Paul Soliai has a simple goal:
“I think I can be the best,” the Dolphins’ defensive tackle told the Miami Herald on Wednesday.
By “the best,” Soliai means the premier run-stopper in pro football. The one-man roadblock. The antidote to 100-yard rushers.
Now entering his seventh season, Soliai wants not only to join the league’s list of elite tackles — a group that includes Geno Atkins and Ndamukong Suh — but to then surpass them.
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He might already be there. The scouting service Football Outsiders found that in 2012, opposing teams gained on average a half-yard on snaps in which Soliai was credited with making the play — best among NFL defensive tackles.
And to think: If not for a late call from the University of Utah more than a decade ago, Soliai’s uniform might be fatigues and a rifle rather than pads and helmet.
He grew up in the far-flung American Samoa village of Nu’uuli, and as a teen was known more for his volleyball exploits than what he did on the football field.
With no college scholarship prospects, Soliai had planned on enlisting in the military. He had already taken the ASVAB — the U.S. Army’s aptitude test — a month before his high school graduation and was set to join up.
“For everybody in Samoa, there’s only two ways off The Rock — go to the Army or go to school,” he said.
Utah football made the decision an easy one. A last-minute offer took him 5,000 miles from home — and gave him the chance to pursue his dreams.
This summer, Soliai paid the school back. Along with his wife, he wrote the athletic department a check for $250,000 which will be used, in part, to pay for a rec room in the football center. Its name: The Paul and LeTasha Soliai Player Lounge.
“It’s the ultimate compliment of their experience here,” said Manny Hendrix, the former Dallas Cowboys cornerback who currently serves as Utah’s director of athletic relations.
Said Soliai: “I just thank them for everything they’ve done for me. They gave me an opportunity, a free education, everything.”
Soliai’s donation was one of the largest gifts the school’s athletic department has ever received, Hendrix said. But that was only part of Soliai’s summer. He also held charity events in Utah and Las Vegas, including a reggae concert featuring Shaggy and the Wailers.
Those who know him best marvel at Soliai’s personal transformation.
During his early days with the Dolphins, he at times seemed more concerned about enjoying the spoils of being a football player than actually playing football. In his second year as a pro, Soliai was suspended twice for breaking team rules.
In 2010, he made a major life change. He got rid of his team of advisors who didn’t properly serve him, and took on local representation who essentially became his live-in support system.
The evolution continued when he and LeTasha adopted a Samoan child. His late nights are a thing of the past. And he has transformed from a player who needed looking after into one who keeps his younger teammates in line.
“He’s taken ownership of his role in this organization, and in essence, became the elder statesman on the defensive line,” said David Canter, Soliai’s Davie-based agent. “He understands the responsibility that comes with it and has taken on the younger players and challenged them to make this the best team possible.”
Soliai has given every Dolphins defensive player, coach and staff a T-shirt that reads: “Ta’alo malosi ma sa le fo’i” — which is Samoan for “Play hard, and don’t look back. Push it to the limit!”
And he is personally responsible for the multicolor hairdos sported by rookies on the defensive line during training camp, a team-building rite of passage.
“He’s highly regarded in the locker room and a good guy to have,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said Wednesday.
He’s also quite good at what the Dolphins pay him $6 million a year to do: push around interior offensive linemen. Miami’s run defense allowed just 4.0 yards per carry in 2012 — tied for seventh-best in the league — and Soliai’s 6-4, 340-pound frame was a major reason why.
But his value extends beyond just his size. Philbin on Wednesday praised his technical skill, his effort and his balance.
All that is not enough, though, Soliai said. He wants to go from a player who sets up plays for others to one who actually makes them. Soliai recorded 29 tackles a year ago, but laments the ones he missed.
If he were to have a breakout season, the timing would be ideal. The last time Soliai was in a contract year — 2011 — he made the Pro Bowl. He is again in the final year of his deal, but tried to downplay that uncertainty Wednesday.
“Right now, I told my agent I don’t want to hear about it,” Soliai said of extension talks. “Right now, I’m just worried about this year. Trying to make this team. Come here and try to do everything right.”
And better than anyone else.