2005 Fresno State visit opened door for Mauga
Many years ago, coach Pat Hill visited the Lahontan Valley on a recruiting trip with his eyes set on a multi-sport athlete. His mission was to lure one of the state’s best linebackers to come play football for him at Fresno State.
“Joshua was pretty heavily recruited by Fresno and Pat Hill. I was really comfortable with Pat Hill and meeting him,” Matua Mauga said of his oldest son before he signed with Nevada in 2005.
But at the same time, Hill planted a seed in the recruit’s 5-year-old brother to, one day, come play for the Bulldogs.
“You know what’s so funny when Pat Hill was up here, he came over to the house and he had met the whole family and met T.J. when he was young,” Matua said. “He had this decal of the dog and signed it and gave it to my son (T.J.) and you’re going to be my next Bulldog when you get older. Twelve years later, he’s a Bulldog. Every time we think about that, it’s pretty wild. Things just started rolling from here. We have a laugh at that.”
Josh remembers that visit when he was 17 and the trip he and his father took to the San Joaquin Valley. They toured the campus and facilities and Matua gave his approval of Fresno State even though Josh didn’t sign with the Bulldogs.
“I think they gave (T.J.) a ring, too, when they came to visit,” Josh recalled. “I don’t know if he still has that ring or remembers if he still has that. My dad went down with me as well. He got to see the university and facilities and living quarters. He liked it down there as well.”
This year was a similar story with T.J.’s visit. Matua drove him to Fresno, toured the campus and facilities, and talked with the coaching staff. They saw the upgrades and changes since the last visit and T.J. felt at home.
“Just talking to (defensive line coach Tony Tuioti), we just hit it off real good,” Matua said. “Just the way he came out and he was really honest about recruiting T.J. I was just pretty surprised.”
Ever since T.J. stepped onto the high school stage, everyone knew he was going to be playing at Division I. He towered over his teammates during the SYFL seasons and recovered a fumble on the last play of Fallon’s state championship victory in 2015.
Many schools were eyeing the Fallon product since that state win. BYU, Louisville, Colorado State and Nevada showed interest but not Fresno State. Not until last month after Jeff Tedford became the head coach.
“I was surprised how late it was,” Matua said. “I’m happy that he found T.J. and that he took time to come out and visit and saw him. That was something. We were really surprised. I really kind of felt comfortable with him after talking with him. We’re just happy how everything turned out.”
Hawaii was the frontrunner, though, until Fresno State found out that T.J. was still available.
“He really liked Hawaii. There were some majors he wanted to get into,” Matua said. “It had to do with the Polynesian cultures. He probably would have gone up there if nobody else came. When we went up to Fresno, everything just fell into place. We got to know the coaches and look at the facility. He kind of fell in love with Fresno.”
T.J. becomes the first Greenwave football player to land a Division I scholarship since his brother 12 years ago. Fallon produces great student-athletes who find better fits at the smaller schools. The de Braga brothers found a home at Colorado Mesa, a Division II school, and several football players have gone on to star at the Division III or NAIA level.
“Talking with the defensive line coach, he liked how I was able to hold my ground basically and to come off the edge like I did,” T.J. said. “He was telling me that he sees me as a hybrid and can play defensive end and at times play tackle. Plus, he knows school-wise that he doesn’t have much to worry because school is my priority before sports.”
This felt right for T.J. and it’s a shame that Nevada didn’t give him another look after Jay Norvell took over the program in December. The Biggest Little University blew an opportunity to keep one of its own playing in Reno for the next four years, like the Pack did with Josh.
But Fallon fans will still get to watch T.J. over his college career with Fresno State playing in Nevada’s division. The Bulldogs host the Wolf Pack this season but will be in Reno in 2018.