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When Andrew Moeaki decided he would attend College of San Mateo, it was a big deal for his family; a real big deal.

“It got all emotional,” Moeaki said Tuesday after San Jose State’s football practice, where he is a senior defensive tackle. “I was the first one in my family to go to college.”

Moeaki is within a year of graduating with a sociology degree, which will likely ignite another huge celebration in the spring. It will be the first time he goes through a graduation ceremony.

Moeaki never made it through the line at San Mateo High. In fact, he missed his entire senior year to help financially support his family.

After a year working in a warehouse, Lolohea Moeaki, Andrew’s mother, insisted he return to complete his high school education and continue his education at CSM.

“At first, I wasn’t really into it, because times were hard for my family,” Moeaki said. “I think she wanted me to go back because she loved watching me play football. I wanted to play football again, too.”

He found everything he needed at CSM, including a support system that helped prepare him for the rigors of playing football, and attending school, at a Division I institution.

“I dropped work and went back to football,” Moeaki said. “Football was a replacement for work. I was working on the field.”

Moving heavy crates around for a year kept Moeaki in shape and strong enough to withstand a return to competitive football with theĀ Bulldogs.

He earned his GED and was guided through the requirements for an Associate of Arts degree with the help of staff members at CSM.

Earning a scholarship to San Jose State was icing on the cake.

“When I was in high school, I was getting recruited by Washington State,” Moeaki said. “My mother wanted me to get an education and thought that would be the way to go. She’s been my biggest supporter all along. But I am also indebted, specifically, to five coaches at CSM (Tim Tulloch, Jesse Lindenstein, Dave Heck, Bret Pollack and Larry Owens). They helped me get re-established and they taught all of us how to be people as well as players.

“They set us up to go on to the next level,” he continued. “When I got here, I found that I knew what was going on more, because at CSM, they’ve taken the time to teach you what you need to know, not just on the field either.”

Washington State came back into the picture and he talked with representatives at New Mexico State, Hawaii and Western Kentucky, where he took an official visit. San Jose State became interested during his first year at CSM.

“There are good reasons to choose any of the schools, but it came down to wanting my family to see me play football at every home game,” Moeaki said. “This feels like home.”

He’s also getting the chance to play with his cousin, Tiuke Tuipulotu, a senior linebacker for the Spartans.

Family gatherings always included relatives, and Moeaki spent plenty of his childhood with Tuipulotu, who attended Serra High.

“I always wanted to play with Tiuke, so when I got the chance, I took it,” Moeaki said. “In our culture, family is the most important thing, cousins included.”

Moeaki was in on a tackle in San Jose State’s 57-3 loss at Stanford over the weekend. He made four starts for the Spartans last season, including his first ever Division I contest at Alabama. He finished with 21 tackles, three for losses and one quarterback sack.

Injuries, graduation, a grueling schedule and a coaching change conspired against San Jose State last season. The Spartans finished 1-12, limping their way to the end.

There’s a different feel to this year, despite a lopsided loss to the No. 7 Cardinal.

“The final score was ugly, but when you go into halftime with more rushing yards and a better time of possession, you know something is going right,” Spartans’ coach Mike MacIntyre said. “We gave them 24 points, and if we play smarter and a little better, it’s a different game.”

The Spartans get another chance at a Pac-12 school when they travel to UCLA for a 7 p.m. contest in the Rose Bowl.

“We have a lot of players from down there,” MacIntyre said. “I asked for a show of hands for anyone who ever played in the Rose Bowl. No one raised their hands. They’ve always wanted to play there and now they’re getting the chance. It’s also a big game for us recruiting wise.”

As for the current players?

“Like coach says, we want to start fast and finish strong every time we take the field,” Moeaki said. “We are way better than last year. I can see this team believing we can beat a few teams. We got stronger and faster.”