Dick Harmon: Former BYU running back Fui Vakapuna puts family first

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 14 2010 3:00 p.m. MST

This is the time of the year fans prepare for college bowl games and the NFL playoffs. It's a rite of passage to hold the TV remote, gorge on chips and dip and partake of slow-motion replays and a cornucopia of sports.

But it's also a good opportunity to put sports in perspective, which critics have said would be a good thing since the Romans screamed at gladiators.

Perhaps the story of the Vakapuna family will provide us the perspective this season.

Former BYU running back Fui Vakapuna is currently with the Cincinnati Bengals and started early this season before hyper-extending his elbow trying to make a tackle. His younger brother, Tauni, is a junior running back playing for Utah, which recently pocketed a thrilling win over rival BYU in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Both these guys have proven to be warriors on the football field, but it all took a second seat to their mother's health a few weeks ago when 50-year-old Uina underwent kidney transplant surgery — the kidney donor was their sister — after suffering renal failure the past decade.

There were complications. After the surgery, doctors kept Uina in intensive care for a week as her life hung in the balance.

The Bengals gave Fui a release from camp and requiring his presence as a player on injured reserve to fly home to be with his mother. Tauni took what time he could, with support of Utah's staff, to be at her side.

"The mother is a saint," said former East High School coach Jim Hamblin, who coached Fui before he went on to BYU. "She is a nurturer, a teacher of her children, someone whose always been there for her kids, whether it be school work, sports or whatever they needed.

"The father, Semisi, looks like an intimating figure, but he's really a teddy bear, a softy."

Uina's kidneys began giving her problems when Fui was in high school; it got worse when he returned from an LDS mission to Carlsbad, Calif., and finished his career at BYU.

"All her children volunteered to be tested to donate a kidney to their mother, and every year he was at BYU and in the NFL, he was prepared to give it all up if called to do so," said Hamblin.

Uina's illness, coupled with health challenges of her husband, prompted Tauni to leave Dixie State College and transfer to Utah so he could be closer to home and help ease the burden of siblings who were caring for the parents. The NCAA granted Tauni a hardship and allowed him to transfer to Utah without sitting out or jumping through other hoops to play at Utah.

"I never would have left Dixie State if I wasn't needed at home. I didn't need to play football again," Tauni said.

Tauni ended up the "darling of spring practice" at Utah in 2010 when he ripped off several 80-yard runs. He saw time on special teams and was a backup at running back behind Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide this past fall.

Tauni teamed with Asiata on Hunter's 14-0 state championship team in 2003, and he served an LDS Church mission to the Philippines between collegiate stints in St. George. He appeared in eight games as a freshman, rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown over nine carries.

Utah currently has 243 people on the kidney donation list.

"It's a list that could be eliminated if there were more like Fui's sister, who gave this gift of life to her mother," said Deen Vetterli, executive director of the Kidney Foundation of Utah.

"More than 2,400 people in our area currently depend on dialysis machines three times a week in order to stay alive," said Vetterli.

The Bengals drafted Fui in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft. He was featured regularly during 2009 on HBO's "Hard Knocks" show. At BYU, he was a devastating blocker, runner and team leader whom many referred to as the team chaplain.

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