ESPN 300 defensive lineman Nifae Lealao committed to Stanford last October, but when former Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason took the head coach job at Vanderbilt after the season, Lealao followed him to the SEC and signed with the Commodores. He instantly became Mason’s top signee for 2014.
We caught up with the Sacramento, Calif., native to talk about his decision, his future coach and his budding music career.
Q: I have to ask. You’re a California guy. How’d you end up at Vanderbilt?
Lealao: After my official [visits] with Stanford and then Cal, signing day was coming up, and I still had three visits left. I kind of had already picked them out, but right after that coaching change, something was telling me that maybe I should go and check out Vandy, just to see what’s out there. I had never been to Tennessee. It turned out to be a really good fit for me, other than the distance. That’s the only thing that made me reluctant about it, but everything else was perfect.
Q: What stood about Vanderbilt and the city of Nashville on your trip?
Lealao: I just think that with the school being a few blocks away from downtown Nashville -- the influence of not just music but that the network and business have on that school -- plus the academics and then you add on a premier football team, it’s like you’ve got all these presents on Christmas. It’s one of those things where every day is a surprise. You don’t know what you’re going to get from anyone who goes there. Everybody has something to bring to the table. It’s basically like a pot luck, the pot luck of opportunity.
Q: What made you want to follow Coach Mason?
Lealao: What I see in Coach Mason is that he’s a mentor that will put you in the right spot and the right spot to succeed. Looking at Stanford even before the commitment, it was one of my favorite schools. I looked into their defense and how Coach Mason was doing, and there’s really nothing better you can get from him. The last two years, his defensive stats have been off the charts. They were ranked in the top 10 in every category -- sacks, rushing defense, rushing the passer, blocks, blocked kicks and all that kind of stuff. To me, I’m looking at ‘OK, where would I fit in?’ I talked to him about it, and he said I’d either be a rushing end or one of the two defensive tackles in the middle. It was one of those things where either way I know I’ll be put in the right position for me to continue to grow and succeed as a player and as a person, too. He is a guy who does care about you. I just thought that was the perfect package for me.
Q: I hear you’re a pretty good singer. Is that true?
Lealao: I’m not bad. It’s just one of those things that I keep in my back pocket and when the time comes, I just belt it out and let it go. One of the best things is that it just surprises everybody. When I went on my official to Vandy, me and the other recruits were just hanging out in the hotel, in the ballroom. I just remember I started rapping and everybody was looking at my Instagram, and they were like, ‘Oh, you sing, too?’ So I sang for them and Coach Mason was there. I would consider myself a good singer. I do plan on double majoring in music and vocal performance and then business and entrepreneurship, so I consider myself good enough to keep pursuing it and wanting to get better.
Q: You are moving to the Music City? Is there an opportunity for you there?
Lealao: It will help with the whole networking process and aspiring to become a musician or vocalist. I have good ties with The Katinas, and they live out of Nashville. There's just a lot of good networks out there for me if I want to pursue something like that. And the Blair School of Music is actually really good. I want to really use all of my talents and gifts from God to pursue my career not only as a football player, but as a businessman and as a musician and as a singer. I just want to do everything I can to put it all out there because you only get to live your life once, so I want to do the best I can.