Somewhere between Lincoln and Salt Lake City, Vaha Vainuku looked out the window at the clouds 30,000 feet above the ground, and smiled.
He was really going to play football again.
“Some nights you can’t sleep and you just miss it and you just keep dreaming of football and you keep wishing for what could have been,” Nebraska’s newest defensive tackle said. “I don’t know, man, I’m just excited. I don’t think anyone could ever know what I’m going through right now. I’m really fired up to a level I can’t even express.”
Vainuku committed to Nebraska on Friday after a visit to Lincoln. He will turn 25 in October and has two years of eligibility remaining.
Vainuku committed to Utah as a senior in 2011, and was part of the Utes’ 2012 recruiting class as the No. 82 defensive tackle in the country. After committing, he spent two years on a church mission in Oakland, California. And in January 2015, he returned to Utah and suited up.
During his first padded practice, the 6-foot-3, 295-pound lineman from Salt Lake City suffered a Lisfranc fracture, tearing two ligaments in his right foot. He had two surgeries, but he wasn’t the same. He appeared in two games in 2016. In 2017, he retired from football.
For a year, he tried to find his way. But he found himself alone in his apartment in tears, missing practices and offseason weight training.
“Sometimes you dread practice, like, ‘Damn I got practice. It’s gonna be hot and I’m gonna be tired,’ and all that,” Vainuku said. “But surprisingly, this past year that was one of the things I really missed. I really wished I was out there sweating and grinding with my boys.”
Long story short, I need to learn how to husk corn now!🌽 lol Beyond grateful to be able to play this game again and to do it for this stud of a Coach! Lets go Husker Nation🔴⚫️⚪️ #GBR pic.twitter.com/o5oiG65yrM
— Vaha Vainuku (@Vee_Stringz1) June 1, 2018
So in April 2018, he reached out to his high school coach and told him to put out some feelers. He wanted to play football again.
Nebraska, Hawaii and Oregon State wanted in. And the Huskers jumped to the top of Vainuku’s list when defensive coordinator Erik Chinander visited him in person last Thursday.
Chinander invited Vainuku to Lincoln. So he hopped on a flight and spent the past two days talking X’s and O’s with defensive line coach Mike Dawson and Chinander.
“It felt right. It just felt right,” Vainuku said. “That a Big Ten school — to say the least it’s Nebraska — to show interest in me, as wild as my story is and as wild as the things I’ve been through, for Nebraska to even show the slightest interest in me was very humbling,”
Nebraska wants to play him everywhere from nose tackle to defensive end. And Vainuku is more than OK with that.
He needs to finish up some housekeeping in Salt Lake City, but said he should be in Lincoln by next week.
When he returned to his apartment Friday night, he looked around. In this apartment, where he had cried himself to sleep, where he contemplated hanging up his cleats, everything felt different.
“I got to my room and I was like, ‘Gosh dang. This really happened,’” he said. “I’m in the same room and I’m just a different person. I’m happy and I’m ready and I’m fired up.”