Maryland running back Challen Faamatau had never attended an NFL game. His childhood in Hawaii meant he was thousands of miles away from the closest opportunities. So when the Terrapins football team took a trip to Baltimore for a Ravens preseason game, Faamatau was excited finally to have that NFL experience.

Back home in Hawaii, Faamatau’s parents, Margaret and Pio, were flipping through television channels when they heard from Diane Tagovailoa, the mother of Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, another Terp from Hawaii. Diane told Margaret she needed to watch the game. Something important was about to happen, and maybe the moment would be televised. Then Tagovailoa’s mom shared the news: Faamatau had earned a scholarship. And the 22-year-old sitting in the stands with his teammates still didn’t know about the surprise.

During the third quarter, Faamatau wanted to grab some food, but as he left his seat, Coach Michael Locksley smiled and told him to go back. His teammates were getting snacks, so Faamatau wanted to go, too. Tagovailoa then stepped in to say, “Bro, no, for real, just go back to your seat.” And Faamatau listened that time.

Soon after, as some of the team’s leaders, including Locksley and Tagovailoa, stood on the field, Faamatau noticed cameras surrounding him. He initially brushed that off because staffers are always capturing moments when the football team is together. The cameras started to come closer. Then Faamatau appeared on the video board, and Tagovailoa announced to his longtime friend and the crowd that the walk-on had earned a scholarship. Faamatau didn’t want to cry, but he did.

“What made me emotional,” Faamatau said, “was the person who said it.”

Faamatau’s winding path from high school to Maryland included stops at two junior colleges before he received this Division I opportunity. He arrived in College Park as a walk-on and played sparingly in 2020, mostly on special teams, but Locksley called Faamatau “one of our most beloved players.” His first year at this level turned out to be a season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Practices finally have started to feel normal, just in time for Faamatau’s senior year.

For Locksley, who has known the Tagovailoa family since he coached Taulia’s older brother, Tua, at Alabama, it seemed obvious that the moment would be particularly special if Taulia shared the news. He didn’t get much of a heads-up either, because, Taulia said: “I guess they knew if they told me early, I would have told Challen. Too excited about it.”

Tagovailoa’s dad, Galu, knew Faamatau’s dad before they had children, and Faamatau became best friends with Tua when they attended the same school for seventh and eighth grades. Faamatau said Taulia was like a younger brother because of all the time he spent with the Tagovailoa family. Faamatau would spend the night at their house and go to church with them. After Faamatau left Hawaii to start his college career, he sometimes spent holidays and breaks with the Tagovailoas, who moved to Alabama, if he couldn’t make the trip all the way home.

Once Faamatau finished the 2019 season at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, he considered his next step. That offseason, Taulia committed to transfer to Maryland after spending one year at Alabama. Faamatau followed with a much lower-profile announcement a week later. Faamatau said Tagovailoa’s move to Maryland played a role in the decision.

“Having a relationship with other players always helps, and our island boys, they’re like that,” Faamatau’s mom said. “They gravitate to each other.”

After the 2019-20 school year, Faamatau didn’t return to Hawaii from Coffeyville because of the strict coronavirus restrictions that limited travel to and from the islands. Faamatau instead headed to the Tagovailoas’ home in Alabama.

“Galu and Diane acquired another child,” Faamatau’s mom said, laughing.

So Faamatau, who first attended Pima Community College in Arizona, talked through his next transfer decision with the Tagovailoas. He leaned toward Texas Tech, but the school then picked up a different player. He considered a Division II school. Eventually, a preferred walk-on spot at Maryland seemed like an ideal fit, even if it meant he wouldn’t be guaranteed much playing time or a scholarship.

“I’m always willing to take any challenge, no matter how hard it gets,” Faamatau said. “I feel like adversity builds you into a different person.”

At Coffeyville, Faamatau was part of a three-man rotation in the backfield. He finished the 2019 season with 362 rushing yards, still searching for the Division I opportunity he didn’t get after a standout high school career. Faamatau’s running backs coach at Coffeyville, Dickie Rolls, called him “one of the toughest players I’ve ever coached,” someone who would play with no complaints despite being banged up.

“He didn’t let anything stop him,” Faamatau’s mom said. “He was that person to continue pushing, continue looking at different avenues, not thinking that, ‘Oh, no, [junior college] is my only place.’"

Faamatau was happy for his teammates’ success, which Rolls said isn’t a given at the junior college level, where everyone is fighting for the same Division I slots. Junior colleges are “gladiator schools,” said Rolls, who has coached at Coffeyville for more than three decades. Resources are limited. Coaches mow the grass and set up drills. When players arrive in Division I, they’re surrounded by support staffers and high-end equipment, prompting a rush of appreciation.

During Faamatau’s final year in junior college, Tua Tagovailoa was one of the best players in college football, eventually landing with the Miami Dolphins as the No. 5 overall draft pick despite a late-season injury. Faamatau and Tagovailoa maintained their relationship even while attending different high schools and colleges. Once, when Faamatau and a few other running backs were riding in Rolls’s truck, Faamatau and Tagovailoa talked on FaceTime.

“I'm not thinking it's the Tua,” said Rolls, who looked at the phone screen and realized: “Oh, it's him — Alabama Tua.”

That’s how Faamatau’s coach learned of the friendship, and then “50 other times he’s talking to Tua on FaceTime,” Rolls said. Tagovailoa’s younger brother had recently joined him in Tuscaloosa. Both were living the dream they had imagined while Faamatau still waited for the chance.

Tua, who played in his own NFL preseason game the day Faamatau earned the scholarship, congratulated his friend afterward, and “that was another emotional part for me,” Faamatau said. “It brings back memories of when we were kids and having goals that we were going to play in a Division I conference.”

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