Idaho will travel across the country to play Indiana on Saturday, but it’ll serve as a homecoming of sorts for redshirt junior linebacker Paul Moala.
Moala was born in Salt Lake City but moved to Mishawaka, Ind., three hours away from the Bloomington campus, with his family when he was 8 years old.
“It’s an away game, but I see it as a home game,” Moala said. “I’m really excited to go back and play in front of my friends and family back home.”
After winning Mr. Football Defensive Back from the IndyStar as a senior at Penn High School, Moala received offers from several in-state colleges, including Ball State, Indiana State and Notre Dame.
Moala committed to the Fighting Irish, a six-minute drive from his home. However, his four years with the Football Bowl Subdivision powerhouse didn’t go according to plan.
Moala appeared in just 23 games, corraling 22 tackles. His highlight moment came Nov. 16, 2019, when he returned a fumble 27 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown in a 52-20 blowout of Navy.
Almost a year later, in an Oct. 10, 2020, game against Florida State, Moala tore his right Achilles.
“I came away treating it like any other injury,” he said. “I told myself that I was going to come back better than ever in a more healthy state.”
Moala rehabbed the injury and managed to recover in time to open the 2021 season. Notre Dame’s opponent? The Seminoles. But on his first play, he tore his left Achilles.
“That second injury really took a toll on me mentally,” he said. “It happened so sudden and it hurt a little more. I went through two seasons not getting as many snaps as I wanted and by the end of the season, I was convinced that I had to give up on my football dreams.”
Moala wanted to take a step back and reassess his future. However, the Notre Dame coaching staff gave him an ultimatum.
“It was either I stop playing football and pursue my graduate degree at Notre Dame with a medical retirement, or I continue playing football at a different school,” Moala said. “Since I was from Indiana, I was in a tough spot. It really came down to what I wanted to do and it was a tough decision.”
Moala thought about it until the spring, then decided he still wanted to play, so Moala entered the transfer portal. He said there were several teams who made contact, but none as consistent as Idaho.
“I decided I wanted to come back and showcase my talent and abilities,” he said. “I wanted to make the most out of what I was blessed with.”
Moala met with a graduate assistant on Notre Dame’s staff that had a connection with new Vandals offensive coordinator Luke Schleusner.
“He saw my film and told me he really enjoyed it,” Moala said. “They brought me in for a visit, and I committed right on the spot.”
For a guy who wanted to stay home to play college ball, moving across the country was a bit of an adjustment.
“It was part of my journey and sometimes you have to be uncomfortable,” Moala said.
He certainly was. Moving almost 2,000 miles away from everything he’d know all of his life will do that. But not having as many distractions and being on his own helped him focus on his football path, and it helped build bonds with his teammates.
It’s something Idaho always has prided itself on: a family-type atmosphere.
“All of us are just football players,” Moala said. “They enjoy flying around and hitting people, and we feed off each other. Being around those guys is really cool and that’s what brings us together — the love of football.”
Moala earned his first career collegiate start this past Saturday at Washington State. He recorded four tackles, but most importantly, left the game healthy.
“At the end of the day, I give all the glory to God for putting me in the position that I’m at today,” he said. “I’ve been injured twice and I’ve told myself before that I wasn’t ready for this to end. But coming to Idaho has let me enjoy my time going through the trials and tribulations.”