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Nacua v. Nacua: On Saturday against Utah, UW receiver Puka Nacua looks to even the score

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 31, 2019

Washington wide receiver Puka Nacua reacts against Hawaii during a game, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Washington wide receiver Puka Nacua reacts against Hawaii during a game, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The most indelible moment in the unrelenting sibling rivalry between Samson and Puka Nacua took place in the middle of a football field at Orem (Utah) High School on Sept. 25, 2015.

Samson was a senior wide receiver for the Timpview Thunderbirds. Puka was a freshman wide receiver for the Orem Tigers. But those details don’t matter. Not really.

This was essential, elemental: brother against brother.

And for the first half, at least, little brother was best.

“I remember we got down, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m about to lose to my little brother’s team,’ ” Samson Nacua, now a redshirt junior wide receiver at Utah, told The Times in a phone interview this week. “Puka was actually doing pretty good in the first half. They were giving him a lot of touches. I was like, ‘Bro, he’s outshining me right now.’ ”

The Thunderbirds limped into the locker room at halftime grasping white-knuckled to a 14-13 lead. Orem had the momentum and the home field in its favor.

But Timpview had Samson Nacua – big brother, 6-foot-3 wide receiver … and spontaneous signal caller?

“The whole week I had been practicing at receiver, and we were working at plays for me over there,” Samson said. “My coach came in at halftime and said, ‘We’re going to make a little change. We’re going to try you at quarterback and see how it goes, run basic run-option pass plays for you.’ ”

The impromptu adjustment paid off. Early in the third quarter, Samson took a shotgun snap from his 36-yard line, rolled backward to his right at the 28, swiveled out of a sure sack at the 22, spun, escaped to his left, looked upfield and “just hucked it up there and my receiver caught it.”

It was an improbable, inimitable 64-yard touchdown pass. It was backyard, draw-a-play-in-the-dirt football at its finest. It was athleticism and adrenaline and brilliance and luck all rolled up.

It was also essentially the end for Puka Nacua’s Orem Tigers.

After teammate Fielding Wallace trotted untouched into the end zone, Samson ripped off his helmet, sprinted to midfield, pointed unmistakably at Puka on the sideline and “Just. Started. Screaming.”

“Luckily, the ref didn’t penalize me,” Samson added. “He just told me to get off the field.”

In a 35-20 Timpview victory, Samson completed 4 of 5 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 94 yards and 7.8 yards per carry and registered one reception for five yards. Puka, by comparison, caught three passes for 26 yards.

For big brother, it was bliss. It was poetry. It was a priceless Picasso.

For little brother, it was an unrivaled embarrassment.

Not was. Still is.

“He ended up playing quarterback for them and he threw for like two touchdowns and just torched our defense,” Puka said last May, prior to enrolling at UW. Once on campus, first-year players are not made available to the media. “That wasn’t even his main position. It was just so embarrassing. I just remember as a freshman wanting to win and beat my older brother.”

More than four years later, Puka – now an ascending freshman wide receiver at Washington – still wants to beat his older brother.

He’ll have an opportunity on Saturday. But more on that in a minute.

First, you need to understand how large that loss continues to loom.

“This past summer, before he went up to Washington, we would go train down at Orem, his old high school,” Samson said. “Every time we would walk onto the field I would tell him, ‘Man, it feels good to be home.’ ”

“He never lets me forget it,” Puka said last summer. “Yeah, he got the first one.”

Of course, unofficially, there have been many more than one. Samson and Puka have two older brothers in Kai (who currently plays safety for the Indianapolis Colts) and Isaiah. Still, Samson said, “I think (Puka) was my most competition as a brother. Me and him did everything against each other.”

When he was in first and second grade, Puka actually played three years up, on Samson’s little league football team. Puka was a linebacker and corner, and Samson was a running back. And in practice, at least, countless collisions ensued.

Still, Puka survived. He got stronger. The bruises made him better.

“When my dad told him he could no longer play up with me and he had to play with his age, we would go and watch,” Samson said. “His first game at his own age, he probably scored like six or seven touchdowns. I was like, ‘Oh, goodness. He’s too much for these kids.’ ”

He was too much for most, but not Samson. They breathed, and they ate, and they slept, and they competed. The cycle repeated (and repeated, and repeated).

“I’d come home on the weekends (from the University of Utah) when I had the chance and we’d go out in front of my mom’s house and we’d have a little basketball hoop,” Samson said. “It’s a small, small court. All concrete, too. Not a lot of space. We would just try to body each other and be super physical.

“It’s Dunk Ball. Just try to dunk on each other, show who’s more physical and who’s the stronger brother. I think that’s the best thing. We just compete against each other all the time.”

In that case, maybe Saturday’s matchup was inevitable. At 1 p.m., on national television, Puka’s Washington Huskies will host Samson’s ninth-ranked Utah Utes. In eight games in his freshman season, Puka has caught seven passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Samson has contributed 10 catches for 147 yards and two scores of his own.

It’s 5-3 Washington against 7-1 Utah. But those details don’t matter. Not really.

This is essential, elemental: brother against brother.

Again.

“Oh, I’m excited,” Samson said. “I’ve been really looking forward to this game all year – all summer, honestly, once I found out he was committed. We have the best defense in the nation, and I know my brother is a really top athlete, and it’s going to be awesome to see him go against some of the best players in the Pac-12.”

“I’m excited,” Puka said last spring. “The Utah game is the one I knew (when I signed with Washington). They played each other in the Pac-12 championship (last year) and obviously UW won. I know all the boys up at Utah, so I know this is a game everybody’s going to be looking forward to next year and everybody wants.”

Both brothers want it – and they already let each other know. But that is actually not as easy as an average millennial might expect. Samson – who was borrowing the cellphone of a Utah PR staffer for this particular interview – said, “I turned off my phone I think two, three months before fall camp started. I’ve been off the grid, just chilling.”

But even an extended technological sabbatical couldn’t prevent some last-minute trash talk.

“Yesterday I got a friend to call my brother for me,” Samson said. “I used his phone and I was telling Puka, ‘Hey bro. You better be ready. You know you guys have gone against a couple good defenses, but we’re the top out here. We got (defensive back) Julian Blackmon. We got (DB) Jaylon Johnson. You just better be ready, bro.’ ”

“Man, ain’t nothing new,” Puka responded. “I’ve been doing this since I was young.”

Puka and Samson have both been doing it … more often than not, against each other.

On second thought, perhaps the most indelible moment in their sibling rivalry actually hasn’t happened yet.

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