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To Fly or to Fail: USA Sevens' Matai Leuta Chooses to Fly

In these most uncertain times of isolation and social distancing, Matai Leuta has been cutting up old pieces of clothing, arranging them into potential patterns and letting his inner fashionista flourish.

Removed from the daily rigours that make up normal life as a member of USA’s men’s Sevens program, Leuta’s artistic flair is coming to the forefront. Next up, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound tower of talent plans to learn how to sew and, literally, start piecing together apparel.

“It’s kind of old school,” Leuta, 29, says. “I’m just trying to start with the basics and work my way through it.”

He has already designed a few graphics for t-shirts – they’re tidy, to be sure – but his expression goes deeper.

“I want to learn about fabrics and learn about patterns…to gain a broader knowledge of the fashion world.”

This is same Matai who walks into a coffee shop in San Diego on a mid-November evening.

He apologies for arriving a few minutes late. He’s been enveloped in a graphic design course he started four weeks earlier.

“I’ve always loved art.”

He sits by an open window. It’s raining, but we’re in Southern California, so it’s comfortable. He’s wearing a grey short-sleeved hoodie with a white floral pattern and a red snapback. He’s chill. Of course. He’s relaxed. Of course. Perhaps he’s exactly what you’d expect from an American-born rugby player with a Fijian upbringing who has plans to purchase a sewing machine.

This is a story about a one-of-a-kind Matai Leuta and a most certainly one-of-a-kind journey to American rugby stardom.

In the spring of 2016, just before the selections would be made for the Las Vegas and Vancouver stops of the World Rugby Sevens Series, USA men’s sevens coach Mike Friday called Leuta in for a conversation. It was frank.

A year earlier Leuta had seemingly come out of nowhere to earn a contract with the Eagles (more on that later) and made his debut on the series in Hong Kong. Less than two months later, he was summoned into the starting lineup in the Cup Final in London and he played the entirety of the 20-minute final that saw the USA win their first-ever tournament title on the World Series. It seemed he had arrived.

“To be part of a moment in history was surreal,” Leuta says. “That was a high at that time in my career.”

A year on, things were different when he walked in to chat with Friday.

“It was one of those horrible coach conversations when I had to get him to look at the man in the mirror,” Friday says. “(Matai) has such athletic ability, but he wasn’t making the most of what he’d been blessed with. He was in danger of letting it all slip away.”

The conversation remains memorable to both.

“I had gotten too comfortable,” Leuta says. “As we say, that dawg in me – that dawg in all of us – that grit that led me to the national team wasn’t there anymore.”

Friday put it to Leuta straight.

“It was a conversation that needed to happen because I didn’t want him to fail. I told him, if he chooses to apply himself in these four or five areas, he’ll fly. If he chooses not to, he’ll fail.

“He felt battered and bruised for a little while, but then you saw a change.”

Leuta had come too far to let it all fall apart – from Monterey to Nakasi and back; from the Monterey Beach Dogs to the San Jose Seahawks to the Eagles.

“I could do nothing but take it on the chin.

“It’s been a head-down grind since. It’s a lesson I’ll never forget.”

Shortly after their conversation, Leuta played with the USA Falcons in the 2016 Las Vegas Invitational but suffered a foot injury that put him on the sidelines until the Olympic preparation camp that summer. He didn’t make the Rio-bound side, but the enamouring Matai that had caught the attention of the Eagles coaching staff 20 months prior was making a return.

“That was when I started to build back that fight.”

The decade he spent living in Fiji had implanted his drive for rugby-playing success. The chance to realize his dreams was his to take.

After spending the first six years of his life residing in California, Leuta moved with his aunt to Fiji from where his family originates.

“She came over to visit and she wanted me to experience Fiji and get to know my heritage and culture.”

Upon arrival, he embraced the Fijian way of life.

“I picked up a rugby ball at seven years old and never let it go.”

Leuta lived the stereotype.

Like everyone else, he got up in the middle of the night to watch Fiji’s Rugby Sevens team play on the series.

“You can hear it at every house when Fiji scores or when Fiji wins.”

Naturally, he was also always playing the sport – in every makeshift manner.

