Man of Steel: Lavaka goes from walk-on to NFL prospect with selfless work ethic for Weber State
Sherwin Lavaka describes his upbringing with a matter-of-fact simplicity.
The soft-spoken Weber State linebacker grew up in Kearns, Utah, as one of 10 in the Lavaka family.
“It was hard. We struggled a lot, but we kept moving. I just tried to make the best of what I had,” Lavaka says.
At Kearns High School, Lavaka ran track, wrestled, and played football and rugby — the latter a sport that links many Polynesians to the islands where there is no football. He was best at football, though, and he knew it provided the best opportunity for him after high school.
It wasn’t a straight line to college for the skinny receiver and running back, who also played occasional safety at Kearns. With his two brothers both serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, money was tight at home.
“He’s very selfless. He’ll always think of others,” WSU linebackers coach Matty Ah You said of the all-conference linebacker. “There were times last year when we maybe had a lead going into the fourth quarter, he’s the type of person who is calling for other guys to get in and play.”
So instead of pursuing college football opportunities, Lavaka went to work cutting and welding for a steel company in West Jordan. He says he usually worked about 60 hours a week.
His brother, Gus, returned from a mission and signed to play at Oregon State. So Lavaka found his cleats, went to Ephraim, Utah, and walked on at Snow College in 2017.
He’d grown a bit in his year away from football, so coaches at Snow moved him to linebacker, a position he’d never played. He used his raw physical talents to make a name for himself, and was put on scholarship before his first fall camp was over.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) throws a pass as Weber State linebacker Sherwin Lavaka (13) bears down during a college football game Sept. 2, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
In his sophomore season at Snow, Lavaka totaled 45 tackles, two for loss, one sack, with one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He signed with Weber State ahead of the 2019 season and got what he felt like his first real tutelage at linebacker from coach Matt Hammer and junior linebackers Noah Vaea and Conner Mortensen.
“It was a big learning experience,” Lavaka said. “Noah took me under his wing and taught me everything about the mike linebacker … everything just started clicking.”
By the time the spring 2021 season came around, Lavaka was the next man up behind both Vaea at middle linebacker and Mortensen on the outside. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, he’d become a Division I linebacker.
“Sherwin is a guy that goes 110% every play. In practice, often I try to not give him as many reps because he doesn’t really need as many as maybe the guys behind him, and he can’t stand that. He wants to be on every play, every rep, every special team,” Ah You said. “What that does for our defense is it gives them a mindset of no matter who you are … you’re expected to play a certain way, you play every down as hard as you can.
“He’s the type of player you build your culture around. We have several of those players on our team.”
Vaea broke his arm in the spring opener and never returned, the six-game season too short for a comeback. Lavaka moved into his starting spot in the middle, totaled 26 tackles and two sacks, and was named second-team All-Big Sky at the end of the season.
Having graduated, Vaea decided to move on from football despite the free year of eligibility given to all athletes because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
So, Lavaka changed his number from 55 to Vaea’s No. 13.
“I took his number just to remember him, because I look up to him,” Lavaka said.
Ah You added: “Of course we miss Noah, but Sherwin stepped right in and is doing a great job. He was all-conference for a reason, he’s a great player.”
Last week in the loss to James Madison, Lavaka totaled seven tackles, one for loss, behind only Mortensen’s eight tackles. Midway through the first quarter, Lavaka noticeably filled a gap on a run play to JMU’s Kaelon Black, stopped Black in his tracks near the line of scrimmage with a pop, and wrestled him down for the tackle.
“He had so many great plays in that game,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “He was physical, he was downhill, he did a good job in coverage. And, he had one of those key missed tackles that we’re talking about that really cost us in the third quarter.
“The cool thing about Sherwin is I guarantee he’ll watch more film this week, he’ll come back and practice like a mad man, because that hurt him. The reality is, he’s one of the best linebackers in the country. He’s going to be an NFL guy, he’s got NFL scouts starting to really like him.”
Not bad for a guy who walked on to a junior college after a year working at a steel plant.
“I’m just grateful they took a chance on me. I’m just a kid from Kearns,” Lavaka said. “They took me in as family. (Ah You), he teaches me everything, kind of like an older brother does. And all our guys, our bond is so close, we complement each other … I’m happy they took a chance on me.”