St. George • The little boys, brothers, were basically inseparable. And if you wanted to find them, you could usually just walk from their village in American Samoa toward the sand. That’s where the game would be.
“We were always on the beach playing tackle football,” Gabe Sewell Jr. said, “always trying to show off and get the best of each other.”
If Gabe did something, his little brothers Nephi, Penei and Noah had to try it, too, hoping to one-up big bro. It’s a family tradition that apparently stayed with them, even as they moved from the island to southern Utah. Gabe Jr. was the first to win a state championship. Nephi Sewell went on to lead the Desert Hills Thunder to a title his senior season, but added an MVP trophy on top of that.
“Each son has helped the next one take a step up,” Gabe Sewell Sr. said.
Now comes Penei Sewell, who will be a senior tackle at Desert Hills this fall. He is 16 years old, stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 335 pounds. And he has become one of the most highly sought after recruits to ever come out of the state of Utah.
It is one of those blistering summer evenings in southern Utah, when the sun will set, and the cicadas will buzz, but the heat will not let up, so the ceiling fans are swirling inside the Sewell home when Penei walks into the living room.
“Watch your head!” his mother has to shout, as the blades spin just above the knot of hair atop her hulking son’s scalp.
The biggest boy in a big football family stops and flashes a small smile. He is Utah’s top-rated recruit this year, but he hasn’t hit his ceiling yet.
“I call him a puppy,” Desert Hills coach Carl Franke said. “He can get so much better.”
Penei won’t turn 17 until October. He holds offers from schools all over the country, including Alabama and Michigan, Utah and BYU, USC and Notre Dame. Only recently, however, has the Desert Hills offensive tackle started to feel like he’s worthy of the attention he has received. Against most high schoolers, Penei looks like a bulldozer, flattening defensive ends and driving linebackers 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. But Penei was nervous before the start of The Opening, the prestigious Nike camp held each summer in Oregon, wondering if a lineman from St. George really belonged among the top recruits in the country.
“There was always a slight doubt in my head,” Penei said.
But something clicked during his first drill of the day. He lined up against Ja’mion Franklin, a 6-2 defensive lineman who is committed to Notre Dame, and stopped him cold.
“Right after that, I went off,” Penei said.
One day last week, coach Carl Franke checked his mailbox at Desert Hills. It was full, and there was a note telling him to come to the front office. There, another stack of recruiting material was waiting.
“I think he could knock on any coach’s door in the country and get in,” Franke said. “He’s a special player. You don’t get guys like this very often.”
Penei has lost count himself but, according to 247sports.com, he holds 23 offers in all. There is an entire shelf in the teenagers bedroom filled with recruiting letters from across the country. Penei is a 4-star recruit. He is the 44th best recruit in the country, regardless of position, according to 247sports.com. He is listed as a top-five tackle and a top-three guard nationally. Utah has had success producing some defensive standouts, but Penei is among Utah’s top recruits on the offensive side of the ball. Scout.com’s national director of college football recruiting Brandon Huffman sees a comparison between Penei and former Timpview lineman Xavier Su’a-filo, who went on to become a standout at UCLA and now plays for the Houston Texans.
“There are so many similarities between those two,” Huffman said. “Both guys could play tackle or guards. Xavier was a true freshman All-American and started every game he played. Penei won’t be 18 until he’s starting conference play, but he has a skillset where he could be able to have an impact right away.”
The question then is where will he be next fall. In hopes of answering that, the Sewells have spent much of their summer traveling.
Penei has walked through humid air, groves of trees, historic buildings, and massive stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala, where held audience with Nick Saban. “That was a wow moment,” he said. He became so caught up, in fact, that he nearly missed his flight back home. He has toured the campus in Norman, Okla., with former Sooners linebacker Eric Striker, who just happened to be one of his brother’s favorite players growing up. He has met with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.
Gabe Jr., who plays at Nevada, recently learned of the Selmon brothers, Lucious, Dewey and Lee Roy, who started together for Oklahoma in the 1970s.
“[Let’s] make it happen,” he wrote to Penei.
How likely that is remains to be seen.
