his family that is faster than him — his father.
“I’m looking forward to beating my dad sometime,” Isi says. “I’ve got to beat him before I leave college.”
In his father’s eyes, Isi has already won.
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