Story by Karl Buscheck (SF Examiner)/Photo by Eric Sun
The day after the Oakland Raiders selected Shalom Luani with the 221st pick in the NFL draft, the one-time City College of San Francisco star was back where his football life took off — the Rams’ gym.
“He didn’t forget where he came from,” said Jimmy Collins, the City head coach who was coaching the quarterbacks when Luani was a Ram. “And it’s funny, he’s drafted in the NFL and the very following day he’s back at his JC working out with his JC coach.”
The seventh-round pick’s journey to the silver and black featured stops in Hayward, San Francisco and Pullman, Wash., but it began half a world away.
Born in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, Luani was a soccer wunderkind before he emerged on the football field.
Luani was a forward for the American Samoa national team in 2011, scoring a goal against Tonga in the squad’s first ever FIFA-sanctioned win. At the time, Luani — who also played high school football — was just 17.
“I think soccer helped his footwork and he has unbelievable feet,” Collins said. “But what it says most about him, I think, is that he’s a genuine athlete who’s extremely instinctive and very competitive and just finds a way to get things done.”
The Raiders rookie is plenty familiar with his reputation as an intuitive player.
“I think there is something called instinct,” Luani told reporters after the preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals, when he had six tackles and a fumble recovery. “It’s because preparation is something, but add[ing] your instincts to it will make you a better player.”
Once at CCSF, it didn’t take long for the coaching staff to realize they had an unusual talent on their hands.
“He’s as hand-eye gifted as any person we’ve ever had,” Collins said. “Anything he did, he was one of the best at. I mean, literally everything he did athletically.”
Luani arrived at City by way of Chabot College, where he spent the fall of 2012. While in Hayward, Luani was doing his homework, figuring out where he needed to be to advance his football career. The answer was across the Bay — with the team that was the winner of 10 national titles.
“During the spring, before he even played his freshman season when he first got here, he was pretty much all most of the players could talk about,” Collins recalled. “He made so many plays even though we weren’t in pads.”
In two seasons as a Ram, Luani earned several awards, capping his career by being named Bay 6 Conference Defensive Player of the Year during his sophomore season. ESPN rated him as the No. 38 junior college prospect. 247Sports said he was the best safety.
“We knew pretty early on that he was going to be a special, dynamic player for us,” Collins said. “And then he just continued to improve and he had a fantastic freshman year and going into his sophomore year we knew we had a big-time Division I prospect and a guy probably going to do pretty well wherever he went.”
The next stop was Washington State, where Luani was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention his first season with the Cougars and a member of the All-Pac-12 first team during his senior campaign.
Even after he had departed CCSF, the bond between the Rams and Luani endured.
“He’s always been in contact with us and comes to City when he’s back home,” Collins said. “So watching him make the plays he did over the years at Washington State — in keys games, in critical moments — was a lot of fun.”
During his preseason run with the Raiders, Luani has been making plays whenever he gets the chance. Heading into tonight’s finale with the Seattle Seahawks, Luani has all but assured himself a spot on the 53-man roster, flashing in the secondary and on special teams.
His boss, head coach Jack Del Rio, has taken note.
“He’s done well. He’s gotten better,” Del Rio told reporters on Monday. “I think guys like him and others have taken advantage of their opportunities, have grown and we feel like we’ve made some strides in some key areas. So, he’s been part of that. He’s developed. He’s a lot better now than the day he got here.”
A free safety by trade, Luani is ready to contribute whenever and wherever he’s called upon. Free safety, strong safety or special teamer — the soccer star turned ball hawk follows a football philosophy that’s easy to articulate.
“You’ve just got to find the ball,” Luani said. “See ball, get ball. That’s all it is.”