Detroit Lions' Penei Sewell: 'You live this life once and I’m going to make it count'

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Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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It isn’t hard for Penei Sewell to remember why he’s playing football. He just has to look at the watch his father gave him for Christmas.

The Oregon offensive lineman has come a long way from growing up on the tiny, impoverished island of American Samoa to becoming the Detroit Lions' seventh overall pick in the NFL draft.

Sewell grew up in a modest home he called a shack and sometimes slept on the floor. American Samoa has a population of about 55,000 and has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates.

“So my dad has given us all my siblings and I a gift, and it was a watch,” Sewell said Saturday during his introductory news conference. “And the case inside had a picture of our home, saying ultimately that in this life that we have this time, and time shared with family is most important.

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“And that right there, I remember when he gave it to me, I was a little emotional. And I looked at that image and that watch every single day. And that reminds me of where I came from. That reminds me of why I do this. That reminds me of everything that it took to get here. And that helps me motivate myself each and every day, gets me out of bed. To look at mom and dad in the eyes and to see where we were, man, again it’s a different motivation.”

It’s such a rags-to-riches story that while Sewell and his family were out to dinner with the Lions on Friday night, his mother, Arlene, had to ask Lions security chief Elton Moore to pinch her.

“It’s crazy where we’re at,” Sewell said, “and to walk the path that we’re walking right now, man, it’s unbelievable, and I’m soaking it all up every second.

“I’m not wasting a thing here. I’m trying to see everything, I’m trying to meet everyone. I just really want to be a sponge and soak it all in because again you live this life once and I’m going to make it count.”

Likewise, the Lions are counting on Sewell in a big way. The draft’s consensus top offensive lineman is expected to start at right tackle. He’ll be one of three former first-round picks on an offensive line that will be counted on as a major strength.

[ Check out highlights of Lions' 1st-round pick in 2021 NFL draft ]

“It’s not every day you can find an athlete that is his size and has his temperament,” coach Dan Campbell said of the 6-foot-5, 330-pound tackle. “All right, this is a tough dude that knows how to play nasty, and he can protect the quarterback. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re trying to build a foundation on the O-line.

“He’s going to fit like a glove. I said it before with those guys that are up there right now that we already have in the building. He’ll go hand-in-hand with them, and he’ll adapt quickly.”

Even though Sewell is young — he doesn’t turn 21 until October — he might not have a problem adjusting to NFL competition since he has been playing with older kids since started football at age 10.

“And there was some big 13- and 14-year-olds on the island back then,” he said. “So I remember practice going against all them big boys. It wasn’t really fun. Kind of didn’t like the sport for a minute, just because I was getting picked on by all them. I was really small getting picked up at the time.”

Sewell should have a knowledgeable ally during his NFL journey in Lions offensive line coach Hank Fraley, who recruited him as a UCLA assistant and attended one of his high school games.

Penei Sewell was the second-youngest player in the 2021 NFL draft.
Penei Sewell was the second-youngest player in the 2021 NFL draft.

“He was one of very few coaches who actually came out to St. George, Utah, to watch a high school game,” Sewell said. “And I remember the game I was playing in, it was against Pine View at Pine View. So to see him there meant something and I knew he was different because he was one of the only few who did that. He could only stay till halftime, but we had a conversation before that.”

Sewell was the 2019 Outland Trophy winner, as the nation’s top offensive lineman, but opted out of the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said it was an especially wrenching decision since his younger brother Noah was a freshman linebacker with the Ducks.

But Sewell made himself a promise while he watched his teammates compete without him.

“When I was watching everybody,” he said, “I wrote down in my notes that the next time I get to step in the field of play that I’m going to make the most of it, and that everybody will feel my passion and my heart the next time I step in between those lines.

“Because man it was hard to see — especially little bro out there and for me to not really go out there and share that moment with him — it was difficult. So I wrote down in my notes that, man, I’m sitting out for a reason, I’m going out with a purpose and I’m going to make the most of it the next time I get my chance.”

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions' Penei Sewell on NFL dream: I’m going to make it count