Navy's Shaun Nua is an assistant coach on the rise
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: October 31, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Shaun Nua can be gruff, tough and demanding out on the practice field. At 6-foot-5 and almost 300 pounds, Navy’s defensive line coach can be downright intimidating.
During the most recent episode of Showtime’s “A Season With,” there was a scene in which Nua – hunched over, hands on knees, hat backwards – was barking instructions at his troops.
“When you see a giant Samoan standing in front of you and know that he played in the league, there is an immediate respect,” former Navy defensive end Amos Mason said. “Coach Nua pushed me hard to reach my full potential. I always tried to give maximum effort, both in practice and games, because I didn’t want to let him down.”
Off the field, Nua is like an older brother or father figure for all of Navy’s defensive linemen. The sixth-year assistant takes time to ask his players about their families and lives.
“Coach Nua is a very personable, very loving guy. That’s the first thing he preaches to the defensive line, that we’re like family,” Mason said. “Coach Nua cares about you as a person more than as a football player. He wants to develop you as a man.”
Nua, who starred at Brigham Young University and played professionally with the Pittsburgh Steelers, has consistently built a solid defensive line during his time at Navy. He has developed several outstanding players, notably Mason and fellow end Will Anthony along with nose guard Bernie Sarra.
“Shaun has done a tremendous job with the D line. He is a great coach and mentor,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Coach Nua is hard on his kids, but loves them. I think he strikes a great balance between being loving toward players and being demanding when he needs to be.”
Sarra worked alongside Nua while serving as a graduate assistant with the football program during the 2016 season, helping him break down film and tutor the defensive linemen. Sarra, probably the finest nose guard Navy’s had since switching to a 3-4 defensive alignment, has the utmost respect for his former coach.
“Coach Nua does an unbelievable job of showing how much he cares about the players. He has a unique balance of being a loving, caring coach, but when it’s time to go to work he has a high level of energy that is very motivating.”
Nua and Sarra came into Annapolis together, arriving in 2012. Sarra, who grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh known as Monessen, was somewhat awe-struck upon learning his new coach spent three seasons with the Steelers.
Sarra remembers meeting Nua in the weight room as a plebe and thinking “Wow, this guy is a beast?” Nua knew the Greensburg Central Catholic product was a highly-touted recruit with the potential to contribute as a freshman.
“First thing Coach Nua told me was that he was going to teach me how to dominate a center, and that is exactly what he did,” Sarra said.
“Coach Nua was brilliant in the basics and the fundamentals of being a defensive lineman. He analyzed everything from where we would step, where our hands were, and our pad level,” Sarra said. “In the beginning I was confused why everything mattered so much, but once I bought into the process I saw myself making strides as a player.”
Spending considerable time in the Navy football office last fall while on temporary assignment duty at the Naval Academy, Sarra witnessed first-hand how Nua operated as an assistant coach.
“As a player, I got pretty close with Coach Nua so there were no surprises once I saw he was the same guy in the office as he was out on the field. He is a genuine, loving, high-energy guy on and off the field,” Sarra said. “I learned an unbelievable amount from Coach Nua and will use the lessons I learned from him forever.”
Jarvis Polu is the latest Navy defensive lineman to develop a close relationship with Nua. The 6-foot-3, 292-pound junior, who plays both end and nose guard, shares a special bond with Nua since both are of Polynesian descent.
“Coach Nua is one of the people I am closest with in the entire program. I feel like I can come to him with anything that is on my mind. He is always there to listen, be understanding and give advice,” Polu said. “Yes, there is definitely a connection I have with Coach Nua. He knows where I come from, knows the culture of my family. I feel like I can talk to him about personal stuff.”
Polu described Nua as “a very lovable kind of guy, a big Teddy Bear type of dude.’ The Las Vegas native said the 36-year-old coach maintains a smile on his face almost at all times.
“Whether on the football field or going to the supermarket, the approach is the same. Coach Nua is always outgoing, always happy. I just think he feels blessed 24/7,” Polu said.
From humble beginnings
Nua was born in Pago Pago, the capital city of American Samoa – an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the South Pacific Ocean. He was the second oldest of six children born to Sao and Usu Nua, a farmer and nurse, respectively.
Nua was actually raised by his mother’s grandparents – Tualemoso and Katerina Ahsoon – on the nearby island of Manu’a, which is located 60 miles away (a six-hour boat ride) from Pago Pago. Almost all of Nua’s relatives were farmers and fishermen.
Nua was a promising football prospect drawing Division I interest when he suffered a devastating knee injury during preseason practice his senior season. Medical care on American Samoa was rather primitive at the time and Nua had a leg that contained a torn anterior cruciate ligament put in a cast, which is probably the worst thing that can be done.
