Nico Iamaleava slammed his helmet against the locker room door with a yell, the journey suddenly over 24 yards short in a playoff loss.
Just half an hour later, it had sunk in for senior five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava, still keeping a slightly dejected smile on his face and posing for pictures with stragglers that hung around in the Chatsworth chill. His time at Warren High was through, the Bears having lost Friday night’s Division 2 playoff matchup with Sierra Canyon 22-21, a Tom Brady-esque late-game drive by Iamaleava not enough and a game-winning field goal falling a foot short.
“I went through it,” Iamaleava said, leaving the stadium an hour after the game. “My dad was right here — just seeing how emotional I was. But I’ve accepted it … it’s a nasty feeling.”
Since committing in March to Tennessee — signing a name, image and likeness deal with a school booster collective rumored to be worth $8 million — Iamaleava has been a recruiter and a promoter for the program, garnering a large platform on social media with his pajama-wearing appearances at 7-on-7 passing tournaments.
The deal has drawn eyes whenever he’s stepped on a field — Malcolm Smith, a former USC linebacker and Super Bowl MVP with the Seattle Seahawks, was on the sidelines Friday in part to see the kid for himself — and drawn voices as prominent as college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit to weigh in on Iamaleava’s commitment.
Yet after a back-and-forth summer during which he transferred to Long Beach Poly only to come back to Warren, the headlines have quieted, the 6-foot-6 blue-chipper simply focused on his last year of high school ball. After a 9-1 season and 24 touchdown passes, this isn’t quite the ride into an Volunteer-orange sunset he envisioned.
“It stings … this loss definitely puts a little bit more feeling in me, and getting ready to go with the season for Tennessee,” Iamaleava said. “I’m going to just use it as fuel down the road.”
Throughout the first half, as Sierra Canyon took a 14-7 lead over Warren, the stands pulsed with jeers as an ice-cold Iamaleava couldn’t get anything going against the Trailblazers’ defense.
“Wear your pajamas!” they hollered.
“O-ver-rated!” they crowed.
Iamaleava and Warren began moving the football toward the end of the first half, orchestrating a touchdown drive, and completely silenced the Trailblazer fans in the third quarter. With third-down odds stacked against him, he reached deep into his bag of tricks: spinning away to fire a dart to brother Madden, converting a third-and-13 play with a laser to Jordan Ross, finding Ross again for a short touchdown and running in a conversion to give Warren a 21-14 lead.
With just more than a minute left after Sierra Canyon took the lead, it seemed as if Iamaleava would pull another rabbit out of the hat, wheeling and dealing and leading the Bears down to the 19-yard-line — only for a delay of game to push back a game-winning field-goal try five yards, which fell short as time expired.
After the frustration subsided, the bitter taste remained. So Tennessee fans, get ready.
“I’m ready to work, man,” Iamaleava said. “Can’t wait.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.