For Sione Palelei, decommitting from LSU was tough — but right

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLAND -- Playing at LSU had long been a dream for East Ascension running back Sione Palelei -- until he visited Oklahoma State in December. He decommitted from LSU and will sign with the Cowboys on Wednesday.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLAND -- Playing at LSU had long been a dream for East Ascension running back Sione Palelei -- until he visited Oklahoma State in December. He decommitted from LSU and will sign with the Cowboys on Wednesday.

Early Friday morning, Sione Palelei dropped by East Ascension coach Paul Bourgeois’ office.

The important topic: Party planning.

That, at least, is how the Spartans coach wants his running back to treat National Signing Day. Surrounded by seniors, friends and family, the three-star running back will sign a faux letter of intent at a ceremony Wednesday.

The real thing will have been shipped out via fax a couple hours earlier. The festivities, from slicing cake to spooning out jambalaya, are really what matter to Bourgeois.

“All that sound good to you?” Bourgeois said.

“Yes, sir,” Palelei said. “Really good.”

One major change: The documents with his signature aren’t heading to LSU. Instead, Oklahoma State secured Palelei’s services, pulling off the rare feat of flipping an in-state prospect after an official visit in early December.

Yet Palelei — whose season ended after five games with a torn ACL and MCL — wasn’t shopping for a new home upon landing in Stillwater, Okla., the week of the Bedlam game between the Cowboys and Oklahoma.

Instead, Palelei, who rushed for 752 yards and two touchdowns on 52 carries, was simply taking full advantage of a process that allows five official visits.

“I really wasn’t thinking about decommitting,” Palelei said. “I didn’t even really think it was a school that would be an option of mine until I went and saw.”

In the realm of recruiting, decisions are twofold: There are winners and losers; you’re either in or you’re out. Diehard fans who follow every move can view a change of heart as a personal act of betrayal.

For Palelei, though, the decision to change loyalty didn’t stem entirely from a playbook, or the prospect of starting or a future NFL paycheck.

On OSU’s campus, he found a genuine family connection in two cousins — Vili Levini and Ofa Hautau — already on the roster at defensive tackle. There was another Polynesian connection, too, in lead recruiter and football operations specialist Beni Tonga.

“Once you realize it’s five years out of your life, it kind of hits you,” Bourgeois said. “When he got up there at another school, he found out family and friends were involved and being part of the team was going easier. There were people there he could rely on.”

Since moving to Gonzales in the eighth grade, Palelei eyed LSU.

In high school, he hit every recruiting function, took unofficial visits to every home game and showed up to every camp offered by the program.

In July, ripping off a sub-4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash, plus his excellent pass-catching skills — a trait coveted by offensive coordinator Cam Cameron — netted him an offer.

Palelei pounced, committing the same day.

“I didn’t really think about it,” he said. “I didn’t look at a roster. I didn’t know who else had committed. Who was staying? Who might be leaving? I didn’t look at that until the future.”

For Bourgeois, who openly admits his LSU fandom, there’s an extra amount of pressure when a Louisiana kid stays home. And it gets magnified when LSU sticks by its scholarship offer after a major injury such as Palelei’s.

Still, the veteran coach takes a neutral stance in advising his players about college options. Call him late at night? Sure. Drop by for a lunchtime bull session? Go ahead.

If they need advice about arranging visits or camps, chances are, Bourgeois can be handy.

But when a kid asks for his opinion on where he should go, Bourgeois bites his tongue.

“There’s no way I could I think about guiding a guy the wrong way,” Bourgeois said. “All I want to do is let them talk.”

That meant it fell to Palelei to reconcile his bond to LSU with his comfort at Oklahoma State.

Naturally, Palelei felt more than a tinge of worry when an epiphany struck as he watched OSU’s offense on film roughly a week after his visit.

“If I do what I chose to do, it could be something great for me and benefit my future,” Palelei said. “While I’m here, how are the (LSU) fans going to treat me?”

The best way to break the news of his decisions to hand back LSU’s offer was easy for Palelei.

He had to do it in person, to Cameron and running backs coach Frank Wilson.

It only seemed right after all the work they put into wooing him.

“It was good, how he did handle it,” Bourgeois said. “I respect him having to go through the heartache of telling LSU. He told the truth. He made a decision from his heart.”

That decision came from the experience Palelei gained.

“No matter what school it is, always keep your options open,” Palelei said. “It’s your decision, and you don’t know if a school may be the one.”