Sao Nua, who represents Manu’a as a sitting senator within the government of American Samoa, was certain his son’s dream of playing college football was over. Shaun Nua had never been an exemplary student and his grades suffered senior year because of the knee injury.
Nua appeared destined to a life spent toiling in the family businesses of farming and fishing after graduating from Tafuna High. It was older sister Sandy, who was attending college at Arizona State at the time, who changed that outlook.
“Sandy was the trailblazer, the first one to go away to college in the United States. She yanked me out of the islands,” Nua said. “I’m very thankful to my sister for what she did. I owe her everything. I am also glad my father had the humility to trust my sister and let me go.”
Nua made a stop on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and spent six months with an aunt. Fui Ahsoon got the youngster on her health insurance and made sure the damaged knee was surgically repaired. From there, Nua headed to Phoenix, Arizona, to live with his sister. Sandy Nua worked part-time at a Greyhound bus station and at the Arizona State University library while an undergraduate in order to support herself and her brother.
Nua applied to every junior college in the greater Phoenix area in hopes of getting an opportunity to play football. He underwent a second surgery to repair the ACL, which had not healed properly due largely to lack of proper rehabilitation. A physical therapist named Tom Ellsworth provided the direction the wayward 19 year old needed, telling Nua he should enroll at Eastern Arizona, a junior college in Thatcher.
Becoming a ballplayer
A pair of former BYU football players – Scott Giles and Kalani Sitake – were the head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, at Eastern Arizona. Nua earned National Junior College Athletic Association All-American honors and restored his reputation as a Division I recruit.
Sitake, who is now head coach at BYU, was largely responsible for steering Nua to the school that is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nua arrived on the Provo, Utah campus and felt like he had completed a long journey.
“I was in heaven. I had worked so hard to accomplish the goal of becoming a college football player,” he said.
Under the guidance of defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall and defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi, Nua developed into a second team All-Mountain West Conference selection as a senior. Life took an unexpected turn when Nua was selected by the Steelers in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL Draft. As a rookie in 2006, he was a member of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl championship squad.
Sao and Usu Nua were flown to Detroit by their son for Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit. Shaun Nua hand-delivered his Super Bowl ring to the father who had pushed and pushed.
“My dad was a tough, tough man and very hard on me, made sure I earned everything. I feared him,” Nua said. “Everything I did was to make that man proud and prove I was not a failure. He had high expectations and high standards.”
When Nua left Pago Pago as a teenager, he vowed not to return until accomplishing certain goals. He returned in 2006 as a college graduate, professional football player and Super Bowl champ.
Finding a calling
Nua lasted four seasons in the NFL, retiring after being cut by the Buffalo Bills in 2009. Mendenhall was the head coach at BYU by then and hired his former player as a graduate assistant.
For Nua, never a dedicated student, the hardest part was getting into graduate school in order to hold that initial coaching position. Mendenhall and others had to write letters of recommendation for Nua, who wound up earning a Master’s Degree from the renowned Marriott School of Business at BYU.
Knowing the graduate assistant position ended after three seasons, Nua sent letters to college football coaches all over the country. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo was the only one that replied.
“I knew all about Coach Niumat. Kenny was one of my coaching idols in this profession because he was Polynesian,” Nua said.
Niumatalolo, the second Polynesian head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level and first Samoan head coach at any level, initially spotted Nua while attending a BYU football practice during the recruitment of his oldest son Va’a.
“I watched Shaun coaching on the field and loved his energy, was impressed by how he interacted with the players,” Niumatalolo said. “I spoke with Shaun and was very, very impressed by his personality and demeanor. I put in the back of my mind that I might want to hire that guy some day.”
That opportunity arose when an opening occurred on the defensive staff prior to the 2012 season. Nua proved an immediate hit as both a coach and recruiter, covering the West Coast for Navy. When Dale Pehrson was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2015, Niumatalolo turned the defensive line entirely over to Nua.
“Coach Nua is doing a better job than me,” Pehrson said that season. “Seriously, Shaun does a phenomenal job. He is a young guy who is enthusiastic and the players really respond well to him.”
Navy almost lost Nua in December, 2015 after Mendenhall was hired by Virginia and Niumatalolo considered replacing him at BYU. Niumatalolo was visiting the Provo campus when Nua agreed to join Mendenhall’s staff in Charlottesville.
Niumatalolo chose not to pursue the BYU vacancy and one of his first moves after making that decision was to convince Nua to remain in Annapolis.
“I am very grateful that Shaun stayed because he is an outstanding assistant coach in every respect,” Niumatalolo said. “He has learned from some of the best defensive minds in the game – people like Bronco, Steve Kaufusi and (longtime NFL defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau. Coach Nua knows the game and understands how to coach.”
Niumatalolo paid Nua a huge compliment by saying the native of American Samoa is ready to serve as a defensive coordinator and has the ability to one day become a head coach.