Loaded with seven exhausted passengers, the Lutui family van departed Los Angeles on a Saturday evening for the six-hour drive along Interstate 10 to Mesa, Ariz.
A fatal accident near Phoenix changed their lives forever.
More than 20 years later, Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui still gets emotional when he reflects on that painful incident.
"It was something I had to cope with, going through those struggles. … It turned my whole view on life," said Lutui, now a mammoth-sized offensive lineman for the Arizona Cardinals. "You just tend to know that things happen for a reason, and my belief is I know God has a plan for all of us, and things happen for the good."
While such an event might embitter some, the family of immigrants from Tonga clung to the gospel of Jesus Christ and developed a strong spiritual bond. Sacrifice and hard work allowed them to survive in humble circumstances.
Those experiences, coupled with the righteous example of his stalwart parents, helped Lutui gain a testimony of the Savior and fueled him to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL.
The Lutui family immigrated to the United States from Tonga in the early 1980s and found a home in Mesa, Ariz. A relative introduced the family to the LDS missionaries, and they were eventually baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Being sealed as a family in the Mesa Arizona LDS Temple was the highlight of Lutui's youth.
The unfortunate accident came a year or so later when the family was driving home from a wedding in Los Angeles late on a Saturday night. It was important to be in Mesa on Sunday morning so Diana, Deuce's little sister who was named after Princess Diana, could perform the part she had memorized for the ward primary program.
Somewhere near Phoenix, eyelids heavy, an older sibling dozed at the wheel, then overcorrected, causing the van to roll. Diana died in the accident. Deuce's father, Inoke, sustained head injuries that left him permanently disabled. He was in a coma for more than a month. Other family members suffered injuries but recovered. Deuce, 6, escaped with hardly a bruise. Former BYU and NFL player Vai Sikahema, Deuce's cousin, said Mele, Deuce's mother, became the breadwinner. The older children found jobs flipping burgers and running paper routes to contribute to the family income. The parents held the family together with consistent family home evening and scripture study, forging a spiritual component into their lives.
"They didn't earn money for jeans or Nikes. It was for meals, electricity payments and rent," Sikahema said. "The Lutui kids grew up feeling a communal, team spirit about their family circumstances. Their faith sustained them through the most horrific of circumstances."
A father's example
In the years that followed, Inoke Lutui struggled with seizures, diabetes, brain damage and memory loss, but he found a way to support his family in a spiritual sense.
He began working all day in the Mesa LDS Temple. For more than two decades, if Inoke didn't have a ride, he walked to the temple and stayed from opening to closing, offering help for whatever was needed. Before his death in November 2009, Deuce's father had performed ordinances for more than 70,000 names, nearly enough to fill Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium (72,000 capacity). His legacy of temple service is a source of sacred joy for his family, Lutui said.
"He was dedicated to the Lord's work," Lutui said. "My father is one of the hardest workers I know, and I want to be like him."
From Mesa to Ephraim
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