PALMETTO -- Octavious James can't pinpoint the moment when he became a Matelau.
It couldn't have been in sixth grade, when he and Curtis Matelau ran in different circles and didn't even like each other.
It wasn't during seventh grade when they first became football teammates in the Police Athletic League of Manatee County.
And it was before he became baptized into the Church of Latter Day Saints during his high school years.
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Eventually, James' post-practice and after-school trips to the Matelau household during seventh grade became sleepovers. Then they became weekend-long stays. Eventually, he had his own bed and an invitation from Curtis' mother, Chelsea Matelau. If he wanted, James could move in with the Matealaus.
James remains coy about the circumstances that led to moving in with his best friend and his family. His stock answer is he moved in with the Matelaus when it became difficult for his mother to take care of him. He prefers not to dwell too much about his past.
"I didn't take it as rough. I took it day by day, mainly as motivation," James said. "Some people say I had it rough, but I don't think I had it rough. I've seen people struggling, more people doing worse."
James plans to sign a national letter of intent with Savannah State on Wednesday as part of National Signing Day at Palmetto High School.
This moment, and his eventual arrival in Savannah, Ga., will bring the conclusion of one phase of his life and another checkpoint for the Palmetto running back who remembers bouncing from home to home as a child.
It changed when football became part of his life.
With James in the backfield and Curtis Matelau on the offensive line in the Manatee Police Athletic League (PAL), the duo's irrational rivalry quickly faded. They grew together as athletes and people until eventually James was spending most of his time off the field with Matelau and his cousin, Maka Matelau.
They did typical 12-year-old activities as friends. They played video games, watched movies and threw a football around. As teammates, James and the Matelau cousins helped lead their Panthers to the Manatee PAL championship only to find out they had been disqualified.
"We just kept growing closer and closer," Curtis Matelau said. "That might have even drawn everyone closer."
Most importantly, though, Chelsea Matelau took an immediate liking to James. It's hard to be offended by anything James does, and he was like that even as a preteen. Every coach, parent and friend describes him with the same handful of words: polite, humble, mature, organized and driven.
He relishes structure and Chelsea Matelau sensed her family could better provide it. James was already spending most of his free time with the family, so the offer seemed obvious. James talked with his mother, Yolanda Sims, and she agreed it made sense. James became a Matelau even as he maintained a relationship with Sims, who walked with James on his senior night.
"He has always had a plan on what he wants to become and how he wants to get there," Matelau said. "I think he knows what he doesn't want to be. He doesn't want to end up like other people. He wants to be successful and he has a plan on how he wants to get there."
James' plan was always to get to college and earn a degree in the medical field. The specifics always change -- right now he wants to be a physical therapist -- even if the destination was always essentially the same.
He realized football could carry him there during his sophomore season. Previously, his focus was almost exclusively on his education. Even while compiling 1,010 all-purpose yards in nine games as a senior, he had a weighted grade point average over 4.0.
"He has a lot on his plate and I remember him talking to me one time, and he asked me, 'How do you do this? How do you that? How do you accomplish all these things?'" said Curtis Root, Chelsea Matelau's father, who helped James through the recruiting process. "I looked at him and said, 'You just do it.'
"Football is a means to an end, not the end itself."
Some days for James would start before 6 a.m. and wouldn't end until his homework was finished just before bed. One part of the Matelau's Tongan culture James particularly latched on to was religion, and before his junior year at Manatee he was baptized at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Bradenton.
That fall, a typical day for him could consist of waking up at 5:30 a.m. for seminary, a full day of class, after-school workouts and football practice, a part-time job, and finally homework before bed.
His work ethic sprung from a desire to become successful. The Matelaus fostered it with their familial values.
"This isn't a 'Blind Side' story where they're multi-millionaires," said Bowen Summer, one of the Matelaus' closest church friends. "They're a nice, very humble, middle-class family.
"They work very hard for everything they have and they share it all with Octavious."
Before James orally committed to Savannah State on Tuesday, he was temporarily fixated on the U.S. Military Academy or U.S. Naval Academy. Root was in the Navy and his stories from the service intrigued James. He had the personality for it, too.
He was initially discouraged when the Black Knights and Midshipmen passed on him, Palmetto head coach Dave Marino said. It forced James to change his plans. At Savannah State, James will not only juggle Football Championship Subdivision play and class, but also an ROTC workload.
"The only difference," Marino told him, "will be the politics of the military."
Now James' plan is to graduate from Savannah State and then join one of the military's medical programs. He thinks he likes the Navy more -- it runs in the family, after all.
James still can't pinpoint the moment when he became a Matelau, everyone just knows James completed the family and provided them inspiration. To them, it feels like he's always been there.
"It's like I'm living with my mom and dad, or aunt and uncle," James said. "Family is family."
David Wilson, Herald sports writer, can be contacted at 941-745-7057 or on Twitter @DBWilson2.