Fotu T. Leiato II checks Instagram. A friend sent him a message alerting him of activity on Leiato’s online highlight video.
Last Leiato had checked, it had 1,000 views on Hudl. Then the message came later that night.
“He was like, ‘You got 12,000 views, man!’ ” Leiato said. “I was like, ‘ What?’ ”
He checked again in the morning — 39,000 views. That afternoon it was up to 100,000. Leiato’s ferocious blocks and bone-crushing tackles had spread to recruiting circles across the nation.
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Fast forward to today: No highlight tape on the Hudl website has more than the almost 500,000 views Leiato’s has. He started the season considering FCS schools, but now he has offers from Illinois, Michigan State, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, San Diego State, UCLA and Washington State, among others.
The most viral of internet highlight videos doesn’t come from a five-star recruit at a nationally recognized high school. It somehow comes from Steilacoom High School, a Class 2A program that’s never advanced past the second round of the state tournament.
Before the video swept the nation — prompting articles from MaxPreps, Bleacher Report and many high-school recruiting websites — Leiato’s best offer had come from Wyoming.
“I met the coach and he said they liked my junior film,” Leiato said. “But once my midseason highlights came in from my senior year, he offered me right then and there.”
Leiato hadn’t met anyone from Michigan State. But in came a scholarship offer.
One Internet video showed the world what the 2A South Puget Sound League already knew.
“He’s like a sniper,” River Ridge coach Steve Schultz said. “He sits back and sees his prey and he goes in there and takes his prey out.
“I was looking at it because some of my players came up to me and said, ‘Coach, you got to take a look at the hits this guy gets.’ … I want 11 of him on my team because I’d have a guy standing in the end zone all by himself and everybody else would be on the ground.”
* * *
Leiato doesn’t use social media. He has a Twitter account with no tweets. He said he barely uses his Instagram or Facebook. His policy is to steer clear. He doesn’t even have a cellphone.
But Steilacoom coach William Garrow, being one of the four coaches on the Sentinels’ staff under 30 years old, saw great potential in social media, especially in recruiting. So he created a Twitter account (@SteilacoomFB) that all the coaches could have access to.
“Predictably, though, only the younger guys on our coaching staff jumped on board,” Garrow said.
He also helped create a database containing contact information for coaches of every college west of the Mississippi River at every level of college football. He said they have email addresses for three or four coaches from every school.
“When you have a couple of high school coaches working on it together in their spare time, it goes faster than you’d expect,” Garrow said.
From there, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube became even more useful. They linked their accounts so they had a presence at each medium wherever they posted, using it to publicize not only highlight videos, but also classroom achievements and community service work. But they also use it to follow college coaches and send them direct messages.
It actually started in 2013 with former Steilacoom defensive back Josh Lewis. Garrow and the coaching staff knew he could play in college, but Lewis wasn’t getting any “recruiting buzz.” Even after taking him to summer individual camps, no offers.
So the Steilacoom staff pushed his highlight tape, sending it out about midway through the ensuing football season.
“Twitter was how we opened the door for Josh,” Garrow said. “We heard back from a few different college programs, and then Eastern Washington offered him a scholarship.
“They notified us that they wanted to offer him a scholarship via Twitter. Twitter and social media in general became a really powerful tool for us from that point forward.”
* * *
Leiato was a zero-star recruitat the start of the season.
And he didn’t have the money to get to camps where he could get more exposure. But Garrow and the rest of the staff mapped out a summer plan.
But that money problem.
So Garrow arranged for Leiato and his brother, Anthony, to earn their way by doing dirty jobs over the summer — mowing lawns, helping Garrow move into his new house and working in elderly people’s gardens pulling weeds.
“I just wanted to get to camp,” Leiato said.
Leiato went to both the Montana and Montana State camps — where he said he was recognized as one of the best tacklers — and attended the Oregon Nike Football Training Camp in Eugene.
But it wasn’t until the fall that things heated up on the recruiting end.
Garrow created a highlight package of Leiato’s best plays after three games and he emailed and tweeted it to every coach they had in their database. They had also collected some cellphone numbers, so out went text messages, too.
It’s a wonder how recruiting was even possible before.
When Schultz entered River Ridge 12 seasons ago, he had a goal of sending 100 students to college through football. But when he started, he would turn VHS tapes to DVDs, save a stack of them for each kid who was interested in playing college football and create a PDF document that included all their stats and accomplishments.
“It’s so much easier now,” Schultz said. “If a kid wanted to go to a certain school, I would mail the highlight packages out. My spring mailing used to be about $300. It was awful. Now, I save $300. I don’t mail anything. It’s all email and text.”
And now he’s a social media savant, right?
“I don’t use any of that because I’m old,” Schultz joked. “I’m not there yet. But I’ve become a Hudl guru and you have to stay updated. Anyone who is not on Hudl is pretty far behind.
“I would say we are average as far as our social media. But if we don’t get on more starting next year, we are going to be behind.”
* * *
Once Wyoming offered Leiato a scholarship, it started what some coaches call the recruiting flood. That is, once one school offers, it gets others interested. A host of Big Sky schools followed: Idaho, Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, and Weber State.
Washington State contacted the Steilacoom coaches in November with a scholarship offer.
“After the WSU coaches offered a scholarship, we started hearing from a few Pac-12 and Mountain West schools. … A couple of different websites put out articles and included Fotu’s highlight video and it just exploded from there,” Garrow said.
His video went viral, being tweeted, shared and retweeted across the social mediasphere. Leiato provided exactly what people love about highlight tapes: The wow factor.
“I like intensity. A lot,” Leiato said. “One-hundred percent. Full speed. That’s all I know.”
He said he’s probably contributed about 20 views to the highlight’s total. Leiato created the end-of-season version himself.
It wasn’t Leiato’s intention to make plays for the highlight reel. But he said he was eager to add the big ones to his clip after games.
“When I get home, I’m like, ‘Oh, I made a hit. Got to remember that and put it on my highlight,’ ” Leiato said.
His favorite of the highlights is when he was playing quarterback against River Ridge and used a spin move and hurdled a defender to run more than 30 yards downfield, although he still says his first love is on defense.
“I just go out there 100 percent, full speed,” Leiato said. “Whoever gets the ball, I try to get them. Sometimes I’m like, ‘ Ohh, I just did that. I just hit that guy.’
“I knew at the time they were big hits, but I didn’t think a lot of people were going to want to watch them. It was pretty cool to see that.”
But for Garrow and other small schools it proved a theory: Colleges aren’t just looking for recruits at bigger 4A and 3A schools, and it’s possible for talent like Leiato to be found at smaller schools such as Steilacoom.
“There was this belief that somehow the high school you went to was the reason you could play in college,” Garrow said. “In my opinion, that’s garbage. If you have athleticism, the grades and the desire, it doesn’t matter which high school you go to.
“It’s funny because all of this happened to a kid from a small school and he was a zero-star recruit six months ago. Now he’s ranked as a top-10 recruit in the state of Washington and is a three-star linebacker or safety. It’s not a result of him playing any differently. He’s a great football player. He just needed someone to take an opportunity to look closely and see what we saw in him.”
Now? Who hasn’t?