There are tough guys who come to football — and then there is Ulumoo “MJ” Ale.
Ale was a three-time Australian Golden Gloves heavyweight boxing champion, who gave up the sport to focus on playing rugby. When he moved to Washington state and began playing football at Fife High School last season, his rugby pals teased him so much about all the protective gear that Ale requested a waiver to allow him to play without a helmet.
And he’s 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds.
“If you look at him, he looks mean,” Fife quarterback Falani Jennings said, “but once you get to know him, he is kind and sweet.”
Fife coach Kent Nevin says Jennings is correct. Talk to Ale for a few minutes and he shows another side, one that’s humble, spiritual and good-natured.
“When you get him one-on-one, he is very soft spoken and polite, and does not want to come across as overbearing,” Nevin said.
Said Ale: “Being so big, you have to make yourself approachable.”
Ale was born in Samoa. At the age of 4, his father, Ulumoo Sr., was hired to lead a church in Australia, but traveled to different congregations around the country and in New Zealand.
When his older brother, Faa, took up boxing as a middleweight at a local club in Melbourne, Ale tagged along.
“I was 9 or 10, and some coaches noticed I was hitting my brother pretty hard,” Ale said. “So I started getting coaching.”
For three years, he traveled all over Australia for fights. Each of his Golden Gloves victories took place in Victoria, a state in Australia that includes the city of Melbourne.
“My mom (Aano) was really against it,” Ale said. “My dad did not have anything against it … as long as the fighting stayed in the ring.”
But early in his teenage years, Ale received an offer to play rugby in the high-level Victorian Rugby League, essentially ended his boxing career.
“Rugby in Australia is like the NFL here,” Ale said. “I was an ‘eight man’, which lines up in the back of the scrum, and is kind of like a fullback.”
Ale’s youth team was ranked as high as No. 3 in the country before he got life-changing news of a move to the United States.
Ale’s father was recommended by his former principal at Kanana Fou Theological Seminary in Samoa for a head pastoral position at Tacoma First Congregational Church on Portland Avenue. He accepted the job, and the family moved to the area in December of 2014.
“I thought we were moving near the White House,” Ale said.
As a ninth grader at Columbia Junior High School in Fife, Ale got to throw discus with the varsity high school boys track and field team.
That is where he met Nevin, who persuaded Ale to give football a look during the summer.
And since Nevin played rugby at Central Washington University, he could best help with the transition — especially with football’s rules.
“You know, he was flagged a few times in his first season,” Nevin said. “But he started picking it up.”
One of his penalties came at White River High School. After sacking the quarterback, he slowly walked over him — unintentionally — to get back to the defensive huddle. He was given a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.
“We told the officials he was raw, and fresh from Australia — and that he was a good kid,” Nevin said.
Helping Ale further develop in football was Monike Failauga, a former Fife standout who went on to play at Eastern Washington University before suffering a career-ending injury.
“He has stayed out (after workouts) and helped me,” Ale said. “I have also watched a lot of football on YouTube. My cousins have also tried to explain it to me. It has been hard to get rid of my rugby mentality.
“I feel more like a football player than I did last year.”
Ale will bounce around between nose guard and defensive tackle, and will be a fixture at right tackle on the offensive line.
“He is picking up (football) real fast, so it should be nothing new to him now,” Jennings said about his teammate.
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442
2A SPSL — MOUNTAIN DIVISION PRIMER
On the throne: The only team in the division to make the state playoffs in 2015, Franklin Pierce should be even better this fall.
Change is good: White River hired a proven winner in coach Jeff Zenisek, who shouldn’t take long getting Hornets back on track.
By the numbers: Franklin Pierce star Willie Patterson threw for 3,115 yards, and ran for 720 as 2A SPSL player of year in 2015.
Projected finish: Franklin Pierce (6-5 in 2015), Fife (7-3), Lindbergh (7-4), Washington (4-5), Foster (4-6), Foss (0-10), White River (1-9), Evergreen (0-9).
Mark the date: Sept. 30, Franklin Pierce at Fife, 7 p.m.
2A SPSL — SOUND DIVISION PRIMER
On the throne: A combination of talent and returning experience gives River Ridge, last year’s undefeated 2A SPSL champion, an early edge.
Change is good: Eatonville graduated Jacob McCormick, then gained Tristan Graf, a hard-throwing transfer from Puyallup.
By the numbers: Steilacoom returns its top passer (Anthony Leiato, 1,640 yards), rusher (Anthony Garcia, 817 yards) and receiver (Marques Hampton Jr., 1,102 yards).
Projected finish: River Ridge (10-1 in 2015), Steilacoom (5-6), Eatonville (6-5), Orting (6-4), Renton (4-6), Clover Park (0-9), Highline (1-9).
Mark the date: Sept. 9, Steilacoom at River Ridge, 7 p.m., at South Sound Stadium