By: David Wilson of the Miami Herald
Believe it or not, it is possible to be too big to play rugby.
This was the dilemma Frankie Tinilau faced a few years ago. The Australian was 14 and had been playing in the front row for basically his entire life, and he was over it. He was already one of the biggest kids his age and he was starting to think about football. His father played for a club team in Brisbane and Tinilau grew up watching him. He was falling out of love with rugby and wanted to try something new.
“I got too big,” he said, “and my heart wasn’t in the game anymore.”
The move to football wasn’t exactly smooth, but it wound up being a perfect fit. After court battles and a long-delayed move to the United States, Tinilau now has a surefire future in the sport after he orally committed to the Miami Hurricanes as an offensive lineman last Monday.
In the summer, he’ll move to Florida full time to play his senior year at LaSalle — he’s already taking online classes with the Miami private school — and hopes it will jump start his development after spending years playing in Australia.
At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds with a 6-10 wingspan, Tinilau has the frame alone to make an impression on college football coaches and coach Mario Cristobal offered him on the spot when he visited Coral Gables for the first time last month. He also has been playing against grown men overseas — his country doesn’t have an under-20 league, so he plays with adults of all ages — and it makes coaches optimistic about his physicality. In South Florida, he’ll also get tested by some of the fastest high school athletes in the world.
“The biggest thing for him is just to adjust to the speed a bit,” Royal Lions coach Helder Valle said. “He has all the physical tools to be successful. … People at his size, the way he moves — you don’t find that a lot.”
He’s now a three-star tackle in the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the Class of 2023 and has picked up close to a dozen scholarship offers, even though he has never played a down of high school football and admits he doesn’t have much film to show coaches.
It hasn’t been for lack of trying, though.
When he started playing football, Tinilau was a defensive lineman and dominant. He wasn’t getting anything out of playing other 14-year-olds, his father decided, and the family wanted to explore having him play up a few age groups in the 16-18 age group. It required a trip to court, Tinilau said, because the leagues typically only let players play up if they were within a year of the age range.
A little while later, the family wanted to get Tinilau to the US to chase his football dreams, so he enrolled at St. Bernard in Playa Del Ray, California, at the start of 2020.
“I really saw myself in an NFL jersey,” Tinilau said. “I kind of manifested backward: I set the main goal and how can I get there?”
His journey to California was short-lived. The COVID-19 pandemic halted sports across the world and Tinilau went back home, toiling away in his club league.
The trip to America wasn’t a total waste, though. In his short time in the USA, Tinilau went to one All-American camp and another sponsored by Rivals.com. He picked up scholarship offers from the Florida State Seminoles and Arizona State Sun Devils. He also landed an important Twitter follower: Mario Cristobal.
When it happened, Tinilau figured the Oregon Ducks would be a perfect fit. His favorite player in Penei Sewell, a fellow Samoan, who now plays for the Detroit Lions and was an All-American for Cristobal at Oregon, and the West Coast was relatively close to home.
“Seeing how they helped him and how they developed such a freak athlete like that is something I definitely want to be a part of,” Tinilau said.
Now Cristobal is heading into his first season with the Hurricanes and Tinilau is heading to Miami, too.
“It worked out,” said Valle, who accompanied Tinilau on his March visits
With the Hurricanes, Tinilau trusts Cristobal and offensive line coach Alex Mirabal to develop him in the same way they did Sewell.
Cristobal and Mirabal hope they’ve found an under-the-radar gem — and one they’ve been intrigued by since long before they got to Miami.
“It was a whole whirlwind,” Valle said. “No one knew who this kid was coming to South Florida and then he just blew up.”