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Making The Most Of It

Aug 18, 2020

This feature originally appeared in the Summer edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.

For Lone Toailoa, this year's recipient of the Joseph McDonnell Kavanagh Award that annually recognizes the Cal student-athlete who has made exceptional improvement in his or her academic and intellectual pursuits, life has always been about making the most of his opportunities.
 
"It means a lot," Toailoa said. "It's a way to say thank you to so many people who helped me get to where I am."
 
It's a long list.
 
Seven years ago, Toailoa spent much of his time at the front doors of nightclubs in his native Auckland, New Zealand, making ends meet as a bouncer and doorman. He had needed an extra year to graduate from high school because he failed a series of classes in his first go-around as a senior and his career as a competitive rugby athlete was nearing an end.
 
Now, nearly halfway around the world, he is on the verge of receiving a bachelor's degree from one of the world's most prestigious universities.
 
His amazing journey to Cal began in 2013 when Toailoa joined the Metro Lions American Football Club in his home country. After one season, he was invited to travel to Texas with a group of under-19 players from around the globe to play in the 2015 International Bowl against a USA Football squad. Shortly after returning home, Toailoa received a phone call from coaches at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California, and by July of 2015, he was in a new country fully engaged in an entirely different experience as a collegiate football student-athlete.
 
Toailoa's first year in the United States was difficult. On the field, he redshirted as he continued to learn the game he had only recently begun playing. Adjusting to academics was even tougher. He reached out to his older brother, Junior, and the 2014 graduate of the University of Auckland helped him get on track.
 
"My brother gave me a great nugget of advice," Toailoa remembered. "He had seen my work ethic and all that I did in football and training to prepare to get to America, and he told me to just put as much work into academics that I did into athletics and I would be a scholar. I will always remember that conversation."
 
Toailoa started buckling down on academics. He also began excelling on the football field, earning first-team All-American honors as a 2016 redshirt freshman. His performance was enough to get a scholarship offer from Cal, but coming to Berkeley as a mid-year enrollee in January of 2018 was another steep hurdle.
 
Again, he struggled early on. Once more, Toailoa reflected on that call with his brother and thought about all those who had helped him.
 
"I didn't want to disappoint people, and I didn't want to waste my parents' money," Toailoa said. "I have a lot of pride in doing well academically."
 
He also found a helpful group of new friends at the Athletic Study Center's Simpson Center location and quickly became a regular.
 
"Lone was an awesome student to work with," learning specialist Daley Stevens said. "He's one of those rare students who you don't have to ask to come in and spend extra time. In fact, sometimes I would have to kick him out so I could work with other students or close up my office. I think the ASC meant a lot to him, and I believe he truly found an extended family here with us."
 
In addition, Toailoa relied heavily on the bond he built with his teammates, who quickly came to admire and respect him.
 
"We were inseparable," Cal roommate Kuony Deng said. "Lone is like a brother to me. He earns people's respect and trust because he's just a great person. He's been through adversity and defeated the odds countless times, and I fully expect him to do the same with all his ventures moving forward."
 
"Lone is the epitome of loyalty," Ben Hawk Schrider added. "He is someone who exemplifies the respect, brotherhood and love that is represented through the Cal football culture. He is an empathetic spirit who makes each and every person feel like they are a part of the team, and someone I will call a brother until the day I die. I cannot wait to see what his future entails."
 
Toailoa also credits the support of his fiancée, Izzy Ordorica, and her family as key factors in his success. The couple has dated since December of 2015. Now a UCLA alum, Ordorica has led by example with her own full-ride academic scholarship to the UC Irvine School of Law.
 
"Her academic drive has inspired and driven me to match her work ethic in school," Toailoa said. "Izzy and her entire family have been there for me every step of the way. I couldn't have achieved what I have without them."
 
So, what is next for Toailoa after he wraps up his final class at Cal this summer and completes his requirements for a degree in American studies?
 
Eventually he wants to coach football, but first Toailoa is hoping to continue playing the game he loves for at least a few more years. He is pursuing opportunities with the NFL's International Player Pathway program and is among a group of players up for selection this November to begin working out at IMG Academy in Florida in January of 2021. The top players from the program are typically assigned to NFL practice squads, at least through the end of training camp each year, with teams receiving an exemption to keep them on rosters longer.
 
"I just want to get my foot in the door," Toailoa said. "I feel like my body could still play a few more years. Playing in the NFL was one of the main objectives of coming to the United States, so I'm still going to try to chase that dream."
 
Toailoa already has something else in mind when that dream someday comes to an end.
 
"That's when I say hello to coach (Justin) Wilcox to see if there are any coaching opportunities," Toailoa said. "I'd love to work for coach Wilcox. He is such a great coach. I look up to him not only as a coach but also as a good man. I love his methods and philosophy, and just the way he runs things."
 
The feelings are mutual.
 
"We really enjoyed having Lone in our program the last two seasons," Wilcox said. "We are so proud of him and the outstanding progress he made both on and off the field. He loves football and will maximize every opportunity the game provides him."
 
Whether it's on the field or the sidelines, look for Toailoa to stay connected to the game.
 
"I've fallen in love with the sport since I've been here," Toailoa said. "I want to stay in football. It's given me everything I have so far and helped me earn a degree from one of the greatest universities in the world."
 
A degree that is now a reality but once, too, was only a dream.