Andrew Motuapuaka carved out a productive career at Virginia Tech, totaling 333 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and five interceptions from the mike linebacker position.
Despite an affinity for rugby that comes from being born in New Zealand, football was the game he came to love. His steady improvement over his five years as a Hokie paved the way for multiple opportunities to play football after college.
However, Motuapuaka finds himself back in the place that has offered him so much dating back to when he arrived in 2013. He’s now found a greater purpose in returning to Blacksburg.
“It’s cool because not every open door is meant for you to walk through,” Motuapuaka said.
Virginia Tech Career
A certain toughness has always been in Motuapuaka’s blood. It’s molded into everyone who holds some heritage in Polynesia. That toughness defined Motuapuaka over his career at Virginia Tech, where he worked from a player who shared moments of ups and downs in his first year starting as a redshirt sophomore to eventually becoming an All-ACC defender as a redshirt junior and senior.
It was even there when Frank Beamer, the coach who put the trust in Motuapuaka to come to Blacksburg, retired at the end of the 2015 season. It left some uncertainty, but Justin Fuente took over the helm and led the Hokies to one of their more successful seasons in recent memory with a 10-4 finish and near upset of eventual National Champions Clemson in the ACC Championship.
“The transition was easy because we were so hungry to win and we were willing to do whatever it took to start winning again,” Motuapuaka said. “When coach Fuente came in with his new way of doing things, we all bought in. Everyone was talking about giving things up for the betterment of the team. The way we ate, the times we were going to sleep, just little things like that that we didn’t realize played such a big role in sports. Now looking back on it, a lot of people made some sacrifices for the team, and that was just because of the energy he brought in.”
That 2016 season was capped off with the memorable comeback victory over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. After trailing 24-0 at the half, the Hokies scored 35 unanswered in the second half to send the fans in Charlotte home happy.
“I always tell people my favorite memory or favorite game would probably be the Belk Bowl when we played against Arkansas,” Motuapuaka said. “It was the perfect game to end our season. It defined what the whole season was about. We were just a team that never gave up, stuck to the plan, and it just showed in that game.
“We didn’t panic at halftime. We just came in there and knew what we were capable of. I want to say the locker room was just silent. We went out and we already knew what we had to do. We knew we could beat the team, and just did it one play at a time.”
Motuapuaka’s redshirt junior season ended on a high note. It created a readiness for his senior season ahead.
That senior season ran into some immediate setbacks when Jerod Evans, Isaiah Ford, and Bucky Hodges all declared early for the NFL Draft. Still, it didn’t stop Motuapuaka from leading the defense again alongside future first round pick Tremaine Edmunds.
After a disappointing loss at Georgia Tech to drop to 7-3, Virginia Tech returned home for senior day, a special day for Motuapuaka, who donned Bearmer’s No. 25 jersey, representing the head coach that gave him the chance five years prior.
The ineffable joy of the day was quickly sucked out of Lane Stadium when Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett connected with Jester Weah for a 74-yard completion all the way down to the 1-yard line. However, after standing tall on three straight occasions, the Hokies stuffed Darrin Hall on the final play of the game as Motuapuaka was one of the slew of defenders who hit him in the backfield, to beat Pitt 20-14.
“That goal line stand, it was my last memory in Lane and couldn’t be any better,” Motuapuaka said. “I remember just about to tear up in the moment because I really wanted this right now… I remember looking people in the eyes before that last play and said, ‘Let’s do this. It’s now or never.’ The guys stepped up. I hit the guy too, but there was 10 other people doing their job too.
“That whole drive was just a way to cap the season with guys not giving up on the play. A young Reggie Floyd, a young boy running down the guy and getting him on the 1. Everyone executing and not giving in.”
Taking a Different Path
Following Motuapuaka’s senior season, he began preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft, looking to make his dream become a reality. Despite going undrafted, the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Motuapuaka and he became a fixture for the Jaguars defense during preseason.
However, once the rosters were cut down to 53 spots, the Jaguars couldn’t find a place for him at the time. Even throughout his time in training camp, Motuapuaka began to engage in some soul searching.
Jaguars chaplain Anthony Johnson, a former NFL running back, spoke to the players about drawing a line in the sand and leaving the old way of living behind while returning to God. The message immediately sparked an interest in Motuapuaka.
