There’s something about a nickname that is inherently ironic yet totally fits the subject.
Viliami Moala is not Tiny, but his nickname is. The freshman defensive lineman is 6-foot-2 and 350 pounds. His calves are wider than some babies. The width of his upper arms seem to stretch for miles. He is a force, a freight train.
When he was a little kid, he would play around with his two younger brothers; not realizing just how big he was compared to them, he would play a little too rough sometimes.
“It’s like a truck and a bike in an accident,” says Nauela Moala, Viliami’s father. He explains that a truck is fine after a collision; the bikes perhaps aren’t able to dust themselves off and walk away unscathed in quite the same way.
“He didn’t hurt anybody,” assures Viliami’s mother Lupe. “He just plays rough when around his brother and sister. He didn’t hurt nobody. Everybody love him. He love everybody.”
Which is why Moala’s nickname — “Tiny” — fits so perfectly. Because it doesn’t really make sense, but you still laugh anyway. And you feel better. That’s Viliami Moala — part jokester, part Teddy Bear, both contained in a big, wide barrel of laughs.
“Every time I say something, everybody tends to laugh,” Moala says. “Everybody says I’m kind of weird.”
It began at birth — the legend of Viliami Moala, that is. After V’s mother gave birth, the doctor looked at the bottom of his foot, noticed the size and said he was going to become a football player someday.
“He’s always been big,” Viliami’s sister Moala says. “V — I don’t remember V being skinny at all.”
That was a problem sometimes. He would roughhouse with his siblings, wrestling with them. He would pick them up, they would fall. V’s little brothers were just so skinny, says their dad.
“He don’t realize how heavy he was compared to other ones,” Nauela Moala says. “He likes to play as if he was the same size.”
It wasn’t so much that he was causing trouble; rather, Viliami Moala was and is a big ol’ goofball. Even when it came to beverage choice. He didn’t drink milk when he was little. Never. His sister says his bottle was always filled with coke. “Or Pepsi,” she says. “He refused to drink milk.”
He sometimes caused a bit of trouble in church by not paying the utmost attention. He and his siblings would giggle, and their mom would pull their ears, according to Viliami.
Not much has changed since his rambunctious days of youth. Now he’ll mess around in team meetings at Cal.
Moala sits in the back of the room. When he sees one of his teammates sleeping, what does he do? He grabs whatever is close by and chucks it at the daydreamer. Only thing is, Moala’s aim is a tiny bit off.
“Sometimes I’ll miss, and it’ll make a big old noise and break something,” Moala says. “I broke both of the clocks.”
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Or something gets broken. But in Moala’s case, nothing seems to stick. Everybody loves him regardless.
“He’s a big Teddy Bear,” junior defensive lineman Aaron Tipoti says. “It’s hard to be mad at him. I’ve never been mad at him … If you hang around the guy long enough, you’d understand exactly what I’m talking about.”
Defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, known for his intensity, has had no problems with Moala despite the Sacramento native’s propensity to joke around, something Lupoi likely frowns upon. The perennially serious coach says Moala is focused at practice and prepared going into games.
“Mainly he has a very positive attitude,” Lupoi says. “Players are drawn to him because he has a great heart and he’s a great person. People naturally want to be around good people.”
Don’t discount his skills on the gridiron, though. Coming out of Grant High School, Moala was a five-star recruit according to Scout. As a true freshman playing behind a stacked set of starters, however, Moala has not been out on the field too often. He has tallied three tackles, played in every game and has yet to start – until now. Moala will be making his first collegiate start Saturday against Stanford, and he couldn’t be more excited.
“It’s going to be crazy,” he says. “They have a huge running game. I’m hoping to stop that.”
You can hear him from afar, you can hear it from afar. He has a distinctive laugh, a chuckle that is impossible not to smile at. With a high-pitched laugh that causes his body to sway, eyes to squint and head to raise, he’s just one of those people who looks nice, who looks funny. And he laughs at everything. In fact, basically the only time he isn’t laughing is when he’s making other people laugh.
“He’s kind of goofy; it’s good to have it around,” junior defensive lineman Kendrick Payne says. “He’s always gonna provide a laugh, especially at a time when it’s needed.”
A sports team is in a perpetual state of far-ranging and changing emotions. There are highs and lows and everything in between. Maybe it’s an early practice that everyone sleepwalks through. Maybe it’s someone getting down on himself after a bad play. Maybe it’s players feeling uptight before a big game, before the Big Game.
But there’s V, cracking a joke, flashing a grin, chirping a laugh.
“You see somebody always laughing and cheerful, and it kind of helps you get through it. It just spreads,” Tipoti says. “It’s really important … just to have somebody to cheer you up.”
His smile, his laugh — it can be uplifting. Even when he is lifting weights.
He set the Cal bench press record before he entered Cal. “Tiny” lifted 495 pounds in high school but has not been allowed to “max out” since joining the Bears. It has been a year since Moala lifted as many pounds as he could. When he does get that chance, he’s aiming for 520. “That can really bend a bar,” he says.
He knows his teammates are anticipating great things. Despite being a freshman, he knows that they look up to him.
“Everybody is expecting me to do a lot more than what I came in with from high school,” Moala says. “I hope to deliver, because every time we lift, everybody is like, ‘OK, V. Let’s go.’”
Other times, his teammates are telling him to stop. “Come on, V,” they say. That’s when he’s running around the locker room hugging people. Just to bring people’s spirits up when they’re down. He likes to make people smile — and laugh. Sometimes it’s unintentional.
“Everybody just laughs every time I talk,” Moala says. “I don’t know why. Like when somebody talks and you say that one comment and everyone laughs — I think I just have a lot of moments like that.”
Maybe that’s how the nickname came about. Tiny. He’s not tiny — in stature, in personality, in influence, in laughs, in anything.
Back in high school, he wasn’t quite so talkative. His sophomore year in high school, Moala says his coach thought it would be funny to call him “Tiny.” Because he’s really big, his sister says, so he was nicknamed the opposite of that. And it stuck.
“It kind of threw me off, how big this guy was,” Payne says. “It’s the perfect contradiction.”
Just how funny is that?
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