Polynesians are often kidded for their propensity for calling each other "cousin." Truth is, the words "cousin, aunt and uncle" aren't in our vocabulary. We use the same word for uncle and aunt as for mother and father. The word for brother and sister is the same for cousins. In other words, we don't differentiate between birth parents and aunts and uncles or brothers and sisters and cousins. In our world, if you're from the same village, we often regard each other as family. So it was when I learned four of the Tongan Elders came from the island of Vava'u, where I'm from, we became family. We hugged and kissed each other's cheeks as Tongans and Samoans do though we've never met.
On Tuesday, I went to Rice-Eccles Stadium to speak to the University of Utah football team at Kyle Whittingham's invitation. Kyle and I were teammates at BYU and used to play tennis regularly after his playing career ended and I was still in college. I watched practice and was amazed with the size and agility of some of their players, especially their defensive linemen.
The most impressive was Star Lotulelei. I was in his parents' wedding party 30 years ago when I was a BYU freshman. I last saw Star about 20 years ago when he was a little boy while his father was an administrator at Liahona High School in Tonga. He's now a full-grown man. He stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 315 pounds. Kyle tells me he'd like him at 325 in the fall. Star is going to be a star. He was so disruptive during a team session of practice, coaches pulled him out for a series so the offense could run its plays.
Also on defense were nephews VJ Fehoko, who's father Vili is the University of Hawaii's mascot, "Vili The Warrior," and D-linemen Ron Tongaonevai, Latu Heimuli, Lt Tuipulotu and Semisi Makai, who's dad is the stake president of the Tongan South Stake in Utah County. I'm a huge fan of Chaz Walker's, the Utes' linebacker and defensive captain, and it was nice to visit with his dad Kevin, who was a BYU teammate. We calculated we haven't seen each other since after the 1981 season when I left for my mission, 30 years ago. Undersized like Chaz, but also like his son, Kevin would knock you off your feet. Now, Kevin can surgically repair your feet, as he is a successful podiatrist in Ogden.
Offensively, they ran a tackling drill where the coach pitches the ball to the running back at the near hash so he has maybe seven to 10 yards of space between the hash mark to the sideline to slip past or run over the defender. A big Samoan back with limited football experience but had been on the U.S. National Rugby team named Thretton Polamo was so incredibly shifty he was barely touched. Freshman Harvey Langi was even more agile. Both are over 6-feet-2 and can juke and outrun defenders.
Harvey's mother Kalesita was companions with my sister on their mission in Tonga. His father, Sam, grew up with me in the same village when we were little boys before our families immigrated to America. Harvey is a man-child and has a promising career ahead.
Fullback Max Moala recently married my first cousin, Toe'umu Tafuna, who's older brother David was BYU's starting free safety in 2005-'07.
Tight end Westlee Tonga was impressive on a few long catches and runs. He's the younger brother of Sunny Mahe, Reno's wife, the former BYU running back.
As Polynesians, we are interconnected.
I reconnected with Norm Chow, my offensive coordinator at BYU. We had a nice visit. We did not get along when we were at BYU. Norm started me in only two games my entire college career, and only because starter Kelly Smith was injured. I kidded him about that in front of the team. "Don't be too discouraged if Norm doesn't play you — he's a great offensive coordinator, just not very good at evaluating talent." The team roared with laughter. When the laughter died, I continued, "Having said that, when I got to the NFL, I realized that Norm, Lance Reynolds, Mike Holmgren and LaVell Edwards had taught me so well that it was apparent my competition didn't understand defensive coverages and running routes nearly as well as I did. Norm helped me make three NFL teams, which allowed me to make two Pro Bowls. Pay attention to everything Norm Chow teaches you."
Kyle invited me to join him for dinner with the team. I drove Kyle from the stadium to their offices as he excitedly showed me plans for their new $16 million facility for which they'll break ground in December, weather permitting. At dinner, I sat with Kyle and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitaki. I think he'll be the first Tongan Division I head coach someday. He's bright, passionate, articulate and his players respect and love him. Kalani is still young enough and in good enough shape that I sensed some may even fear him. In football, that's not a bad thing.
I'm past warming up to the Utes. I'm now a fan. Still a Cougar. But love my boys on The Hill. Because most of them are relatives.
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