Late at night, Sonny Puletasi lies in bed, but he isn’t sleeping.

The screen from his laptop is the only source of light in his bedroom, throwing a dim glow over the walls. Puletasi will be up for weight lifting in only a few hours, but the video clip in front of him commands his full attention.

On the screen, he watches Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez scamper wildly through the secondary. Defensive ends and linebackers sprint helplessly after him, seeing the name on the back of his jersey get smaller and smaller as he pulls away.

Puletasi has watched this video before, and you can bet that he’ll watch it again. When his apartment goes quiet and his teammates fall asleep, his mind often drifts to the game still more than a month away.

With fall camp approaching, Puletasi is devoted to football -- and Wyoming.

It wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, Sonny Puletasi just wanted to go home.

***

Sitting in Dave Christensen’s office in fall 2010, Puletasi told his coach all the reasons why he had to go.

He had a girlfriend (now wife), Aubrey, and a son, Kason, waiting for him at home in Lawton, Okla.

His best friend and roommate on the team, Ruben Narcisse, had recently died in a car accident after Wyoming’s season-opening win.

Football was far from his first love; Puletasi had only started playing two years earlier. He had never planned on playing at Wyoming, finally committing after high school coach Randy Breeze talked him out of joining the army instead.

He felt alone here, playing on a team full of guys that he didn’t know in a sport that he was still learning. Wyoming, too, might as well have been a foreign country.

Puletasi poured out his insecurities and asked his coach for guidance. There was nothing keeping him in Laramie, he said. His mind constantly wandered to loved ones he couldn’t see, the people he had left behind in favor of a school and a game.

At his breaking point, Christensen told him to hold on. He urged Puletasi to trust him.

“I just told him that after that first year you move out of the dormitory and you live with your roommates and you start having a little more freedom,” Christensen said. “You start getting acclimated to being away from home. Things will change. They won’t be as difficult.”

Puletasi was unsure. He looked up and saw a coach he barely knew, a guy who had also taken a chance by moving to Laramie.

Christensen kept pushing.

“Understand that you’re at a place where there’s a staff of coaches that care deeply about you and they’re going to be here to help you along every step of the way,” Christensen told him. “You’re getting an education, having the opportunity to play at the highest level of college football, and you’re going to be able to get that degree and go back and take care of your family.”

Before leaving the office, Puletasi told his coach he’d try to hold on. He’d stay for the remainder of the year, then re-evaluate his future.

For the time being, Sonny Puletasi was still a Wyoming Cowboy.

***

Nowadays, Christensen uses Puletasi as an example.

After their meeting nearly three years ago, Puletasi slowly embraced his situation. He continued to learn the game, and in time it became more than a hobby.

The 6-foot-3, 247-pound defensive end fell in love with football.

His teammates and coaches began to feel more like family. Laramie became a second home.

But as he becomes more and more satisfied with his choice to stay, Wyoming’s newcomers inevitably take his place.

Because Wyoming recruits so many out-of-state players, homesickness is an epidemic. Young players often come to Christensen, saying that they can’t cope with the distance from friends, family and the familiarity of home.

Christensen has seen it before, and he’s also seen what happens when a player chooses to stay and embrace the system.

Now, he has a model others can look to.

Sonny Puletasi.

“I use him a lot with young kids,” Christensen said. “I tell them, ‘Go talk to Sonny about the visit he and I had when he was going through his struggles.’”

As he’s become more of a vocal leader, Puletasi tries to emphasize one thing to Wyoming’s young players:

Family can be more than blood.

***

Here, the video games rarely stop.

Throughout warm summer days, Wyoming’s defensive linemen can be found more often than not at Puletasi’s apartment, yelling at the television during heated games of “Call of Duty.”

They eat together, grilling food and fighting over the scraps. They dance, even when Puletasi can’t explain why. Defensive lineman Eddie Yarbrough often sleeps here, even though it isn’t technically his home.

This is a place, Puletasi says, where football players can find a family. His roommates are on the team, as are his neighbors.

A few years ago, the junior defensive lineman felt far from home. Now, he’s creating a new home for anyone who chooses to be a part of it.

“It helps us get along,” Puletasi said of the daily hangouts. “We’re not with our families, and some players complain about that. But I try to bring people in and treat them as family.”

Puletasi knows what it’s like to feel alone in a new place, and he also knows what it feels like to push through and find daylight on the other side.

Just like Christensen pushed him, Puletasi is now the one urging his younger teammates to keep going, even when the future seems bleak.

“Some of the younger guys get homesick,” Puletasi said, “so we keep them on their feet when they feel like that.”

***

The season is still more than a month away, but Puletasi is already racking up sacks and tackles.

Every day, when the junior enters the weight room he visualizes something greater. Each lift represents an accomplishment, as does each sprint or agility drill. The summer, he knows, is where success is truly earned.

“I go and bust my squats,” Puletasi said. “One rep is one sack for me. One sprint is one tackle for a loss.”

Puletasi has 28 tackles and two sacks in his first two seasons at Wyoming, and he knows that he’s capable of more.

This season, he’s expected to start at defensive end. And based on his work ethic, those numbers could be on the verge of skyrocketing.

“He brings so much enthusiasm. He’s always first one to show up, last one to leave the weight room,” Yarbrough said. “He’s a great leader and he leads by example.”

And once the lifts end and he retires to the locker room, Puletasi often runs into a familiar face. Christensen approaches him and the two trade smiles.

At this point, the dialogue is worn, but it’s meaningful.

“Coach C always comes into the locker room and smiles at me and he always says, ‘Remember that conversation we had?’” Puletasi said. “He always tells me that every day when he walks in.”

Every day, Puletasi is reminded of a time when Wyoming seemed like the furthest place from home. And as he leaves the comforts of the weight room and heads back for more Call of Duty with his football family, he never ceases to appreciate that conversation that he had with his new coach.

“That’s one of the reasons you’re in this profession, to help change kids and develop them and give them some guidance to make their lives better,” Christensen said. “It’s a great feeling to have a young man who will trust you and believe you and not do what’s easiest, but do what he believes is best.”

Late at night, Puletasi lies in bed, the Nebraska game tape playing like a broken record. As Aug. 31 approaches, Puletasi counts down the days until he can enter Nebraska's Memorial Stadium and take the field.

Not just with his teammates, but with his family.

Reach reporter Mike Vorel at Mike.Vorel@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeVorel.

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