Dave Topou coached Niua with the East Palo Alto Razorbacks, a local rugby team that Topou started in 2002. Topou watched Niua grow from a "pretty wild kid" to an Olympian.
"Am I surprised where he's at now?" Topou said. "No. He's one of those kids. He's a special talent. You always knew he would be one of those kids that was going to make it out."
Niua, who went to Wooside High, grew up in the impoverished neighborhoods of East Palo Alto and those who knew him say he fell in with the wrong crowd. He resorted to selling drugs as a means for money and was in and out of jail.
There was no question, though, he had potential. Rob Holder coached Niua on the Razorbacks and later wrote a book called "Crossing the 101," which centered on Niua's journey.
"When he came out to practice for the first time, he immediately stood out as a talented, natural rugby player," Holder said. "Great hands, great feet, physical."
But his immaturity was a problem. Topou recalls one instance before a major tournament when Niua was nowhere to be found. Finally, Niua's brother brought him in.
"You could smell alcohol all over his breath," Topou said. "He went partying the night before. There were times when I thought he was not serious or committed to playing rugby. He would miss practices, always say he didn't have a ride."
Moses Herrera, a former teammate and coach, said Niua had few other paths.
"It was tough," he said. "At that time his parents, they just came to America. Everybody was still struggling with how to make it. After high school, (Niua) didn't do anything. All the kids, they sold drugs."
Topou thought of a solution: start a men's rugby club so that players on the high school team, a few of whom went on to college, would have an avenue to turn to rather than get into trouble with the law. He convinced Holder, then the Director of Rugby at Stanford, to help coach.
"We decided to help out and start the men's club to keep guys off the street," Holder said. "Guys stepped up to the challenge and did things on their own. It was little stuff like making sacrifices for your teammates, staying out of trouble rather than going to jail."
It was a decision that benefited many underprivileged youth in the local community, perhaps none more than Niua, whose focus shifted after joining the men's team. Despite being hurt his first year, he was still an active participant in practice, often arriving an hour beforehand to get more work in.
He went from drugs into the landscaping business with his father in the morning before heading to practice from 4 pm until sundown.
And his raw talent burst to the surface. Under the guidance of Feleti Verebula, the Sevens coach on the Razorbacks, Niua blossomed into a standout fly-half, a position in rugby akin to a quarterback in football.
"We put him into a really key role on the team and let him go be himself," Holder said. "Once he got passionate about it, he got committed to the sport."
He added: "(Niua) was just a natural for rugby, an athlete who could just pick stuff up immediately and do it. Some people have to have rep after rep to master a skill. He would just be able to see someone do it once or twice and suddenly he'd be able to do it."
That Niua was ambidextrous, able to use both hands, and willing to learn didn't hurt.
"To coach him is very fun," Topou said. "One thing about Folau is his personality; he was very humble, real coachable. He doesn't stop working. He always busts his butt."
And from then on, there were no more run-ins with the law.
"He told me, 'Coach, this is what's keeping me out of jail,'" Holder said. "It really was. (Rugby) was his thing to keep him out of trouble. It was his motivation to stop doing the things that put him in that place."
In 2009, Niua won the Division II National Championship with the Razorbacks. Two years later, he won a Rugby Super League national championship with San Francisco Golden Gate, and then the national team came calling.
He started as fly-half in his national team debut, and helped the United States win a bronze at the 2011 Pan-American Games, leading the team in scoring. Since then, he has been a staple on the national team, currently fifth all-time in points. Last season, he led the United States in Series appearances.
Today, Niua lives and trains in San Diego. And he's an Olympian, far from his troubled past.
"I'm proud of how far he's come," Topou said. "It's going to be a great example for every kid in East Palo Alto. It tells them, 'You can make it. You can be anything you want to be.'"
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