“Even if it wasn’t a rugby ball, you’d be tossing around a shoe or a slipper or a plastic bottle filled halfway with water.”

Amongst Leuta’s childhood friends was Olympic gold medalist turned Pro14 star Viliame Mata. Imagine just a couple of international stars in the making messing around and killing time.

“You just enjoy yourself,” Leuta says. “You don’t need a pitch. That Fijian creativity comes from those early days when you’d just pick up an empty bottle and toss it around with your buddies as you’re waiting for the bus to go home after school.”

Fiji became Leuta’s home.

“I loved my life and I was so content to stay on the island.”

However, at 16 years old, what was supposed to be a short trip to the USA for a family celebration turned into a life-altering journey. While still at the Fijian airport, local immigration official alerted Leuta to the fact he had overstayed his visa. He wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the country for a full year. He had an 11-hour flight to begin to mull over a new future.

Upon arrival in the USA, he decided his best long-term option would be to remain in California and finish high school.

At that point, rugby became more of a hobby – going out to play touch on Tuesdays and Thursdays with the Beach Dogs and then playing on Saturday.

After graduating from Seaside High School, he had the idea to do the American thing: go to college and then get a job. But after joining the San Jose Seahawks, who played at a higher level than the Beach Dogs, he started to take the sport more seriously, altering both training and eating habits.

Midway through 2014, yet another life-changing moment arose. He was let go from his day job.

With a moment to reevaluate his plans, a 24-year-old Leuta asked himself what he really wanted to do in life.

“I want to play rugby.”

Enter Mike Friday.

With Friday coming on board as USA’s new head coach in July 2014, so too came an opportunity to apply to be part of a one-day open tryout in Chula Vista, California.

A friend of Leuta sent him the application.

Leuta filled it out as best he could.

“I was just a regular kid from Monterey. I didn’t play in college or for any notable rugby clubs, but that didn’t matter to me.”

Then, around Christmas time in 2014, he received an email. It was succinct.

“We accept your application. We’ll see you on January 10th.” The rest of the email was nuts and bolts details.

He arrived in Chula Vista and the big dude with the Fijian flair caught Friday’s eye.

“I did my thing. I was just trying to revert to my IQ of the game. I was just playing. I didn’t want to overthink it. I just went out and played.”

That night, he got a call from the team’s manager, inviting Leuta to train with the national team. A month later, he was playing with the Falcons at his first go-round in Las Vegas. Upon returning home from the LVI, he got another call. Friday wanted to offer Leuta a contract.

“Matai is a big human being, but he moves so well for a guy of his size and his weight,” Friday says. “He floats across the floor and he has some seriously good footwork when he has ball in hand.”

His national team journey began.

He’s now played in 191 matches on the World Series, started in four games for the USA in the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 and has three international caps with the Eagles fifteens side, playing in 2016 and 2017.

“The most impressive thing in how he’s evolved is his work ethic,” Friday says. “He’s a good example of someone who has worked so hard on his weaknesses to ensure he can become a far better and well-rounded player.”

He’s become defensively sound, keeping the team’s shape in order, while maintaining that frustratingly (for opponents) Fijian-esque combination of size, speed, footwork, and fanciful off-loading.

Yet, there’s still one thing Friday is working on with Leuta.

“The hardest thing that we need to get from him at times is being as physical and aggressive as he can be, because that’s not in his nature, He has to become a gladiator-type because that’s the sort of show he has to put on when he plays the game.

“But he is just such a caring, soft, and gentle man away from the rugby pitch.”

Leuta is in no rush to end the conversation. These days, he has time. A bothersome knee issue that kept him out of USA’s lineup in Los Angeles and Vancouver has thrown an extra wrinkle into what is already a challenging time to keep in shape. However, his Olympic dreams, albeit now looking to 2021, remain steadfast.

Once we find our way to his passion for apparel – urban streetwear in particular – the topic takes over the conversation. He’s thoroughly engaged.

He admits he likes checking out what the NBA guys are wearing to games, but he’s also quick to suggest he doesn’t have a favourite player when it comes to fashion.

It’s about doing your own thing.

“Fashion is all about how you express yourself,” Leuta says.

And so it goes with Leuta – in rugby and in life.