Lions draft pick Penei Sewell never will forget his humble beginnings

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.

Lions draft OL Penei Sewell with 7th-overall pick

Prior to the NFL draft, new Lions GM Brad Holmes said he wanted players who loved the game of football.

Well he’s one-of-one so far after drafting offensive lineman Penei Sewell (Oregon) with the seventh overall pick on Thursday night.

“It’s a way of life for me, not  just a game,’’ Sewell said on a Zoom call shortly after his name was called.

The 20-year-old said the Lions didn’t show too much interest in him until later in the process and then they wanted to get to know him as a person.

He was visibly excited and ready to get to work.

“The fit is awesome, the way coach (Dan) Campbell  kind of approaches the game is the way I like to come – real physical each and every day, get better that way,’’ said Sewell who started 20 of the 21 games he played for the Ducks. He opted out of the 2020 season.

He’s familiar with some of the offensive lineme including Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow and Tyrell Crosby who was at Oregon during his time there.

“To be a part of that room and to be able to join them is a blessing,’’ Sewell said. That’s a lot of knowledge and a lot of years in that room, coming in I’m going to soak it all up and be a sponge.’’

When the Lions made the pick, a TV camera picked up the celebration in the Lions war room at Allen Park. You saw plenty of hugging and jumping around in the Lions war room with Holmes, Campbell, owner Sheila Ford Hamp and others.

Sewell, who grew up in American Samoa, started his first game at Oregon when he was just 17 years old. His young age could be a factor moving forward when he’ll be negotiating his second contract when he’s just 23.

“To be honest I haven’t even started yet, that’s how I feel there’s a lot to  do, there’s a lot to be done and the sky’s the limit,’’ Sewell said. “I’m ready to tap into the potential and ready to go to work to fulfill the dream.’’

At 6-foot-5 and 331 pounds, he also made a little history. According to this NFL draft profile, the last time a 20-year old offensive lineman was drafted in the top 10 was Tyron Smith in 2011. Needless to say, that worked out for the Dallas Cowboys. Sewell is not Smith. He’s much thicker, yet somehow is able to move just as quickly.

Plenty of speculation had him going to Cincinnati with the fifth overall pick, but the Bengals chose WR Ja’Marr Chase.

The Lions have five more picks in the next two days, starting at 7 p.m. on Friday.

Round 2: No. 41

Round 3: No. 72

Round 3: No. 101 (from Rams)

Round 4: No. 112

Round 5: No. 153

Detroit Lions draft: Five things to know

With the Lions in full rebuild, re-stocking mode, the NFL draft could not possibly be more important.

Is it a bigger deal than in recent history? Quite possibly.

It will be the first major test GM Brad Holmes and his staff including Chris Spielman. Don’t forget Holmes was the director of college scouting for the Rams before Detroit hired him, so this is not all foreign territory.

Unlike a year ago, when GM Bob Quinn and his staff each worked from their houses due to the pandemic, Holmes will have company with up to 10 people in the war room with him. 

With the No. 7 pick, Holmes could have plenty of options. The key to a trade is it takes two teams. This sounds basic, but if he doesn’t move up or down and gets criticized it doesn’t mean he didn’t try.

The Lions have six draft picks overall. 

Round 1: No. 7

Round 2: No. 41

Round 3: No. 72

Round 3: No. 101 (from Rams)

Round 4: No. 112

Round 5: No. 153

The draft opens on Thursday at 8 p.m. Rounds 2 and 3 will take place starting Friday at 7 p.m. The draft for the remaining rounds will start at noon on Saturday.

Five things to know:

1. The Lions desperately need a No. 1 wide receiver but will they take one in the first round? Options include Jaylen Waddle (Alabama) and Ja’Marr Chase (LSU). Detroit has quite a history of making this move. From 2003 to 2007 they used their first-round picks on wide receivers four times. Charles Rogers (2003) was an absolute bust. Calvin Johnson (2007) is a Hall of Famer. Since Johnson, they’ve drafted three tight ends in the first round but no wide receiver. Holmes said he’s well aware of the franchise’s draft history but it should not affect who he picks.

2. Needs abound on both sides of the ball. In a pre-draft press conference Holmes would not say whether he’ll focus on offense or defense in the first round. It doesn’t make sense to limit himself. So don’t be disappointed one way or the other. This team needs work.

3. A quarterback could be a more likely pick in the first round. With Matthew Stafford gone and Jared Goff in his place, the Lions could be looking for a long-term replacement at quarterback. Trey Lance (North Dakota State) is one option. Would Ohio State’s Justin Fields be a reach at No. 7? There’s some debate on that. Quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Zach Wilson (BYU) and Mac Jones (Ohio State) could go 1-2-3. If Holmes loves one of them it could be costly to try to move up.

4. Taylor Decker said this week he’d welcome help on the offensive line. Several mock drafts have Oregon’s Penei Sewell getting drafted by the Lions. From 2012 to 2018 the Lions drafted four starting offensive linemen: Riley Reiff (2012), Laken Tomlinson (2015), Decker (2016) and Frank Ragnow (2018). Only Decker and Ragnow are still with the Lions. Reiff signed with the Bengals and Tomlinson with the 49ers. There is a need. Is Sewell the guy?

5. Holmes could pull a surprise, but don’t expect him to go too far off the charts. He said he’s learned from others that when that pick is called, he must be comfortable with the decision. It’s OK if no one has mocked that person to Detroit, but he sounds like he won’t take a flyer, he’ll be totally at ease that he’s made the right pick. 

PREDICTION: WR Jaylen Waddle, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.