“I’d love to have all my brothers come here,” Gabe Jr. said, “but at the end of the day, it’s their decision. I’m not really trying to sway them. But every now and then I’ll give them a little joke about coming.”
Penei as yet to narrow his list down, though he hopes to have winnowed it to just five schools before the start of the football season. From there, he plans to take his five official visits before settling on a school.
“I want to see where I can fit in,” he said.
And because he has yet to attend a day of high school as a senior, the visits have all been “unofficial,” and therefore, have come at an expense to his parents.
“Family is big with Penei,” his mother, Arlene Sewell, said, “and this is going to be his family away from home.”
When he would coach high school football in American Samoa, Sewell Sr.’s sons would set up cones for drills and — to his chagrin — blow whistles during practice, before usually breaking off and forming a game of their own.
“Any time they could be doing something rough, they were doing it,” the father said and chuckled.
Penei, however, was typically the most reserved.
“Early on he was kind of shy. He kind of hid in the back a little bit and just enjoyed the scene,” Gabe Jr. said. “As he got older, he started building that confidence and he’s turned into the beast that he is now.”
Although, sometimes he showed flashes of that in his youth, such as the Penei-sized dent on one of the walls in their old house after a night of practicing their favorite wrestlers’ moves.
“We’d put a mattress up against the wall,” Gabe Jr. said, “and Penei went in too hot.”
The family might have stayed on the island forever. And perhaps Gabriel Jr. would have still grown into a hard-hitting linebacker, Nephi into a dynamic running back, and Penei into an impenetrable lineman, and the youngest, Noah, a budding star of his own, if they had stayed in Samoa. But when their father started to fall ill and experiencing chest pains he couldn’t explain, the family decided to move to the U.S. so he could receive better medical care.
“There’s a joke that when you go to a hospital in Samoa, you might as well go to the morgue,” he said.
In St. George, the father’s health improved with medication and care, and the boys blossomed on the football field.
“To watch one play together, then two and then three, it’s a blessing. It’s surreal,” Sewell said. “I don’t think I ever pictured or imagined it would happen this way, but I don’t think I could have asked or prayed for a better situation.”
The family has stayed close in good times and bad.
They were together as a family when Gabriel Jr. won a state championship and earned a scholarship to play at the University of Nevada. They gathered as a family in the hospital after Nephi broke his neck trying to break up a pass on an August night in 2015.
“Faith was really what kept us together,” Penei’s mother, Arlene Sewell, said. “When they were telling me he had to go for surgery, I just felt a peaceful feeling that it was going to be OK. … I like to say that he coaches football and I try to coach faith.”
That year, Nephi slowly progressed from a hospital bed and a fear that he might never play football again to rehab and a resolve to be back on the field for his senior season.
It was also the year Penei started to come into his own.
“Seeing him get injured kind of changed my whole mindset,” Penei said. “Not every down is guaranteed.”
Penei started to fill out his 6-foot-5 frame. The Sewells’ grocery bill took a hit. They go through loaves and bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly weekly. A gallon of milk only lasts a day. “It’s a lot,” Gabe Sr. said. “When all the boys were here, it was pretty much a 20-pound bag of chicken every time we cooked dinner. But it has helped turn Penei into one of the best lineman in the country, mixing his massive frame with a keen ability to read the game and get his teammates into the right spots.
“He’s the first person I talk to when the offense comes off the field,” Franke said. “Usually it’s the quarterback. I talk to Penei.”
“Most players I’ve coached will know what their assignment is but not what everyone else’s is,” Gabe added. “I even think he’ll tell you what routes the receivers are running.”
And by the time Nephi returned to the field the following year, Penei was ready to help his brother lead the Thunder to state championship.
Nephi has since joined his brother Gabe at the University of Nevada. That is why, despite holding offers from the most prestigious schools in the country, Penei has not yet eliminated the Wolfpack from his list.
“They’ll always be in the picture because of my brothers,” he said.
But he has a chance to play with his younger brother, in high school and beyond. Noah Sewell is a sophomore but already holds offers from Alabama, Utah, Arizona State, Hawaii, Utah State and Nevada. Noah will be playing quarterback this season for the Thunder and when the ball is in his hands, he’ll be well protected on his right.
“I know that’s my strong side,” Noah said.