The wind whips across the Las Vegas desert, making Nick Punimata’s words clear only in spurts. As he tries to speak louder, sirens simultaneously shriek in the background. When the noise fades, so does his voice. Perhaps that’s fitting for a man whose career has forced him to travel by night and work in the shadows -- he is good at improvising. He may tell you where he is going, but he’ll never disclose what he’s doing.

The only two words he’ll offer as an explanation? “My work.”

That’s life as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 in the Special Forces. Punimata has spent more than 25 years leaving his wife and three kids behind to travel from the Philippines to Cambodia, America to the Middle East, all to serve the United States.

He had a week’s leave in May 2010, and spent it flying from the Middle East to Washington state to be with his family. That’s the last time he saw everyone all together, his wife, Sharon; his son, Nu’u, and his daughters Eki and Samalaulu.

“It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” Punimata says. “I had a few projects I was working on, but the good Lord smiled on us and I was able to make it there in one piece.”

Punimata spent a few days and then turned around and headed back to the Middle East. This wears at him, because his family is who he is at his core. His family is why he used to spend four days traveling for 36 hours of visiting. His family is why he serves in the military.

His family is what has brought him to Las Vegas.


Nick's son, Nu’u Punimata, is playing in the USA Sevens International Rugby Championship -- the fourth stop on the World Series tour -- this weekend at Sam Boyd Stadium, home of UNLV football. NBC and Universal Sports will broadcast it live, the first time ever for a Sevens event in the U.S.

Rugby Sevens -- a 7-on-7 version played on the same size pitch as a regular match -- will become an Olympic sport in 2016, and Nu’u has those Rio de Janeiro games in his sights. It is a long way between Vegas and Rio, figuratively and literally, but like his dad, Nu'u, has become an expert in making extended voyages.

Nu’u is just 24, but his journey would leave a maze exhausted. It has more twists than a Red Vine, more turns than the Alps.

Nu’u was born in Columbus, Ga., but spent his childhood shuttling back and forth from Washington state, where Nick was stationed, and American Samoa, where his family was originally from. He spent his elementary school years in Washington and the summers running around the fields of Samoa. He moved back to American Samoa full time in 2000 to attend Samoana High School. His dad was a big rugby fan, he says, and so Nu’u had always been submerged in the game. It wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he decided he wanted to try football.

Nu’u tried football because he thought it would be fun, sure, but there was much more to it than that. Football in Samoa is about the future.

“Football was an avenue for education and a hope of making it big-time and coming back to help your family,” Nu’u said. “There aren’t too many jobs back home, so most people live off their land. To get off the island, there’s one of two routes: Through the military or football.”

Football won.

Before his senior year, Nu’u went to a summer camp at the University of Utah and impressed head coach Urban Meyer and his staff. Meyer told him that there wasn’t any scholarship money available, but he wanted Nu’u, a linebacker, as a walk-on.

Not really knowing what he else he wanted to do, Nu’u enrolled at Utah in the fall of 2004. That season, the Utes went undefeated and beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl --the first non-BCS conference team to play in a BCS bowl -- but Nu’u was redshirted.

“He wasn’t too particularly happy about that,” Nick said. “He just didn’t feel like things were working out.”

After the season, of course, Meyer left for a more lucrative job at Florida, and Nu’u was left with uncertainty.

“The coaching staff just kind of split,” Nu’u said. “I went home over Christmas break and wasn’t too sure where my standing would be (at Utah).”

Nu’u spoke to his parents and decided it was time to leave Utah. He transferred to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., in hopes of a fresh start and another Division I offer, he said. After two years and becoming an all-South Coast Conference linebacker, Nu’u suddenly had options.


Nu’u was all set to go to New Mexico State.

The Aggies weren’t his first offer. Idaho State had interest, but when the school got rid of the coaching staff a few weeks before Christmas, Nu’u didn’t know if the new staff would still want him, so he began to look elsewhere.

“New Mexico State called, said they liked my film and that they had one more scholarship,” Nu’u said. “They offered, and I gave them my word.”

Nu’u wasn’t sold on his own word, though, and a few days before signing day he got called into the football offices at Mt. San Antonio. Sitting inside was Mike Price, the head coach at the University of Texas-El Paso. Price said he wasn’t really looking for a linebacker, but he saw the tape and wanted to know if Nu’u would be interested in coming to UTEP.

“I explained to him my scenario with New Mexico State,” Nu’u said. “But he said, ‘Just come check out UTEP, and if you like it great. If not, then you can go do what you originally planned to do.’”

At that point, Nu’u didn’t really know what his plan was. His father was in the Philippines, and his mother was stationed in Iraq as an administrative specialist with the Washington National Guard. He was merely a kid in need of some direction.

“One day my wife called me from Iraq and said, ‘Hey, you might want to call your boy,’” Nick said. “I asked if everything was all right and she said, ‘Oh, everything is fine. He just has a dilemma and sort of needs to talk to you.’”

Nick dialed his son’s number on a Thursday. Nu’u told his father that he was having dinner with Coach Price and that he also had an offer on the table to go visit UTEP.

“Well, I don’t know,” Nick told his son. “You made a commitment to New Mexico State, you might want to follow through on that.”

Nu’u knew this, which was precisely why he called to ask for his father’s advice. Nick then asked Nu’u who the coach was, and Nu’u told him it was Mike Price.

“Mike Price!” Nick shouted. “That’s Mike Price from Washington State? He’s the last guy to take Washington State to the Rose Bowl.”

