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Tough start, bright future: Dreams of becoming an engineer propelled this freshman to Cornell and the Big Red


Togiaso on the field for the Big Red men's football team.

Winning admission to highly selective universities like Cornell can be tough. Tougher still may be meeting the physical demands of playing Big Red football while studying in Cornell's top-ranked engineering college.

But Cornell freshman defensive tackle Fiaalii "Junior" Togiaso '15 has been overcoming obstacles and succeeding, inside the classroom and on the field, since middle school.

Cornell assistant coach Travis Burkett says when he was on the road recruiting and first saw films of Togiaso, he realized right away that he had the talent to play big-time college football.

"Athletically, you just don't find a player with that combination of size, quickness and strength very often," says Burkett. "What jumped off the film was his ability to run to the football and the passion he has for playing."

When Burkett talked with him about Cornell's engineering programs, Togiaso's eyes lit up. Togiaso hoped to major in civil engineering, Burkett learned, and he has always dreamed of building things.

"Once I talked with him about engineering I knew we had an advantage over Yale and Princeton because if you want to be an engineer and you want to play in the Ivy League, there should only be one choice: Cornell," says Burkett.

Andy Noel, the Meakem*Smith Director of Athletics and Physical Education, says that Cornell's success in enrolling talented student-athletes often depends on the competitiveness of the university's financial aid packages. "We compete every year with much wealthier universities – Harvard and Princeton, for instance. Fortunately, as a result of the president's commitment to enhancing access, Cornell is decreasing the debt burden for low-income families and increasing the size of its grant awards. It has also made scholarships a top fundraising priority. All of these efforts do a good job of leveling the playing field."


Fiaalii "Junior" Togiaso '15, near the Engineering Quad. See larger image

The son of native Samoans, Togiaso is the eldest of four brothers. In fifth grade, one of his teachers in San Diego recommended him for a charter school with a mission to prepare low-income students to become the first in their families to earn a college degree.

His size (by eighth grade, he was 5'8" and 270 lbs.), athletic skill and good grades subsequently caught the eye of recruiters at La Jolla Country Day, a high school that offered him a scholarship. At the time, Togiaso's parents were out of work. The family lost its apartment and was forced to move from one cheap hotel room to another.

Jeff Hutzler, the athletic director and head football coach at Country Day, took Togiaso under his wing. When Togiaso's family moved to Long Beach in pursuit of work during his junior year, Hutzler and his wife invited Togiaso to stay in town in their home. Two years later, he still has a room there.

Despite a serious knee injury during his junior year, his performance playing defensive and offensive line attracted the attention of football powers such as Stanford, UCLA, Texas-El Paso and Utah, and Cornell's Ivy League rivals Yale and Princeton. Representatives from those football programs, Togiaso recounts, talked to him more about athletics than academics.

"So many coaches were about what their football team did, how many championships they'd won, what their model in regards to football is," says Togiaso. "But at Cornell, Coach [Kent] Austin really did well talking to me about character, honor and loyalty. It's one of the biggest reasons why I chose Cornell."

Then, this past September, during practice, Togiaso slipped, fell and broke his thumb. As much as he wanted to play this past season, Togiaso sees the bright side of being a medical redshirt, which means that he gets an extra year of eligibility under NCAA rules but cannot play in any more games this season.

"Things happen for a reason. I love to play football, and it bums me out that I don't get to travel with the team," says Togiaso. "But now that I'm redshirting I can focus on academics more and get a solid foundation there."

"He's struggling, like most first-year students do in the College of Engineering," says Burkett. "But he's an upward trajectory guy, and I know he's going to do great things."

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