Lions draft pick Penei Sewell never will forget his humble beginnings

Brad Holmes, Penei Sewell, Dan Campbell

Humble beginnings provide a driving force for many NFL players.

It’s the same for Penei Sewell, the Lions first-round draft pick.

When he first learned how to play football, his family lived on an island called Malaeimi, on the outskirts of Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa in the south Pacific. He was 10 years old, just 10 years ago

He, his mom, dad and three brothers lived in a makeshift one-bedroom shack. It was pink. Sewell seems to look back on that time in his life fondly.

His father never wants him to forget it. So he gave Penei and his other three sons a watch. In the case there’s a photo of that home and words about the importance of family.

“I remember when he gave it to me and I was a little emotional. I look at that image in the watch every single day and that reminds me of where I came from, it reminds me of why I do this, it reminds me of everything it took to get here,’’ Sewell said on Saturday in a media call. “It helps me motivate myself each and every day, it gets me out of bed to look at mom and dad in the eyes and see where we were. again it’s a different motivation, ready to go out there and show.’’

His dad, Gabe, was a high school football coach on the island so he and his brothers would tag along, and hang out on the sidelines.

In 2012, looking for a better future for their sons and amidst health issues for the father, the family moved to St. George, Utah, near Gabe’s sister.

By then the four Sewell brothers had picked up the sport of football and their parents hoped the game could lead to a better life.

Today 20-year-old Penei Sewell is in the NFL. He flew into Detroit with his family on Friday.

“When I came in I thought the NFL was all the same and it’s a business aspect, but I was totally wrong, I came into a family atmosphere, everybody with open arms, greeting me with love,’’ Sewell said. “It put me in shock for a little bit and I was like, ‘OK this is something I would love to be a part of and this is something I dreamed to be a part of, to have people in the room like that.’ It just makes me want to go harder and sacrifice everything for them.’’

There was no question that Sewell, who is 6-foot-5 and 331 pounds, was a Top 10 draft prospect. GM Brad Holmes said he has had his eye on him since 2019. He started at Oregon when he was just 17, he won the Outlander Trophy as best offensive lineman in the country in 2019, then opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID.

Campbell said a Zoom call with Sewell on Tuesday sealed the deal. It was not an Xs and Os session.

“It was outstanding, it was all we needed, it was perfect and we knew this guy was a fit. He was everything that we’re about,’’ Campbell said.

“It’s not everyday you can find an athlete who is his size and has his temperament. This is a tough dude who knows how to play nasty and he can protect the quarterback. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re trying to go build a foundation on the offensive line. He’s going to fit like a glove,’’ the coach added.

Sewell said they were trying to find out the kind of person he is.

“It was real, real genuine talk. Nothing about football, just trying to see my character and how I approach things and how I approach the game of football and so forth,’’ Sewell said. “The conversation was really genuine.”

Sewell has a previous connection to Hank Fraley, the Lions offensive line coach. When Fraley was with UCLA he tried to recruit Sewell. He was the only scout that actually went to one of his high school games and he definitely remembers him.

Holmes said they expect Sewell will start at right tackle, He’ll be the third first-round pick on the line, along with Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow.

“It’s a dream come true, I’m living my dream and I’m walking in a dream right now. It’s crazy,’’ Sewell said. “It’s crazy to see where we’re at and to walk the path we’re walking right now, it’s unbelievable and I’m soaking it all up every second, I’m not wasting a thing here, I’m trying to see everything and meet every one.’’

It’s kind of funny that football wasn’t love at first sight for Sewell when he was 10.

“One of my first memories was when Little League just started up there and I was about 10 years old, the league went up to the age of 13 or 14 and there were some big 13 and 14 year olds on the island back then,’’ Sewell said. “”And they weren’t too friendly. I remember at practice going against all them big boys, it wasn’t fun. I didn’t like the sport for a minute just because I was getting picked on by all of them. Yeah so I was really small and getting picked on. That’s my first memory.’’

Now 10 years later he’s building good football memories. This time it’s unlikely anyone in the NFL will pick on him.


Author: Paula Pasche

Paula Pasche, a veteran sports writer, covers the Detroit Lions for her Lions Lowdown blog. She has written two books, "Game of My Life Detroit Lions" and "100 Things Lions Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" which are available at bookstores and on She won first place for column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists in Detroit (Class B) in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and was The Oakland Press 2010 Staffer of the Year.

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