Nu’u didn’t know any of this and simply responded, “I guess.”

“Finally I said, ‘Go. You ain’t got nothing to lose,’” Nick said.

Nu’u took the trip a few days before Christmas, and he called his father on a Saturday. When Nick answered the phone, it was about 3:30 a.m. Sunday in the Philippines.

“He said, ‘Hey Dad, I think I’m going to sign with UTEP,” Nick said.

Nick asked why he had changed his mind, and Nu’u came back to the reason why many kids in American Samoa play football: Education. UTEP promised Nu’u the opportunity to graduate in a year-and-a-half, and then they would help him get into graduate school where his scholarship money would still apply.

Nu’u played two seasons without much fanfare. With no NFL opportunity in his future, he took advantage of his scholarship by getting his undergraduate degree in Multidisciplinary Studies and his graduate degree in Leadership Studies.

Still, Nu’u wasn’t quite ready to give up on his dream of being a professional athlete.


Nick saw his son’s final college football game, at East Carolina in 2008, the last of four trips he made to see Nu’u play during his senior season at UTEP. At that time, Nick was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia. His life never was like that of other fathers, those who could drive a couple hours or less to see every game their boy played.

During Nu’u’s senior season, Nick would board a plane in Cambodia on Thursday and land in Los Angeles the following day. On Friday afternoon, he caught the next leg to El Paso, arriving in time for dinner. He’d say hello to his son Saturday morning before the team brunch, and then Nick would cozy up with his family in the stands for the game Saturday evening.

Sunday morning he was gone again. Off to catch another flight so he could be back at work in Cambodia by Tuesday. That was the routine, and he loved it.

“It was a long haul, but it was well worth it,” Nick said.

Two years later, in December 2010, Nick faced with the same country-hopping predicament to see his son play. But this time it was rugby.

After moving back home to Washington earlier in the year, Nu’u tried out for a local professional rugby club, Old Puget Sound Beach. He made the team. Later in the summer after playing in a national tournament, Nu’u met USA Sevens rugby coach Al Caravelli, who asked Nu'u if he would like to try out for the USA national team.

Nu’u went to camp last November for a tryout and made the USA national team that was scheduled to compete in the HSBC Sevens World series, an international event that makes eight stops around the globe in six months.
The first leg of the tour was Dec. 3-4 in Dubai.

When Nu’u told his father that he was going to play in Dubai, Nick immediately went to his boss and devised a plan that would allow him to complete his necessary work while also making the trip to Dubai to see his son’s first game in a USA uniform.

The plan was to fly into Abu Dhabi, take care of some business in Abu Dhabi and then drive to Dubai.

“As long as I could get my work done in Abu Dhabi, my director had no issues with it,” Nick said.

With his work organized and packed for the trip, Nick boarded a flight on a Wednesday night to Abu Dhabi. (From where? Again, Nick is not allowed to say.) He had a rental car reserved, and his plan was to start driving as early in the morning as possible. But before he could even get out of Abu Dhabi, Nick was stuck.

His rental car had problems and wasn’t operable.

He scurried back to the dealer to get a new vehicle.

“They gave one guy a 15-passenger Suburban,” Nick recalled with a laugh. “But it was a nice ride.”

He left Abu Dhabi at 5 a.m. and got to Dubai about two-and-a-half hours later. He got something to eat and then killed some time looking over his documents and doing some writing. With his work complete, Punimata headed to the stadium and snuck in just as his son’s team was warming up. The father and the son exchanged a long hug, a hug that had been waiting for seven months.

Nick spent two days in Dubai watching Nu’u play. As the final games wrapped up around 7 p.m., Nick prepared to say goodbye again. He was there and then gone, just like it always had been.

Nick met Nu’u and a few of his teammates at the hotel that night before driving back to Abu Dhabi, and they all shared stories and laughs for a couple hours.

“It felt like home again, just having him there and having that feeling of being together again as a family,” Nu’u said. “It’s one of those deals where we never know when or where we’ll see him again. So just being able to take those couple hours meant everything.

“It was probably the happiest time of my life."


For Nick, seeing Nu'u compete in Las Vegas has additional meaning. It will be the first time he will watch his son wearing the USA uniform on home soil. The point resonates with Nu'u as well.

“It means so much to me because my dad is fighting for the U.S. flag, and at the same time I want to carry that flag into the Olympics,” Nu’u said. “I’m so thankful for all the men and women in uniform defending our freedom so we can play rugby.”

Nu’u didn’t ever think he would say those words. He always thought people would say those words about him.

“For the longest time, I had it in my head that I was going to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” he said.

As the sirens make one more pass in the background and the Las Vegas wind whips up again, Nick stops to put it in perspective, to explain what it means to serve in the military while watching his son compete for his country.

“To take advantage of the opportunities like (Nu’u) has, it’s overwhelming emotionally,” Nick said. “It’s one of those things where you get a loss for words sometimes.”

Nick takes a moment to collect his breath.

“I think every American should try at some point in their life to serve their own country, in some aspect,” he said.

Nick knows that what his son is doing isn’t the same as what some of his close friends have done over the years: Playing for your country isn’t the same as dying for country. But as Nu’u prepares to take on South Africa in the USA’s first game of the weekend, Nick said it doesn’t matter.

“Just find that little piece you can contribute in any way you can,” he said.

When asked if watching his son wear a USA rugby uniform feels any different than wearing his own uniform, Nick said he is equally as proud:

“To put on a uniform to represent our country, what better opportunity is there?”