One look at Moe Leota’s 6-foot-1, 265-pound frame and it’s clear: he’s a strong dude.
The senior starting nose guard at Mesa Mountain View can squat more than 500 pounds.
“When we’re done lifting, everybody kind of sits around and watches because he still has more lifts to do with more than anybody else can do,” head football coach Mike Fell said. “He’s the strongest guy by far.”
But the depth of that strength can’t be proven in a weight room and it isn’t visible with the naked eye.
Moe grew up an only child. He is the son of Koli and Fane Leota. His upbringing was a happy one, filled with trips to the park with his dad, home-cooked meals by his mother. His early years were littered with happy memories.
“Too many to count,” he said.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
“I was nine years old when I lost my father,” he said. “He had a heart attack. It was heartbreaking.”
The fourth-grader clung to his mother. Their bond helped him to push on despite the weight of the loss.
“My mom was the only one there,” he said. “She was my rock.”
A few years later, Fane remarried and their family of two grew to seven with four new siblings.
High school came and that’s when Moe found football, something his mother wasn’t too fond of.
“She didn’t like me playing football,” he said with smile.
Fane worried, like many parents do, about the physical nature of the sport. Still, she came to her son’s games anyway.
“Those were the best memories,” Moe said.
But freshman year brought more bad news. Fane was diagnosed with lung cancer and the family began a new battle.
Those years are much harder to recall.
"Waking up every day early in the morning when she throws up,” Moe said. "She could hardly walk. It was one of the tough nightmares I’ve had.”
Last December Fane lost her fight with cancer. She died her home with her son by her side.
“She’ll always be in my heart,” Moe said. “I think about my mom and pops every day.”
Moe turned to his faith and leaned heavily on those around him — his teammates at Mountain View and friends from church. He said the outpour of support was his saving grace.
When spring came around, Moe jumped right back into football.
“It was something to take my mind off,” he said. “That’s why I went back to football.”
And in his third year as a starter for the Toros, the senior is excelling.
“We have two big down tackles — him and Christian (Niu)," Fells said. "Teams that play us know we have two big guys in the middle that are our strongest guys and get after the football. It makes us tough on other teams."
Leota has accumulated 40 total tackles, two sacks and one deflected pass this season. He has dreams of playing college football, but will first embark on a church mission immediately following high school.
He remains optimistic about life in the face of all the pain he has endured thus far and a source of light despite the dark he’s seen.
“One thing my dad always said, ‘Being sad is a waste of a day’,’” Leota said.
Copyright 2016 KPNX