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Inside The Chart: Keep Believing

by Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets)

Keep Believing: His forced fumble set the table for a miraculous finish in Miami. But for linebacker Paul Moala, the play was the culmination of years of persistence to return to a high-major level.   

Inside The Chart | By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets)

Paul Moala remembers the last time – make that the second-to-last time – he felt disbelief on a football field.

The linebacker had just returned from a torn Achilles tendon that he suffered while playing for Notre Dame against Florida State in October 2020. After enduring the solitary, 11-month grind of rehab, he found it fitting that his first game back would also be against Florida State, in the 2021 season opener in Tallahassee.

Moala took his spot on the kickoff team, his body a tempest of adrenaline, ready to announce his return with a pad-rattling block of an FSU defender.

Instead, as he locked up with the first Seminole player he saw, that adrenaline gave way to dread.

“When it happened, I knew in the back of my mind that this felt really familiar,” he said.

On the first play of his first game back, Moala had torn the Achilles tendon in his other leg. Eleven months of rehab had resulted in a comeback that lasted barely 10 seconds.

“It was heartbreaking,” he said.

Contrast that with the scene two Saturdays ago at Hard Rock Stadium, when Moala stood near the 50-yard-line as wide receiver Christian Leary hauled in a last-second touchdown pass to shock No. 17 Miami 23-20. The game-winning drive was set up after Moala forced a fumble of Hurricanes running back Don Chaney, Jr. with 26 seconds left.

VIDEO: Paul Moala's forced fumble at Miami (ACC Digital Network)

Amid that disbelief, the celebration pouring out around him, Moala couldn’t help but feel emotional.

“To have been through what I’ve been through, and just to persevere and kind of put my faith in God and understand that my time will come, to have that [fumble] be such a big part of that play in the game, and be that involved – it was truly a blessing,” he said.

The play capped off a solid first half of the season for the 23-year-old Moala, who had a simple goal this fall: to prove he could produce at the Power-5 level where his career first began. His 5.5 tackles for loss are tied for the team lead, while his 2.0 sacks rank second behind defensive end Kyle Kennard. He’s also added two quarterback hurries and two pass breakups.

“Things don’t really rattle him as much,” defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer said. “I see him starting to be a little more vocal in the meeting room, on the field, talking, trying to coach the young players up.”

The 6-foot, 229-pounder was born in Salt Lake City, the third youngest of nine brothers and sisters to parents who emigrated from Tonga. Growing up, Moala says his mom and dad didn’t speak much English around the house, preferring to communicate with their children in their native Tongan. Paul – his full, Scrabble rack of a name is Pauliloaovavau Olahi Moala – understands the language well and can still speak some of it.

Not surprisingly, having a large family toughened him up early.

“Having siblings that are always competing for things allowed me to grow up and have that competitive nature to myself,” he said. He also gained some of that edge from his father, Pule, who played on the Tongan national rugby team in the 1980’s. As a nod to his roots, Paul sometimes makes T’s with his hands to signify Tonga after big plays.

The Moalas moved to Mishawaka, Ind., one town over from South Bend, when Paul was eight; the family was visiting his uncle over winter break and during their vacation, his father found a job there as a truck driver. Moala eventually grew into a three-star safety prospect at Penn High School, where his play earned him a scholarship from hometown Notre Dame.

(As a senior at Penn, Moala also started dating Maddy Wiseman; they’re now engaged, proving Moala has plenty of recruiting chops himself).

Moala cemented himself as a solid special teamer and reserve linebacker in his first two years at Notre Dame, highlighted by a recovery of an option pitch against Navy that he returned 27 yards for a touchdown. Then came the consecutive Achilles tears, which suddenly thrust his playing career in doubt.

“That’s what was going through my mind for that whole [2021] season,” Moala admitted. “And being told by coaches that maybe it was a sign for me to give up. It made me go against the grain. It motivated me to kind of push and fight against what people were thinking that I should do, and try to do what I wanted to do.”

But even Moala acknowledged that linebackers with two torn Achilles tendons don’t make for a hot commodity in the transfer portal. He found a lifeline across the country at Football Championship Subdivision member Idaho.

“They had Polynesian coaches. That’s all it was, honestly,” Moala said of the recruiting connection.

Moala enjoyed a redemptive season with the Vandals, earning second team all-Big Sky honors while providing a durable, do-it-all presence at linebacker. He tied for the team lead in interceptions (4), ranked second in tackles for loss (7.0), finished third in tackles (61) and recorded a pair of sacks and five pass breakups. His health and confidence had seemed to return.

Moala went through spring practice with the intention of returning to Idaho for his sixth and final season.  As the spring progressed, though, an idea started to simmer. He had fought through two major injuries. He had already proven he could play at the FCS level. He had one last chance to finish his story in the Power 5.

Moala entered the transfer portal for a second time in late April. Back in Atlanta, Georgia Tech’s coaches were looking to add maturity and experience to a young linebacking corps. Before long, Sherrer and safeties coach Andrew Thacker were taking turns contacting Moala every day, trying to sell him on the merits of Georgia Tech’s defense.

“Charlie Thomas and Ace Eley – just seeing how much they succeeded here at this school, and be able to adapt to the playbook and play so well was really intriguing to me,” Moala said. An industrial design major at Notre Dame, he was also attracted to the strength of Georgia Tech’s academics.

Head coach Brent Key says Moala has been a steady, reliable veteran in the Yellow Jackets’ defense.

“Paul has improved every week, and you usually don’t see that out of a guy at that age, a sixth-year senior that still has that drive to continue to work to improve. But he has,” Key said.

That work ethic was on full display in Miami, distilled into the third-down running play that helped swing the game. Like so many times before in his career, Moala could have resigned himself to the more likely outcome. He instead chose to go all out, and finish the situation on his own terms.

“I told the guys in the huddle before we even called that play – because there was a brief timeout before that – ‘mind on the ball.’ So when Kyle Efford stood him up in the gap, I just rolled over and got to the ball-side arm. And I was thinking to myself as he was falling down, ‘I’m going to rip this ball out,’” he recalled.

Replay confirmed he did. And 26 seconds later, Georgia Tech had one of the most improbable wins in school history.

For Moala, it produced an international blizzard of texts (his siblings, who range in age from 20 to 42, live in New Zealand, Tonga, California and Utah). He also knows those congratulations were the culmination of everything he had gone through to reach that moment.

“It’s been truly a blessing to be able to see myself step into the light and be the person that I wanted to be at Notre Dame,” he said.

Yet as Georgia Tech returns from its bye week against Boston College at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Hyundai Field (12:00 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports), Moala doesn’t want that fumble to be the defining moment of his season.

“I’m happy with my production, but I’m never satisfied. I always know my next game could be my best game,” he said.

At this point, his play won’t strain his – or anyone else’s – belief.

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