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
As a youngster, Lutui loved football and the Arizona Cardinals. He dreamed of one day playing in the NFL and using his paychecks to provide a better life for his family.
Despite short parents (both are under 5-foot-6), Lutui was blessed with height, girth and strength. "Deuce is kind of an anomaly," Sikahema said.
The powerfully built Tongan started both ways and excelled on the field at Mesa High. He earned all the right honors and accolades.
Originally, he signed with the University of Utah but didn't qualify academically. He spent a year at Mesa Community College but transferred to Snow College after the coaching staff was fired.
Lutui's stellar play continued at Snow, but off the field he struggled with personal challenges. He was in an unfamiliar environment. He needed help academically, and there were problems with his citizenship status. It was also a period of growth he said that "molded him into a man."
"Snow was truly one of the hardest times of my career," he said.
Lutui wanted to serve an LDS mission, but due to complications with his citizenship status following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it didn't work out.
Academically, Lutui found support in Claudia Olsen, who works in Snow's student support services program and advises the Polynesian Club. He still calls her "Mom" to this day.
"Claudia took care of me," Lutui said. "She was an inspiration."
Ephraim is also where Lutui met his wife, Pua Heimuli of West Valley City, Utah, who also helped him improve his grades. They met when he sat in front of her in class, and she couldn't see around him.
"She constantly tapped my shoulder to get me to move," Lutui said. "She was really just flirting. That's how we hit it off."
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, then-USC coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow decided they needed the best junior college offensive lineman in the country. Chow traveled to Snow College and saw Lutui play. That was enough. They had found their man.
Lutui considered BYU and Nebraska, but committed to USC because it was an opportunity to maximize his talents, much to the disappointment of his cousin Vai, a former Cougar great.
"I think he could sense the bigger picture," Chow said. "There was nothing wrong with going to an LDS school, but when you reach higher, when your goals are higher and you do something different, then the rewards are greater. I think that sold him, that he could be the best he could be."
A Trojan missionary
Lutui laughed when he said he was the only married player on the team at USC but not the only one with a kid. "If you are not careful, it would be easy to get caught up in worldly things there," he said.
Lutui said his testimony really developed during his time at USC. He excitedly tackled then-President Gordon B. Hinckley's challenge to read the Book of Mormon. He began with a chapter a day and soon craved the scriptures over food.
Lutui viewed his athletic talent as a way to do missionary work. Deuce and Pua also delighted in inviting teammates over for dinner and family home evening. "They would come over for the free food, not knowing we were going to share our religion," he said.
Coach Chow, a convert to the church, occasionally scheduled firesides and informed Lutui he was one of the main speakers. On one such occasion, Lutui's friend and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Matt Leinart, who is not a Mormon, was persuaded to speak at a fireside. When Leinart asked Lutui for advice, the strapping lineman told him to "just say the church is true." The QB almost complied.
Chow scheduled the firesides on the advice of Steve Young.
"It wasn't an invitation; it was a mandate," Chow said. "When a Mormon plays for programs like USC or UCLA, you have a chance to be an example to a lot of people. (Speaking at firesides) also helps you stay close to the church."
By playing hard on the field and sharing his beliefs in a friendly way, Lutui gained the respect and admiration of his teammates.
"Deuce Lutui is a far-reaching individual," Chow said. "He is very well respected in many areas, not only in the church, but as an NFL player."
Perhaps one of Lutui's great memories of USC came right after the Trojans beat Oklahoma for the 2004 national championship in Miami. Lutui was able to return in time for Pua to give birth to their first child, whom they named Inoke. All four of the couple's children were born on game days.
The Roman soldier
Lutui was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the 2006 draft. Then-Cardinals coach Dennis Green referred to Lutui as a "road grader," and it didn't take the muscular 6-foot-4, 330-pound guard long to solidify himself as a starter on the offensive line.
