Playing college ball 'a blessing,' says big defensive tackle
EUGENE - Rickson Centennial Heimuli just doesn't talk the talk. Ricky walks the walk.
The mammoth Oregon defensive tackle grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - Mormon - and he believes in the religion to the bottom of his heart. But when the time arrived for Heimuli to go on his Mormon mission, a decision he had to make after the Ducks' appearance in January's BCS championship game, Heimuli opted not to go.
It was a difficult decision, considering a mission is like a rite of passage for a young Mormon man. Heimuli's decision came down to family.
With his monthly scholarship stipend of about $1,000, Heimuli takes half and uses it on bills. The other half goes to his family back home in Glendale, Utah, outside of Salt Lake City.
And, at the beginning of each term, the 20-year-old Heimuli receives a Pell Grant for $1,850, he says. All of it goes to his family.
'They constantly live paycheck to paycheck,' says Heimuli, of his mother, who works for the Mormon church, and his father, who is retired. Heimuli also has five siblings.
'I just feel like this is a true blessing,' he adds, of playing on scholarship at Oregon, 'not only for me but my family. This is the least I could do for now to give back to them for all they've done for me, and the love and support.'
Big things are expected of the 6-4, 320-pound Heimuli entering his second season with the Ducks, who open camp on Monday. He has been compared to former Duck Haloti Ngata, another Tongan Mormon from Salt Lake City who stars for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. If things go right, Heimuli could be playing in the NFL as well in two or three years.
Heimuli rotated into all 13 games last season as a true freshman and feels more ready to compete after a full offseason of workouts.
'A year ago, it was hard to keep up with these guys,' he says. 'I didn't know it was this fast.'
Heimuli is one of many Polynesian players on the team, and he'll probably line up with Hawaiian Wade Keliikipi. Whereas he and Keliikipi have developed a friendship, Heimuli says he has become closest with fellow Mormon/Tongan Hamani Stevens, a center who recently returned from his Mormon mission.
'Hamani is a genuine guy,' Heimuli says. 'I heard stories about his previous year here, and his Mormon mission changed him. I have two siblings who have been on their mission, and two who are currently on their mission. It makes a huge difference; you can tell a mission changes somebody for the better.'
Heimuli has been compared to Ngata, in playing style and background. Heimuli's parents came from Tonga, and Tongan culture was clearly evident in the Heimuli household, from everything to language to food - 'this may sound weird, but one main Tongan dish is horse,' he says. 'I love it.'
Heimuli and Ngata are acquaintances. Heimuli has heard stories about how Ngata lost his father to a truck accident in 2002 and his mother to a kidney ailment in 2006. 'I don't know how he made it through,' Heimuli says. 'Obviously, he's doing really well.'