Utah football: Ute player makes most of his second chance after tragedy, terrible mistake

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

University of Utah's Viliseni Fauonuku is photographed on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The burly teenager sprinted through the house, frantically searching for the little boy who was just learning to talk.

He made his way to a remote bedroom and called the child's name before he even reached the room.

The mattress on the floor stopped him in the doorway. Something wasn't right.

"That wasn't on the floor before," the 19-year-old recalled. "I lifted up the mattress and he was just lying there."

Viliseni "Seni" Fauonuku scooped up the toddler and carried him to living room where the rest of the family had gathered.

"My mom started performing CPR," Fauonuku said softly. "Nothing happened."

The loving, little 18-month-old boy born to his older sister and named after him had suffocated under that mattress. And while it was clearly a tragic accident, 17-year-old Fauonuku blamed himself.

"He was a funny little guy," he said smiling, tears threatening to fall from his deep brown eyes. "He liked to go off by himself, watch the other kids play. I was always with him. He was one of my favorites."

Then a junior at Bingham High, Fauonuku stood helplessly watching his mother try to save her grandson, his sister heartbroken and frantic, and he crashed into such grief that he didn't think he'd survive.

"That's the worst thing I've ever been through in my whole life," he said, apologizing for stopping to choke back tears. "It's something I'd never wish up on anybody else, to ever have to witness that or go through that. Mentally and spiritually, it shut me down."

Fauonuku's grief sent him into a spiral that nearly cost him everything he'd worked for as a top high school football recruit. In fact, in the dark days that followed his nephew's tragic death, Fauonuku made decisions that would make him the poster boy for a Sports Illustrated article on how athletic programs shield criminals.

But those who knew him best said reporters didn't know the whole story. Instead of a hardened criminal who was protected from the full weight of the law because he was talented, they saw a heartbroken kid who was so devastated by a little boy's death that he prayed God might take him instead.

"He was not the same kid," said Bingham High head football coach Dave Peck. "This was not the same person that we'd grown to love. He'd basically given up on life."

Fauonuku grew up the youngest of seven children in California. When he was in seventh grade, he and his mother moved to Utah and he began to play sports for the first time in his life.

"I loved it right away," he said of football. "It was my first time doing anything athletic. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to put those pads on."

He was a lineman from the start because he was stocky and strong. He had plenty of relatives, especially cousins, but he'd never met his father.

That changed when he began getting into minor trouble in junior high. Fauonuku and his mom decided he needed the influence of a father, so she sent him to Texas to live with his biological father.

"It was weird," he said. "I got off the plane and there was this guy standing there … It was actually kind of rough. He's a strict guy and we bumped heads a lot."

It was difficult for Fauonuku to take direction from a man who hadn't been involved in his life. After two years, his parents agreed he needed to be reunited with his mom and siblings, so he moved back to Utah. He had cousins at Bingham, so he enrolled at school with them as a junior.

"Right away I loved it," he said. "Coach Peck had open arms for me, everyone had open arms and football was pretty much everything to me. It was the first time I thought about going to college."

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