BLOOMINGTON – Football took Sio Nofoagatoto'a away from his family and provided him with new loved ones at the same time.
The Indiana freshman defensive lineman took an uncommon route to Bloomington. It's a journey Nofoagatoto'a normally doesn't have much time to reflect on, but the downtime between November's regular-season finale and January's bowl game gave him a chance to reflect on a whirlwind year.
When he first met with media members in June, the expected questions about his journey to the Midwest came Nofoagatoto'a's way.
The 6-foo-4, 325-pound defensive lineman recounted his life's journey – from being born in New Zealand where he picked up the sport of rugby, to moving to American Samoa at age 8 where he fell in love with football, to determining by the eighth grade that football was his ticket to a better education.
A move to Australia at age 15, where only nine-man football was offered for Nofoagatoto'a's age group, presented an initial roadblock to his hopes of playing collegiately.
But Nofoagatoto'a's uncle, a well-known football figure in American Samoa, had a connection to high school head coach Jesse Chinchar at Clearwater Academy International in Clearwater, Florida.
It was Nofoagatoto'a's best chance to make his football dreams a reality, one he took a chance on even though it carried him away from his family before leading him to Indiana.
“Coming out of the recruitment process, this (Indiana) reminded me a lot of home (American Samoa) with all the seasons and nature,” Nofoagatoto'a said. “We barely have roads (in American Samoa), it's mainly trees and stuff.
“Just walking to class every day, that reminds me a lot of home.”
When Nofoagatoto'a left Australia for Florida, he gained new family members.
He lived in Florida for two years with a host family, and Nofoagatoto'a is visiting them during the Christmas break that head coach Tom Allen has given the Indiana players.
Before that return visit, Nofoagatoto'a said he's noticed a commonality between those associated with Indiana football and the welcoming nature of his Florida host family.
“That was another reason why I chose IU,” he said. “Just going there (Florida) and being so welcomed made it easier for me to transition on and off the field, so when I came here, I had the same feeling as being back in Florida.”
A common presence during Nofoagatoto'a's time in Florida and Indiana has been D.K. Bonhomme, another international player on this Indiana team.
Bonhomme was born in Haiti, grew up in Canada and also went to Clearwater Academy International. He and Nofoagatoto'a both took official visits to Indiana, fell in love with the family-first mentality fostered by Allen and made the trip to Bloomington together.
“You meet somebody from a different part of the world and you think, 'How could two people like this come together?'” Nofoagatoto'a said this summer about himself and Bonhomme. “It's been a special journey.”
But for all of Nofoagatoto'a's on-field success (he had two tackles in the double-overtime win against Purdue and has become a rotation piece along the defensive line) there are the obvious drawbacks to his college career.
His family can't come to every game. Likewise, Nofoagatoto'a can't go home every break.
For Thanksgiving this year, Nofoagatoto'a and his fellow defensive linemen spent the day together and shared a meal.
Once Indiana's bowl game is done, Nofoagatoto'a will go to Canada to spend time with Bonhomme and his family, furthering the family ties football has given him.
“That's made me closer to my teammates and my coaches,” Nofoagatoto'a said. “Just spending time with them.”
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
Indiana vs. Tennessee
Where: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 2 TV: ESPN