BOULDER — Four years ago, Michael Sipili appeared headed for stardom. After a long detour, he’s back on track.
Sipili, a fifth-year senior, is slated to start at inside linebacker for the University of Colorado this season. He’s been on the field a lot for the Buffs, but this could be the first time he spends the entire year in the starting lineup.
“I’m just excited to play,” he said. “I’m not really worried about starting. I just want to win games and do what I can to help the team to win.”
There’s little question about his ability to do that. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Samoan is one of the hardest hitters on the team.
“No question (he can be great),” CU linebackers coach Brian Cabral said. “I think he’s due for a great season. I like his fall camp. I like the way he’s practicing.”
As a true freshman in 2006, Sipili received honorable mention Freshman All-American honors. At that point, it appeared he would be the latest in a long line of great CU linebackers.
Then, in June 2007, Sipili was involved in a fight that left another student severely injured. Sipili pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge. He wound up being suspended from the football team and school.
“It was hard, especially being away from family,” said Sipili, who went to high school in Honolulu, Hawaii. “It was one of the hardest times in my life.”
At that point, Sipili had two choices.
“Either they work through it or they don’t,” Cabral said.
Sipili chose to work through it.
“That’s why it says an awful lot about him sticking it out and sticking it through and being better for it in every way,” Cabral said.
Sipili said he is a “much better player” today than he’s ever been. More importantly, he’s on pace to graduate in May with a degree in ethnic studies.
“One of my first priorities is to graduate,” he said. “I really want to graduate.”
Sipili credits his teammates and coaches, especially Cabral, for helping him get to this point and move past his troubles.
“They pushed me to stay and work at it and overcome that,” Sipili said. “The support made it a lot easier for me.”
Since returning to the team in 2008, he has played in 18 games.
“I was happy to get back, but I had to come back and prove myself again and try to get back on track football-wise and also in school,” he said. “It was a long ways back, but I felt I took a lot of steps back.”
He said it wasn’t until last season that he felt he had made it all the way back. On the field, he had 39 tackles in 2009.
Since the end of last season, Sipili has put in hours of time to improve his game. His motivation?
“Just the potential I see around the team and the players,” he said. “I feel like if I do my part and everybody else does their part, we can’t complain.”
Those around Sipili have few doubts about him doing his part.
“We expect a lot of things out of him, and he’s doing a great job for us right now,” CU defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “He’s not just coasting right now. The guy has really stepped up his game.”