Washington State's Shalom Luani went unrecruited out of high school, but made his own luck and followed his dreams all the way to Martin Stadium and beyond
When Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave’a went out to Faga’itua High School in American Samoa to recruit defensive tackle Robert Barber, he recalls noticing Shalom Luani, a teammate of Barber’s in the 2012 graduating class.
But Salave’a didn’t have a scholarship for a defensive back at the time. In the winter of 2012, as the Cougars’ new staff was assembling its first recruiting class, Salave’a only needed a tackle, which he got when Barber committed.
Meanwhile, Luani, an athletic three-way star who played quarterback, defensive back and kicker for Faga’itua High, went unnoticed and unsigned by any of the college recruiters who passed through Masausi that year.
To this day, he doesn’t know why.
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“No school came for me,” Luani says. “I never had offers or anything.”
It seems laughable now, when you look at the resume Luani has amassed in his two years at Washington State.
The Cougars’ senior safety burst onto the scene last year as a junior transfer from the City College of San Francisco and became an invaluable cog in Alex Grinch’s new-look WSU defense, finishing his first season with a team-high four interceptions and six pass breakups.
Luani has started 21 games for the Cougars since his arrival in Pullman in the summer of 2015, and will make his 22nd start when No. 23 WSU (7-2 overall, 6-0 Pac-12) welcomes Cal (4-5, 2-3) and its Bear Raid offense to Martin Stadium this weekend.
Expect Luani to be one of the most irritating thorns in Cal quarterback Davis Webb’s side on Saturday night. The senior defensive back leads WSU in interceptions (4) and is second on the team in tackles for loss this season despite having played one game less than the Cougars’ other defensive starters.
Luani missed the season opener against Eastern Washington after suffering a concussion in relation to a fight he was involved in at the end of August. Luani was initially arrested on suspicion of assault, but he was never charged with any crime because the Whitman County Prosecutor ultimately determined that he may have acted in self defense.
The assault case put a damper on the start of Luani’s senior season. However, the safety hasn’t missed a beat since he returned to the football field on Sept. 10 at Boise State.
Instead, Luani has once again shown why he’s WSU’s most versatile defensive asset. He started two games this year at his usual free safety spot, but has since moved to nickelback, in part because Parker Henry has been hampered by an unspecified injury, and in part because the Cougars have realized how effective Luani can be when unleashed to roam in the middle of the defense.
“He’s one of our fastest players on our team, and he’s a really smart kid in terms of knowing the defense. So he does add a different element than (Henry) does at nickel,” said inside linebackers coach Roy Manning, “Probably the biggest thing Shalom does is he can get from Point A to Point B in the blink of an eye.
“In the three to four games that he’s played nickel, he’s a difference maker. Getting him closer to the ball and the line of scrimmage I think has been tremendous for us.”
In eight games this season, Luani has already equaled the number of interceptions – 4 – he had all last year. His most recent one came last week, when he picked off Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins and ran it back 19 yards to set up WSU’s offense at the Wildcats’ 8-yard line.
Luani’s always had the ball hawk instincts to intercept quarterbacks, but from his new nickel position, he’s also shown a knack for getting to the quarterback. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder has two sacks and two quarterback hurries already this season.
“He has been really productive,” Manning said. “He can do it all. I’ve been around a lot of good players, and Shalom is as good as any I’ve ever coached.”
So how did Luani get so overlooked? It’s a mystery.
With no scholarship offers coming out of high school, the enterprising Luani took a chance on himself.
A week before leaving Masausi to represent American Samoa at the 2012 International Federation of American Football World U-19 Championship in Austin, Texas, Luani told his parents that he wasn’t coming home. His plan was to get to the mainland, play in the U-19 tournament, and then figure out a way to stay in the U.S. and play football somewhere.
The “where” and “how” of that plan were left undefined. With the blissful naiveté of a teenager, Luani figured everything would work itself out, though he concedes now that it was “kinda scary” to go to the U.S. with $400 to his name and nothing mapped out beyond his Texas adventure.
But things did work out. One of Luani’s high school coaches had a cousin who coached football at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., so that was Luani’s first stop after the U-19 tournament.
Even though Luani couldn’t afford tuition at Chabot College, he spent a semester practicing with the Chabot football team and living in a two-bedroom house with up to 20 Samoan roommates at a time. Luani shared a space in the garage with three other guys and paid $86 in rent.
“It was ghetto,” he says. “After a semester, we got evicted from the apartment because there were too many of us.”
Cramped living quarters weren’t new to Luani though.
“Living with a great number of people under one roof is something we were used to,” said Makerita Luani, Shalom’s older sister. “We have six siblings all tighter and we used to curl up in each other and there was no such thing as personal space.”
Through one of his Hayward roommates, Luani met a pastor who offered lodging at his home in Alameda. This pastor happened to be married to a woman whose brother knew the football coaches at City College. So after Luani was evicted from the house in Heyward, he headed into the city to try to catch on at City College.
This time, with Makerita, a soldier in the U.S. Army, helping to pay his tuition, Luani was able to take classes at City College, which made him eligible for football.
By the end of his sophomore season at City College, Luani was a first team All-American, the Bay 6 Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and the No. 1 rated junior college safety in the country.
USC, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State all coveted his signature. Luani originally signed with the Beavers but flipped to WSU after Mike Riley’s staff left for Nebraska.
Luani earned All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention honors after his breakout junior season with the Cougars, but his senior season might be the one that earns him a shot at his NFL dream.
Playing nickelback has allowed Luani to showcase his trademark versatility, which could make him more attractive to NFL teams.
Manning, who played three NFL seasons as a linebacker, sees Luani as someone who could follow in the footsteps of Deone Bucannon, who was a safety at WSU, but now plays a hybrid safety/linebacker position called “moneybacker” for the Arizona Cardinals.
“Shalom is a great tackler, he’s very, very physical and he uses his hands well,” Manning said. “That’s the mold these NFL teams are going to – getting guys on the field, moving linebackers and attacking these passing offenses. That seems to be the trend.
“It’s not easy to move closer to the line of scrimmage because things happen faster. But I think Shalom could do both. He definitely can handle everything from the mental standpoint. He doesn’t miss a beat at all.”
Luani’s body of work has even caught the eye of Bucannon himself, who singled out Luani and defensive end Hercules Mata’afa as the two biggest stars on WSU’s defense.
“I kinda see him as a more natural safety, but he can play anywhere,” Bucannon said in an interview last month, after Arizona’s game against the Seahawks ended in a 6-6 tie. “He’s a great player, and whenever he gets the opportunity to get to the next level, he’ll be able to do anything he wants.”