This story was first published on Wednesday August 9
Pita Taumoepenu isn't quite a household name in the US yet but he’s already living the dream.
Born in Texas, the 23-year-old’s single mother had little time outside work, which forced him to spend the first 17 years of his life with his grandparents in Tonga.
Taumoepenu says life in the Pacific was important though.
"My mum also wanted me to grow up in all the culture and know my family and know who I am as a man."
Taumoepenu grew up working on a farm in the tiny village of Pea, where he was friends with former All Black Malakai Fekitoa, and spent his days harvesting taro and watermelon.
His late grandfather always said he would one day go back to the US and become a big sports star – something Taumoepenu struggled to understand.
"I didn't get it at the time," he said.
"I laughed and I'd look at him and I was like, 'what are you talking about?'"
He went from a 17-year-old with no English or football skills to a star linebacker for the University of Utah.
Then last April, he was drafted by five-time Super Bowl champions the San Francisco 49ers.
"I'm just super grateful," he told 1 NEWS' Matt Manukia.
"It's crazy how life changes when you just stay consistent and keep believing."
His speed, agility and aggression are his strengths. Last year he earned almost $1 million in the first year of his four-year contract, but despite the money and TV time, he still gets star-struck every once and while.
At least he was when he met Super Bowl-winning teammate and defensive back Richard Sherman.
"He walked up to me like, 'Pita right?' and I was like, 'damn! this future hall of fame guy knows my name.' I mean, that's crazy!"
So far, Taumoepenu's only played pre-season games but on Friday, he'll get another chance to impress against the Cowboys in this year's pre-season opener.
However, he’s looking past that contest.
"I can't believe I made it this far so just continue to keeping working hard."