Anchorage’s Brandon Pili earned his way onto the Miami Dolphins roster for his NFL debut

The undrafted rookie defensive lineman defied long odds as he went from a longshot to a lock to make the team. His longtime supporters weren’t surprised.

A trio of Alaska-born professional football players made their NFL regular-season debuts Sunday as the 2023 season officially kicks off.

While two of those players were nearly certain to make their teams’ final roster, that wasn’t the case for Anchorage’s Brandon Pili.

Pili signed with the Miami Dolphins after going undrafted out of the University of Southern California, where he had a standout career for the Trojans.

NFL rookies who get signed as undrafted free agents often face long odds and steep uphill battles to make a final roster.

However, Pili made a strong case for earning a roster spot by being one of the team’s brightest standouts during training camp and the preseason.

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When Pili found out he made the final roster, it wasn’t one of the often-dramatized, emotional reveals sometimes captured by camera crews at the conclusion of training camp.

“I just showed up, came to the team meeting and coach Mike (McDaniel) came in in front of the whole team and told us ‘Congratulations, this is who we’re rocking with,’” Pili said via the Dolphins team website. “It was the best feeling in the world. You can’t duplicate it.”


He admitted that a lot was going through his mind at the time, but overall Pili was “happy and appreciative” that he was given the chance to pursue his dream of playing professional football at the highest level.

“I just came to work,” Pili said. “I just came and put in the work.”

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Some of the best advice he got from a coach was to be “low-maintenance.”

“I think that combined with the stuff I did on the field is really what helped me get here,” Pili said.

He described the final cutdown day as a “nerve-wracking” experience. In those final hours, hopes and dreams come to fruition or can be dashed in disappointment.

“You hate to see the guys that you share blood, sweat and tears with have their dreams ended or go somewhere else but it’s just a blessing and an honor to be here,” Pili said.

Pili’s debut was a successful one. He played nine snaps in the Dolphins 36-34 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

On other Alaska-connected NFL players also got a taste of regular-season action on Sunday. Las Vegas Raiders first-round defensive end Tyree Wilson of Anchorage had a tackle as the Raiders beat the Denver Broncos 17-16. A third, Baltimore Ravens rookie offensive lineman Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu of Palmer, was inactive on Sunday.

The belief and faith of biggest supporters never wavered

His family never doubted that Pili would get signed after going undrafted, but they were extremely excited to hear the news nonetheless.

“We are all proud of him and knowing he’s officially on the 53-man roster, we’re all pretty stoked for him,” said his father Billy Pili.

The Pilis never bothered reading any of the media coverage about how he was playing during training camp because they got updates straight from the source.


“He called us every day just to check in and keep us informed,” Billy Pili said. “I don’t really see that media stuff because a lot of them put out a lot of BS.”

Billy Pili believes the life lessons that he and his wife had instilled in their son throughout his youth helped get him through his first NFL training camp.

“There’s a lot of things that he knows now that I’ve been preaching to him forever since he was little and now he’s realizing it,” Billy Pili said.

Former Dimond varsity football coach Nick Winkler coached Brandon Pili for his first three years in high school. He knows a lot of things have to go right and fall into place for someone from Alaska to make it to the highest level in the sport.

“If there was one person that I’d think was going to have that happen for them, it would’ve been Brandon,” Winkler said. “He’s one of the most special athletes that I’ve ever been around.”

Kathleen Navarre was the athletic director at Dimond during Pili’s time with the Lynx and she believes he’s an example of how hard work, dedication and strong family values can lead to success.


“Coming from Alaska, you never know if they’re going to make it that far but it definitely was a goal of Brandon’s,” Navarre said. “He’s always been a determined kid that does what he needs to do to be successful.”

Planting the seed and watching it grow

Brandon Pili is the oldest of eight kids and the brother of Alaska high school sports legend Alissa Pili.

He started playing at age seven, but it wasn’t until he was in the fifth or sixth grade that his father realized that Brandon could be capable of great things on the gridiron.

“I thought ‘You know what, he could actually be something,’ ” Billy Pili said. “That’s when we started taking him to camps out in California and Washington.”

Due to the lack of regular exposure that comes with living in Alaska, before Brandon’s sophomore season, Billy Pili implored his son to leave the state and play high football where he could get scouted more regularly by recruiters. But Brandon insisted he stay at Dimond.

It wasn’t until his senior year that Brandon decided to play his final season in Oregon. It only took one game before the Division I offers started flooding in.


“After that game he called us and was like, ‘I just got three D-I offers right off the bat’ and I was like, ‘No way get out of here Brandon,’” Billy said. “Half an hour later, my phone rang and it just took off from there.”

Given that Brandon was born in Alaska from a multicultural family, he has a chance to provide inspiration and be an exceptional role model for the next generation of potential NFL hopefuls in the 49th state.

“He gave a lot of these kids hope,” Billy Pili said. “The (Polynesian) kids that are stuck here, the Native kids and whoever is from Alaska can understand that they can go out and do the same thing too.”

Changing allegiances to further show support

Navarre comes from a big family herself where she’s one of nine children and most of her siblings were Dallas Cowboys fans growing up.

She most recently was a fan of the Minnesota Vikings but has a brother who is a Dolphins fan. The two of them are excited to have a personal rooting interest in the team.

“I’m a Dolphins fan now and will absolutely be cheering for Brandon,” she said. “I’m getting me a (Brandon Pili) No. 96 jersey.”

Winkler currently lives in Michigan and his grandfather had season tickets to the Green Bay Packers. But he has already loaded up on Dolphins gear in support of Pili.

“It’s been a blessing to watch it all happen and to be a very small part of his journey,” he said. “I’m gonna be that dude cheering on No. 96 on Sundays.”


Even though the Pili family is loaded with athletes, they aren’t avid watchers of sports on television. However, now that Brandon will be playing nationally televised games for the next five-plus months, that is subject to change.

The entire Pili extended family is now Dolphins fans and some already have Brandon’s No. 96 jersey. Others have theirs on the way in the mail.

“They’re the one that gave him an opportunity so that’s a team that I’m going to rep because of that,” Billy Pili said. “They gave my son a chance. That’s why I’m rocking with them.”

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Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.