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Meet Brandon Pili, USC’s first football student-athlete from Alaska

He gladly traded shoveling snow for football practices at dawn, but he still daydreams about camping, fishing and his mom’s deep-dish chocolate chip cookies

Brandon Pili USC
Brandon Pili, right, is known by his teammates as the Polar Bear, a nod to his home state of Alaska. (USC Photo/John McGillen)

Alaska isn’t known for being a hotbed of football talent, but USC knew it found a winner in Brandon Pili. The 6-foot-4, 325-pound defensive lineman exuded raw talent as a high school star in football, track and wrestling. He’s made headlines as the first Trojan football player from the state known as The Last Frontier, earning an All-Pac-12 honorable mention as a freshman last season.

Pili sat down with USC News to talk about the transition to sunny Southern California, what he misses most about home and what it means to represent Alaska as a USC Trojan.

What’s it like to be the first Alaskan football player at USC?

It’s a big step for all Alaskan athletes. It’s definitely a big step for me and my family. I’m the first one in my immediate family to go to a Division 1 college out of Alaska. There was definitely a lot of pressure, but it paid off.

Did you face high expectations growing up?

Brandon Pili Alaska photo

Pili gained attention as a star football player in high school. (Photo/Courtesy of Brandon Pili)

There were always eyes on me. I was pretty good in all the sports I played, and a lot of people looked up to me, even if I didn’t know it at the time. People looked to me as an example. I just went out and did my thing, what I practiced and trained to do. The pressure made me want to get even better and set the best example I could possibly set.

What was it like moving to California?

It’s definitely a big lifestyle change. The weather is obviously different. People are different. I feel like in Alaska, they are more friendly and outdoorsy. Here, people kind of keep to themselves.

How did your life change overnight?

My whole life changed. I had to break bad habits. I had to make all new friends, meet a new coaching staff, go to a new school. But I adapt quickly and learn fast, so I picked it up pretty quickly — the lifestyle here and what was expected of me.

What bad habits did you have to break?

Not being punctual. I can’t sleep in anymore. I get up every morning at 5.

How do you stay connected to your heritage and home?

Brandon Pili family photo

Pili’s family came from Alaska to support him at the season opener. (Photo/Courtesy of Brandon Pili)

I talk to my family, and they all come to my games or text me before games with support. Sometimes my aunties and uncles come. My parents have only been to one game [the season opener against University of Nevada, Las Vegas]. My whole family came down for that game, so it was great spending time with them.

What do you miss the most about home?

I miss summers in Alaska — fishing, camping, barbecuing with the family, just good times. I definitely miss my siblings. I have three younger brothers and four younger sisters, and they are all into sports. Football, basketball, wrestling, volleyball, track and field. They are all freak athletes.

Is there any food from home you can’t get here?

Fresh Alaskan salmon. You can definitely tell the difference. It’s just more rich and juicy and fresh. We’d go fishing and just grill it up right there.

What’s your favorite USC food spot?

Ono Hawaiian BBQ [on Figueroa Street]. I get the chicken katsu or kalua pig.

Brandon Pili Alaska photo

Although he appreciates Southern California’s warm weather, Pili misses fishing and camping in Alaska. (Photo/Courtesy of Brandon Pili)

How about your favorite meal in Alaska?

The pepper steak at this restaurant just outside of Anchorage called Double Musky.

Do you have any mementos from home you keep with you?

I’ve got my ukulele. My older cousins always had one around, so I started playing and learning island songs.

Can you describe your family’s ethnic background?

My dad is full Samoan. My mom is three-quarters white and a quarter Alaska Native. My dad lived in Hawaii until around eighth or ninth grade. Then he moved to Alaska, to Anchorage, with his dad. After his dad passed away, he moved up to Barrow because there was a lot more money to make there. He’s a heavy equipment operator. He met my mom up there in Barrow. She’s an accountant. I grew up there for about nine years, then we moved to Anchorage.

Where is your favorite place to be in Alaska?

Brandon Pili Alaska photo

Camping and four-wheeling are regular Pili family activities. (Photo/Courtesy of Brandon Pili)

Camping about an hour and a half out of Anchorage at a place called Sutton. It’s a cool spot — it has a lake and big open area for four-wheelers. That’s what we do when we go camping.

What do you miss the least?

The cold and mosquitoes. I pretty much wore the same stuff I do here — shorts and slides. I guess I just got used to the cold. At least we didn’t practice outside when there was snow.

What was the hardest part about growing up in a climate like that?

Shoveling the driveway and the porch. I just don’t like the cold.

Do you have any nicknames here at USC?

They call me the Polar Bear.

What’s something people might find surprising about you?

I’m pretty athletic, so I can dunk, I can do a back handspring.

Do you have more room to yourself here or at home?

I probably have more room here. I share an apartment with my roommate, [sophomore linebacker] Juliano Falaniko. At home, we usually shared bedrooms, but later on I got my own room downstairs.

How have you changed since coming to L.A.?

I think I’ve matured a lot, being on my own and not having my parents there to push me. They still push me from home, but they aren’t here to keep an eye on me all the time. I think I’ve gotten more responsible and just grown up.

What’s your biggest fear?

Brandon Pili Alaska photo

Pili is the oldest of eight siblings. (Photo/Courtesy of Brandon Pili)

This is kind of deep and personal, but letting my family down. I’m the oldest, and there are lots of expectations. It’s challenging at times to set a great example for my little brothers and sisters, my younger cousins. But as much as it is a fear, it’s also a motivation.

What is one of your guilty pleasures?

I love my mom’s cookies. She makes chocolate chip cookies in a cupcake pan. She puts the little ball of dough in there and it grows and ends up looking like a hockey puck. They are thicker and softer than regular cookies.

What advice do you have for students living far away from their families for the first time?

You can get involved in clubs if that’s what you’re into. Or you could just go sit outside, like at USC Village, and make conversation with somebody. Just jump right in. Learn how things operate here and you’ll be just fine.

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Meet Brandon Pili, USC’s first football student-athlete from Alaska

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