With sweat dripping down his face from a hard day's work, James Aiono stood in the sun after practice on Thursday, representing the hope of a new season, talking about the significance of ... hope and a hard day's work. As he did so, the senior tackle embodied both what Utah's defensive line aspires to be this season and what he has become.
What he thinks he has become.
What Ute defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake thinks he has become.
Aiono, once the No. 1 junior college defensive line recruit in the country at Snow College, had descended into something else after signing with the Utes in 2008.
First, he didn't qualify academically to play for Utah, having to sit out a year to repair the damage at Salt Lake Community College. Then, when he returned, he was out of shape and in no real condition to help the Utes win. Instead, he sat the bench, managing to play in about half the games, but never as a starter.
About the lack of good grades, Aiono blew no sunshine, simply saying: "I was lazy."
About his experience not playing much last season, after all the hype that surrounded him, he said: "I felt like a freshman, not a junior. I can't knock the coaches for not playing me. But it was hard. You just sit on the sideline waiting to play. I wanted to play. It was frustrating."
In that way, Aiono is a fleshed-out very fleshed out now at 305 pounds object lesson. A man who always had size, strength and talent but who lacked some of the characteristics necessary for success, such as motivation and conscientiousness and humility.
"I had mountains of work to do here," he said. "At one point, I didn't think I would last."
He did, and now he's a poster boy for what proper focus and hard work can bring.
Aiono, who switched from end to tackle, played large in spring ball, showing good explosion and effective technique, looking like a player who had plumbed the depths, had suddenly prepared himself better, who somewhere along the way had realized he has just one year of college football left and didn't want it to fade away without making a mark.
"I really want to do this," he said. "This could be my last chance to play football. I want to do everything I can do and not have any regrets."
The big man did regret his inability or unwillingness to hit the books hard in high school and through junior college. It was a matter of maturing and dialing in.
Aiono said being forced to sit out a year and watch the Utes on TV was brutal for him. He went ahead and watched, and worked at a call center in Taylorsville.
"I knew I was supposed to be out there," he said. "It was crazy. I can't describe it. It was ... frustrating, after all the hype that fell on top of me."
Sitake said Aiono had to learn to study: "It was about organizing himself."
He also was disorganized on the field when he rejoined the Utes, unable to live up to the aforementioned hype, unable even to crack into the lineup. Ironically enough, one of the players who stood in front of Aiono, blocking his playing chances, is the one who helped him in more than one way get to the stage he's at now: Sealver Siliga.
Not only did Siliga encourage Aiono to work diligently to realize his potential, he also subsequently bolted for the NFL, clearing an opening for his friend this season.
Aiono, who recently got married to wife Malvina, finally grabbed responsibility and opportunity by the horns.
"He went through those bumps earlier," Sitake said. "But then the light bulb went on in the spring, and now I'm really excited about him. He's going to be great. We have a good group up front, and Star [Lotulelei] and James are leading the way."
Leadership, it turns out, beats the bejeebers out of underachievement.
"I've learned my lessons," Aiono said. "You can't just sit back and let opportunity pass you by. The two years I lost were a waste. But I've put the work in and am ready to go. I hope so, anyway."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GordonMonson.