"Deucey embodies the very best of Tongan characteristics. He has enormous faith. He is loving and charitable," Sikahema said. "But on the field of battle, he will cut your heart out."
A few months before his second year in the league in 2007, Lutui approached organizers of the annual Mesa Arizona Easter Pageant and offered his acting skills. He had attended the pageant as a boy and had always dreamed of playing the role of a Roman soldier. It turned out they needed one more soldier. Pageant director Nanci Wudel made Lutui promise he would use his celebrity status to help promote the pageant.
It was a deal, Lutui agreed.
"I thought it was a good opportunity to do some missionary work," he said.
When word leaked that the massive NFL lineman was on the cast, the news media swarmed to report the story. Lutui only granted interviews, however, if reporters went with him on a guided tour of the Mesa Temple visitors' center. The interview typically concluded with Lutui's testimony of the gospel. He invited his coaches and teammates to attend the pageant and offered to visit with young men from local wards and stakes after each rehearsal.
"He was such an example, so spiritual, kind and humble, no ego whatsoever," Wudel said. "You would never know he was an NFL football player."
Aside from blocking his stage movements using Xs and Os, a favorite memory for Wudel was seeing Deuce in his toga, leather armor and plumed helmet. "He was perfect for the role," she said.
On the morning of Feb. 1, 2009, Raymond James Stadium was the center of the universe. NFL fans around the globe were buzzing in anticipation of the mega matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. In roughly six hours, more than 150 million viewers would tune in for the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLIII.
While the world focused on football, one Arizona player was lost in spiritual reflection.
Lutui was taking the sacrament. He pondered the Atonement of Jesus Christ and thought of his parents, who were back in Arizona attending church meetings. In six hours he intended to pancake Pittsburgh's 300-pound defensive linemen in the trenches, but his baptismal covenants were of higher concern at the moment.
"We didn't win that game, but partaking of the sacrament was the most important part of the day," Lutui said.
The Super Bowl was not the first game his parents missed. The Lutuis elected not to attend his Sunday NFL games when he entered the league, with one exception. Lutui's mother once accompanied a relative visiting from Tonga. When Lutui injured his knee in that game, he joked, "See what happens when you come, Mom?"
"When it comes to Sundays they have made a covenant to keep the Sabbath Day holy," Lutui said. "They go to church and remember me in their prayers. They have been a huge part of my career success."
It's a personal choice, Sikahema said.
"Who among us, if we had a child in the NFL or NBA, would not attend their games? But that is their way of honoring Deuce. They feel it will bless and prolong his career," Sikahema said. "It speaks volumes of the kind of home he grew up in."
Starting in high school, a father's priesthood blessing was essential at the beginning of each season. When Lutui arrived at training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., last August, he missed his father dearly and desired a blessing. He began knocking on dorm doors and finally found former BYU quarterback Max Hall on the fourth floor eating a sandwich. Lutui said the rookie quarterback was happy to give a blessing.
"It was my first blessing away from my father, and it was powerful. I felt my father's presence," Lutui said with emotion. "I'll never forget it."
Life is good
Despite the Cardinals' current losing season, Deuce Lutui is happy with his life.
This past July he finally became a U.S. citizen.
He and Hall were recently invited to switch on the Christmas lights at the Mesa Arizona Temple gardens, an honor in the community.
Back at Fred Taukei'aho's Sports Grill & Drive on Main Street in Manti, Utah, six miles from where Lutui played at Snow College, there is a popular item on the menu called the "Deuce Burger."Comment on this story
Lutui has also made a personal inner commitment to become T-B-O-L-I-T-N-F-L, which stands for "The Best Offensive Lineman In The NFL," and his story is inspiring others.
As long as Deuce Lutui can, he will continue to play football like a warrior, bring honor to his family and be a missionary for the church.
"I just want to bear witness of Jesus Christ, that he lives," he said, repeating the words he told news media at the Easter pageant. "If more people can bear record and have faith in him, this world would be such a better place."