D.J. Uiagalelei’s preparation for the pressure of leading Clemson football began long ago

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Big Dave Uiagalelei is holding court. It’s what he does: regale bystanders with the story of his life, whether prompted or not. There’s a charm to it. That story is almost bigger than life and certainly deflects the light shining on his son, Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei.

“I was 350 pounds, doing 360[-degree] dunks,” Big Dave said of his college days. “I was shattering backboards.”

Every bit of those 350 pounds still seem to be there. The 360 dunks … are not. There’s no shame to that. If Big Dave was the biggest physical presence at The Quarterback Retreat last weekend, D.J. was the biggest football presence.

It goes beyond the quarterback’s dimensions — 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. That size was exaggerated in a camp populated with high schoolers and other top college quarterbacks who simply aren’t as big physically. But they all gravitated toward the sophomore, now a Heisman Trophy candidate set to replace a Heisman finalist in Trevor Lawrence.

“My worries for kids nowadays is all this hype stuff,” Big Dave interjected. “I know for a fact some of these kids can’t handle it. When they get an offer, they think they’ve made it already. … Every offer D.J. got, I’d say, ‘Thank you, let’s go back to training like we ain’t got no offers.’ When he got offered at USC, all he thought about was, ‘I’m hungry.'”

Not hungry for competition at that point. D.J. wanted some grub. While his dad cried tears of joy over the Trojans offer, D.J. got his meal.

Whatever happens this season and beyond, Big Dave will try to keep things small with his son. There’s enough of that hype surrounding D.J., Clemson and a dynasty that shows no signs of slowing down.

Big Dave is already enough of a story himself. His former job as a bodyguard to the stars in Southern California has filled column inches. Those days are mostly over. These days, nothing seems to faze the quarterback while his father continues to create his own atmosphere.

D.J. was borderline spectacular in his own way as a freshman when he started two games in place of Lawrence, who had contracted COVID-19. Meanwhile, Big Dave was so visible on social media that his own son blocked him on Twitter.

“Sometimes he can be over the top,” D.J. told reporters last year.

But sometimes a parent’s pride cannot be restrained.

Those two starts by D.J. in 2020 were tantalizing. Against Boston College, he led the Tigers to their biggest comeback in Memorial Stadium history, a 34-28 win. Uiagalelei got two days’ notice after Lawrence was ruled out. Against Notre Dame the next week, Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and two touchdowns in a double-overtime loss. If those two starts were projected out over a full season, he would have thrown for almost 4,700 yards and 24 touchdowns.   

There is a hint to his game that insinuates Uiagalelei could be better than Lawrence. Uiagalelei’s arm is just as strong. Lawrence was sneaky fast as a runner, but Uiagalelei seems more powerful. There are, of course, miles to go in his development. And it will occur in a pressure cooker as Clemson will come into the season likely ranked No. 1 or No. 2.

“It sucks how I came in because Trevor got COVID,” Uiagalelei said, “but it was a true blessing to get in there and be able to get my feet wet.”

As for being the starter, the world is about to change around him in more than one way. Uiagalelei is more than aware of the opportunities that name, image and likeness legislation will bring. Someday soon, he could be the highest paid player on the Tigers by a wide margin.

“If it goes through, I’m trying to get on it and make some money,” he said. “It’s free money. … As long as you don’t make that your main priority, you’ve got a lot of distractions. Shoot, college is hard enough. You gotta deal with school, football, you have a girlfriend — a lot of distractions. As long as you have a plan, it’s just another thing.”

Uiagalelei has seen those distractions first hand.

“Trevor, I don’t know how he does it,” he said. “He has to deal with a lot. He can’t even go outside at Clemson. He can’t go downtown. You wouldn’t think that a starting quarterback at a school wouldn’t be able to leave his house. I can go out. You get recognized, but Trevor, he would just get mobbed.”

Uiagalelei represents a wave of college signal callers from the West Coast who are taking over the game. According to Athlon Magazine, 27 of the 65 projected quarterback starters at Power Five schools (41%) are from the western United States.

If only they would stay in there to play. Clemson (Uiagalelei), Alabama (Bryce Young) and Ohio State (C.J. Stroud) each have starters who grew up within 60 miles of each other in Southern California. The three traveled a combined 6,000 miles, though, to go East and play for arguably the top three programs in the country.

“Me and D.J. lived down the street from each other growing up,” said Stroud, a four-star prospect from Rancho Cucamonga who is entering his sophomore season. “It’s kind of crazy. I think we’re [some of] the best in the country.”

Stroud said he felt “disrespected” not getting an offer from USC and UCLA until late in the process, admitting that Young and Uiagalelei were higher-rated prospects.

“We’ve all known each other. Bryce is a baller,” Uiagalelei said. “I thought [Alabama] should have started Bryce last year. I’m just biased.”

And ready for the next step.

To put the offseason snapshot in perspective, D.J.’s dad reached into his archives for one more, previously untold, story. In 2007, about the time D.J. was six- or seven-years-old, Big Dave was in a multi-car accident; he fractured his pelvis and left hip.

“I couldn’t feel anything from the waist down. I ended up in the back seat,” he said. “You know how you open the door, you roll yourself on the ground? … I’m just waiting on a car to come down my lane and just kill me. The first thing I prayed for, I just wanted to see my kids grow old.”

D.J. is aware of the story, having heard it several times. So has his brother, Matayo, who has been offered by Clemson, Alabama, Colorado, Arizona and Boise State. That night, Big Dave was driving back from an awards show after working as a bodyguard for Nick Cannon.

Laying there in the middle of the 605 freeway in Los Angeles, he looked up to see a semi truck bearing down on him. A woman activated the flashlight feature on her cell phone to warn the truck. That not only saved Big Dave but ended the chain-reaction accident.

“The semi truck saw the light, thank God,” Big Dave said. “He pulls over so all the lights on the truck people can see.”

Big Dave was in the hospital for 2 ½ months, bedridden for eight more. He lost 120 pounds. There was a thought to sue someone, anyone.

“When the Lord came to me, I thought about [someone’s] kids living in a home. What the hell? I didn’t want to rip them away from their house,” Big Dave said. “Did my bills get paid? Yes. That’s it. I don’t want anything else. The lawyer said, ‘Are you sure?'”

Big Dave was sure. All he had to do with glance toward his Pied Piper of a son leading drills.

“Amazing kid,” the proud dad said. “I feel like I’m blessed to have that kid.” 

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