LINDSAY — Chris Misaalefua's football career, which has been recognized with all-state honors each of the past two seasons, almost never started.
The 6-foot-5, 350-pound senior offensive lineman from Lindsay High didn't get to play Pop Warner as a youth because he was always too big for his age group.
And during his first practice in pads as a high school freshman, Misaalefua sustained a gnarly cut that left a near inch-long scar visible on his right forearm to this day.
"I was freaking out," Misaalefua said. "My first day in pads and I got this big cut. I wanted to quit, but my mom wasn't going to let that happen."
Good thing she didn't.
Misaalefua (pronounced Misa-ale-fu-a) signed a letter-of-intent Wednesday morning to play football at UTEP, becoming what's believed to be the first Division I recruit to come straight out of Lindsay, a 1,000-student, Division V program in eastern Tulare County. In fact, he's the only football player from a D-V school or smaller who's been reported to The Bee as receiving a scholarship offer from an NCAA D-I team.
"The biggest reason I do what I do is I want people in this community to know they can do anything they set their mind to and work hard for," Misaalefua said. "It's going to be hard and a lot of work, but I'm willing to do it for my community. I'm very proud to be a Lindsay Cardinal and to have this chance."
Misaalefua arrived on campus four years ago large -- 6-2, 280 pounds -- but inexperienced. Not only were his skills raw but his on-field temperament needed work, too.
"He was a really nice kid who didn't understand how to transition from being nice to the tenacity needed to play football," Lindsay assistant coach Paul Dieterle said. "But he figured out football is an intense sport."
By the end of his freshman year, Misaalefua had been pulled up to varsity for Lindsay's playoff run and appeared in a couple of blowouts.
He became a starter as a sophomore and eventually blossomed into a two-way force at guard and nose tackle, earning All-State Division III honors from MaxPreps the past two seasons and medium-size schools All-State honors from Cal-Hi Sports this year.
But Misaalefua, who has averaged 12 points a game as a three-year varsity basketball player, didn't begin drawing recruiting attention until his senior season.
Cardinals coach Jesse Lira said he sent more than 3,000 emails and made roughly 500 calls to coaches at Division I and II programs. Recruiters from Colorado, Washington State, San Diego State, Fresno State, Oregon State and San Jose State all came to Lindsay to take a look at Misaalefua, Lira said, but no one offered.
Jacksonville State was the first school to make Misaalefua an offer in September. Montana State also offered and was thought to be the front-runner to land the All-Bee selection and East Sequoia League Lineman of the Year before UTEP entered the picture three weeks ago.
Misaalefua decided on the Miners after taking a recruiting trip to El Paso, Texas, last weekend.
"I'm so proud of him," Lira said. "I feel we were out to prove a point as a school, as a community and as a Division V program that we can put a guy in Division I."
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