The linebacker first found Jesus and was saved in college in 2015, but he wasn’t happy with the way he had been living recently. Johnson’s message caused Motuapuaka to ask him himself the question, ‘Why can’t I turn back?’
“The way I was leading people wasn’t right,” Motuapuaka said. “People from the outside looking in would think ‘Man, this guy has it all together. He has a girlfriend, he’s doing well in football. This guy is a Christian, he’s a nice guy.’ Really, I was not doing well inside because I just wasn’t living the way I put it out to seem.”
After being cut by the Jaguars, Motuapuaka returned to Blacksburg to train, still hoping he could catch on somewhere, but also still shaken and moved by the thought of drawing that line in the sand for his own life.
He signed with the Atlanta Legends of the AAF, but broke his thumb and was put on the injured reserve list. This caused him to return home to be with his mother before he attended a huge missionary conference in Orlando called “The Send.” Here, Motuapuaka leaned into the heart of missions and began to hear a calling on his life.
Still, chances to continue an athletic career kept arising, even with rugby.
“It was this thing of, ‘Man, Lord I don’t know what you want me to do? I feel like you’re calling me into missions, but you keep opening doors to play in different leagues,” Motuapuaka said. “Now you’ve opened a door for me to play rugby. Rugby was always the sport that I always wanted to play. I had an opportunity to do this, but none of it really felt like the right place for me.”
Eventually, Motuapuaka permanently drew his line in the sand and gave up his athletic pursuits to become a missionary right on campus at Virginia Tech with the organization Family Movement.
“I took it one step at a time. I got some words at “The Send,” and I was encouraged to take a step of faith,” Motuapuaka said. “I had an opportunity to come alongside my best friend and his wife to serve here at Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech just has marked my heart for the rest of my life. I gave my life to the Lord here. I played five years of football here. I made incredible relationships with a whole bunch of incredible people. Virginia Tech has a special place in my heart just because of that.
“I had to decline offers to continue playing. Just the realness of that is pretty tough. It wasn’t an easy decision, but you can’t please the Lord outside of faith, so I just said, ‘OK, I’m doing it.’”
Hot Dogs for Hope
People still ask Motuapuaka all the time if he misses playing football. He still wishes he could return to those times on the field in the maroon and orange again, but really it’s the relationships with his teammates that he misses the most.
“You’re literally doing everything together,” Motuapuaka said. “Even outside of football, you don’t get away from them. You cry together, you talk about real things together. Those relationships, those are what really stood out to me because they last a lifetime. They’re priceless to me. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
There’s also the relationships he formed with the coaches over the years, particularly his with defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
“He’s definitely played a big role in my career,” Motuapuaka said. “Just the passion that he has for the game has definitely played a big role in my life. Not only for the game, but for defense, I’ve learned so much about family and unity and hard work from playing defense for coach Foster. These are three things that I’m really passionate about, even just moving forward in my life with ministry and everything.”
In his new role on campus at Virginia Tech, Motuapuaka is forming these relationships in a new way focused on creating unity and community.
The spirit of Ut Prosim has never diminished from Motuapuaka’s life. Now, before every home football game, he’s part of a team that grills hot dogs to pass out to the students tailgating on Harrell and Center Street.
“The hot dogs thing started last fall,” Motuapuaka said. “We did 250 hot dogs the last home game. Even with just 250 hot dogs we were able to reach people and love people. It’s just been cool to meet people exactly where they’re at.”
What once began as a bold idea has transformed into a game day tradition where the hot dogs allow Motuapuaka and others to begin that process of forming relationships and starting genuine conversation. They passed out 1,000 hot dogs at the spring game and have pushed to even greater heights this year.
“It’s just been really cool starting to be a thing where people are like, ‘Oh, you guys are the hot dog people. You guys always give out hot dogs every home game.’ It’s cool to build relationships even in the midst of that environment,” Motuapuaka said.
“The first two games [this year] were noon games, so we did 1,200 each game. We’re planning on doing 3,000 for this next game against Duke. It’s going to be really fun… It’s just going to be so cool to see what the Lord does.”
It’s here where Motuapuaka beams with an excitement and passion of someone who knows he’s in the right place, a place that could only be found because of those open doors he didn’t walk through.