Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal knew he had something pretty special right away in Penei Sewell when he arrived in Eugene as a 17-old freshman.
That belief was reaffirmed when he got a knock on his door a couple days after fall practice began from upperclassman guard and future NFL starter Shane Lemieux.
"Let's just say when your starting guard, who happens to (now) be a starter for the New York Giants, fifth-year senior, walks upstairs and knocks on your door and says, 'Coach, I want to play next to Penei Sewell,'" Cristobal told Detroit media members Friday afternoon. "That's like Day 3, Day 4 (of Sewell's first fall practice), we knew we had something special on our hands."
Lemieux was spot on.
Sewell became one of just nine FBS true freshman offensive linemen to start the 2018 season opener and the first Oregon freshman to start along their offensive line since 1997.
Sewell's football journey started early. He is the fourth of five children in his family, growing up playing football in a beach village in American Samoa, where his father, Gabriel Sewell, was the football coach on the island.
"I stayed in the small village of Malaeimi," Sewell said of his humble upbringing. "We all stayed in a shack there and it was, like you said, a beach. It's an island surrounded by nothing, but water and you can hit the whole end probably in a 45-minute drive.
"It was really small, life was real simple. To come from that to where I am at today, it's nothing but a blessing. Every time I reflect upon that, after this moment on, it just makes me happy. It puts a smile on my face to know that there's more to do and there's more to come. I'm excited and yeah, that's where I came from."
Sewell said Saturday during his introductory press conference that he let himself have a moment Friday night to reflect on just how far he's come after arriving in Detroit.
"I was done eating dinner with all the coaches getting to know people and I was in my bed last night just reminiscing about where I came from and how far it took and what the journey was like on the way here," Sewell said. "Looking back, man, I got emotional."
Every step of the way, Sewell's journey has been one of passion and family.
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"My dad has given us all, my siblings and I, a watch," Sewell said. "In the case inside had a picture of our home saying, 'In this life we have this time and time shared with family is the most important part.'
"That right there, I remember when he gave it to me, I was a little emotional and I look at that image and that watch every single day and that reminds me of where I came from, that reminds me of why I do this and that reminds me what it took to get here and that helps motivate myself each and every day."
It was somewhat fate that Sewell ended up at Oregon. He had scholarship offers from all the big programs, including Alabama, but Oregon associate head coach and defensive line coach Joe Salave'a was a neighbor to the Sewell family when Penei was a kid.
"Joe pulls out his cell phone and he shows me a video of his neighbor's son and it took about two or three clips to realize this is exactly what we need to establish ourselves a certain way here in the Pac-12 and the University of Oregon," Cristobal said.
The family moved from the South Pacific island to St. George, Utah, in 2011. Sewell attended Desert Hills High School in Utah, where he blossomed into one of the top prep players in the country playing both offensive and defensive line.
Sewell was terrific as a freshman at Oregon and even better as a sophomore, winning the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in college football. He joined LaMichael James (2010) and Marcus Mariota (2014) as the only Oregon players to be unanimous first-team All-Americans, and was the top-graded offensive lineman in Pro Football Focus' history of grading linemen that season. He opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
The top offensive tackle in this year's NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions selected Sewell No. 7 overall, and he's expected to come in and compete for the right tackle spot, solidifying Detroit's offensive line.
Sewell plays the game with a physicality and nastiness, but he's also extremely nimble and quick-footed for 6-foot-4 and 331 pounds. He's expected to fit right in with Detroit's talented offensive line.
"He's a generational player," Cristobal said of Sewell. "I haven't seen one like him and I've been very fortunate, man, I've been blessed beyond measure at the places I've been able to coach at and the players I've been able to work with and be a small part of, and this one just is different, different level.
"And Shane (Lemieux) saw that. Just knocked on the door and usually when you get that knock, 'hey coach, you got a minute.' It's good or it's not so good. Shane is a grinder and a great one, too, played for a long, long time and he just talked about how comfortable he was, how confident he was if they (he and Sewell) were playing side-by-side how they could change things, how we could become a much more physically dominant offensive line. He came up and said that it was really important to him, was really important to our future and really important to the quarterback that Penei was in there."
It's been an amazing journey for Sewell and his family. He joked Saturday that during dinner in Detroit Friday night his mother asked to be pinched to make sure it was real.
From humble beginnings to the NFL limelight, Sewell knows what it took to get here and who helped him along the way, and there's no way he plans to let them down.