Larger-than-life Faalele making an impact at Minnesota

Minnesota offensive lineman Daniel Faalele (78) celebrates a victory. Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - He's impossible to miss.

At 6-foot-9, 400 pounds, Minnesota offensive lineman Daniel Faalele is a mountain of a young man, who has lived his entire life as a larger-than-life figure.

Whether he was an oversized rugby player in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, a teenager on a football field for the first time at the IMG Academy in Florida or a young offensive lineman this season for the Golden Gophers, he's always stood out.

Yet, his rapid transformation on the gridiron is what has made him a more visible athlete in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A few years after playing football for the first time, Faalele was named an honorable mention on the media's all-Big Ten squad this season.

"I'm extremely excited that we're going to a bowl game," Faalele told ESPN. "I can't wait. I think coach Fleck rallied us together. We all depended on each other."

With Faalele at right tackle, the Gophers rushed for 201 yards in a win over the Wisconsin Badgers, regaining The Paul Bunyan Axe from their rivals for the first time in 15 years.

When the team returned to its facility in Minneapolis, hundreds of fans were waiting for them.

"I didn't really understand how big of a rivalry it was until we won the game and everyone was just going crazy," Faalele said.

"We came back here and there were a bunch of people in the indoor facility. It was really exciting for me because I'd never been a part of a big win like that."

He's expected to play a key role for Minnesota in Wednesday's Quick Lane Bowl matchup against Georgia Tech at Ford Field in Detroit.

Faalele, who has started at left tackle for the last seven games of the regular season, has become a key member of a Minnesota team that's made progress under second-year coach P.J. Fleck.

"Yeah, it shocks me but I'm just out here living, day to day, trying to learn as much as I can from the coaches and my fellow teammates. It's just been a really easy process to get a hold of the concept of playing football.

He played basketball and rugby before the coaching staff at the University of Hawaii found him on a scouting trip to Australia and asked him about his interest in football, a sport he had never played. After attending a Jim Harbaugh satellite camp, he became a target for multiple Division I schools.

From there, Faalele transferred to IMG Academy, a football powerhouse in Bradenton, Florida. But he didn't play his first season, choosing to learn about the American game before competing in real contests.

Without much knowledge of the rules, Faalele just tried to make an impact during his early practices at IMG Academy.

"Just not understanding the rules," Faalele said. "I didn't know what a first down was or anything. I didn't know the positions or what roles they played. That was surprising."

But he learned, both with practice and video-game sessions with friends.

After practices, he'd return to his dorm and battle teammates in "Madden" on Playstation 4.

That's not abnormal for a teenager. But Faalele said the video games helped him decipher the rules and schemes of the sport he'd traveled 9.607 miles to play.

"It was a combination of watching film and playing Madden as well with teammates at IMG, which helped me a lot," he said.

"Just being around football helped me understand it more. I had no idea how to play and I just started to learn. From there, I started catching onto the rules and what different roles are on the team."

He improved and grew into an intriguing prospect that received multiple offers. But he felt most comfortable with Minnesota and its staff, he said. "I love that Coach Fleck cares about more than just playing football," he said. "I really thought I could make an impact here and hopefully help him build a winning culture. My mom really likes Minnesota. It reminds her of back home."

He misses elements of home.

Wednesday's high temperature in Australia is 78 degrees. In Minnesota, residents are preparing for a weather system that could bring snow and ice along with single-digit weather.

"They give us a lot of gear to stay warm and it's like we're practicing outside now that we have this nice facility," he said.

He also misses his family in Australia.

But his mother moved from Australia to Minnesota this season. And they both enjoy their new home.

Faalele said he hopes to one day mature into an NFL prospect who can make a living at the next level. If not, he's content with earning a degree and helping Minnesota grow as a program.

"When I leave here, I want to leave a legacy of a winning culture and I want to bring Minnesota back to what it was before," he said.

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