May 14, 2012 — it’s a date that might not be engraved into most people’s memories, but for University of Utah wide receiver Samson Nacua and his family, that date is one they’ll never forget. It’s the day Samson and his five siblings, as well as their mother, Penina, lost their father and husband — Lionel Nacua.
Nacua was 14 years old and living with his family in Las Vegas when his father, who had struggled with type 2 diabetes his entire life, passed away. The pain that followed was gut-wrenching. Nacua felt lost and he didn’t know who to look up or talk to. There was one thing Nacua was certain about, and it was that he wanted to step away from the game his dad taught him to play.
“At first once he passed, I gave up football, I was done because he was my coach,” Nacua said. “He coached me all growing up so once he passed, I felt like football was just over for me. I had no more drive to do it.”
With his cleats, pads and helmet pushed to the side, Nacua not only turned his back on the bright lights, but he began to spend less time at his house. Nacua didn’t want to be at home because it didn’t feel the same without his dad. Instead, he spent more time walking around parks, late at night, thinking to himself, trying to make sense of the crumbling mess he was treading through.
Penina watched Nacua become more “removed from the world” when she moved her children to Utah in 2013. She saw how Nacua struggled with school attendance, as well as home and church responsibilities. Her “free spirited” and “lovable” son’s heart was continuing to ache over something he was still trying to wrap his mind around.
“When he passed I was very angry towards the world,” Nacua said. “I didn’t want to deal with anyone. I always heard people trying to say they know what I was going through or they feel sorry and I was just like, ‘I don’t want to hear it. You don’t know what I’m going through right now.’”
However, Nacua had yet to discover that the game he left in the dust because of the stinging memories infused in the pigskin laces, would eventually become his saving grace.
It took his two older brothers — Kai and Isaiah — who played for BYU, to convince Nacua that the football field is not only where he belongs, but where he can feel closer to his dad.
“I would always see them when they would score or make a big play, they would always point up to my dad,” Nacua said. “And I was just like damn, our dad is still watching us and I don’t think he’d want me just to be sitting on the sideline no more, watching my brothers.”
Nacua’s love and desire to play the game slowly began to return as he realized there’s more to life than holding on to sorrow and anger, no matter what happens. Penina said losing her husband of 20 years has taught her and her children to have faith that God is watching over them and to know their dad is on the other side cheering for each of them.
“The biggest trial and our biggest loss was their dad. And it couldn’t have gotten any worse than that,” Penina said. “You couldn’t lose anything else. A game wouldn’t have mattered because the biggest loss was losing my husband. So it’s really taught them all to try to stay the course.”
Where Nacua was and where he is now are two completely different places. He has chosen to major in social work with a minor in business so that he can help those who are struggling. He wants to make the world a better place as he helps others so they don’t have to feel the type of pain he felt when his world slid off the tracks. Looking down the road, he said one day he might try to join the United Nations so he can play a part in improving life for future generations.
“My dad would never want me to give up, and he was always pushing me to be the best I can,” Nacua said. “And that’s what I’m going to keep doing. Just keep pushing myself with a smile and make sure everyone’s laughing and having fun, too.”