I was raised in the (LDS) church. I always acknowledge the Lord first. He's the one who blesses me with the things I've got, who has helped me through a lot, through thick and thin. —East High linebacker Patrick Palau
SALT LAKE CITY — Patrick Palau wanted to ask the man who was supposed to love him most why he was hurting him so severely.
The chubby but athletic 11-year-old didn't understand why the father he'd just met at his mother's funeral would want to yank him from the only home he'd ever known.
But the child didn't have the words.
And the man didn't seem to care.
"I was afraid," Patrick said softly. "I was terrified."
While Patrick worked in vain to please his father, his grandparents and uncles worked to find him. The child was not aware of their desperate battle, but in those worst moments, he said he felt their love. It was the memories of their voices, of his mother's voice, that he clung to in his darkest hours.
"It wasn't like it clicked," said the East High linebacker, while casting his eyes to the ground and admitting this is not something he's ever talked about. "It was not like father and son. It just wasn't there for me and him."
His father, who'd divorced Patrick's mom when he was a toddler, apparently thought he could create that relationship with a most sinister method — take him from the family who'd raised him, isolate him and earn his respect by hitting him.
"After my mom passed away, I was taken from everything I knew," said Patrick of his mother's death in April 2005. "My dad just beat me up; he didn't know what I was going through at the time. … I just wanted to be back with my (family). … I wanted to ask him, 'Why would you do this to me after I lost my mom?' "
But he did not ask the man who hurt him.
Instead, Patrick turned to the man his mother taught him would ease his burdens, no matter how painful.
"Heavenly Father," he said, blushing with uncertainty and embarrassment at sharing so many personal feelings with a stranger. "I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but … I was raised in the (LDS) church. I always acknowledge the Lord first. He's the one who blesses me with the things I've got, who has helped me through a lot, through thick and thin."
The prayers of that child, and the family that now raises him, were answered when, after three agonizing months, in late-summer of 2005, an uncle saw Patrick in Oregon and contacted police.
Patrick said the custody fight concluded a few months later, just west of East High, where he now spends his days working to create a future for himself and a legacy for his mother.
The burly linebacker, now 18, doesn't often talk about his past or his pain. He just tries to enjoy the blessings of his life. The strong young man's gentle ways and friendly demeanor almost mock his ferocity on the football field.
A three-year starter and two-time captain of the East High football team, Patrick beams when he talks about begging his mother to sign him up for football when he was just 8 years old.
"I like it because of the contact," he said with the slightest playfulness. "But it's not just a game of football; it's a game of life. I've learned from football. It gets my anger out there on the field. Instead of turning it on other people, I just put it on the field."
But even before he experienced more pain and betrayal than some adults ever know, he played with the kind of intensity and focus that impressed anyone who watched.
"I always knew, even (in) little league, the way he conducted himself, I knew he would be an outstanding player and person," said Kimi Palau, the youngest of Patrick's mother's four brothers. "There is no doubt, he is special."
Patrick said growing up the only son of Lavinia and Salesi Manu Palau's only daughter, Viola Palau, was too wonderful to describe.
"She was the greatest mom you could ever ask for," he said, smiling and sitting up a little straighter. "Words can't define her. You have to be in my shoes to understand what I've been through, what I've been through with her."
Patrick insists that because of his mother's efforts, he never felt cheated not to have a father.
"I just looked up to my mom because she played the role of a mother and a dad," he said. "I didn't know how she did it, but I think that's what mothers do."
And what Viola's family has done every day since breast cancer ended her life four days before her 36th birthday is try to honor her final request.
"With her last breath," said Ilaiakimi Palau, the youngest of Patrick's uncles, "that's all she asked, was for us as her brothers to take care of him."
He said Viola's brothers would have done so even if she'd never asked, because that's the way their family is. In fact, even before her death, Patrick's football games were something of a weekly family reunion with everyone packing the sidelines for nearly every single contest.
Ilaiakimi was closest in age to Patrick and felt a special kinship with the boy.
"I grew up carrying him with me," he said on a cool Friday night as he and three of his brothers joined his parents in the stands at East High. "This is just our family."
Sitting with them, it's clear where Patrick learned his humble way and inexhaustible good manners. They cheer for good plays, regardless of who makes them, laugh and talk amongst themselves, and never yell or complain. They exude pride and affection for the other East players, but there is a particular tone of pride every time they talk about Patrick.
"In some ways, it's like he has more than one set of parents," said his aunt Tae Palau, who married into the family when Patrick was 10. "He's a good kid. He listens, and he has a really strong foundation. He is almost immovable in his standards."
Tears fell down her face as she tried to fathom what it was like for Viola to know she would have to rely on her family to raise her only child.
"I can't imagine," she said. "I have a 7-year-old and I can't imagine what life would be like for her if I was gone."
The family was devastated to lose Viola, and that pain made their fight for Patrick more urgent.
"It was very hard," Ilaiakimi said. "I felt like our family was not complete, like our life was not complete. We had to have him."
When Patrick first returned home, he said he didn't know how to express his gratitude for their efforts. But he did know, even at 11, that he should follow their example.
"It was an overwhelming feeling. It felt really good; it was a humbling experience," said Patrick. "I am truly grateful for my grandparents. … I went through a lot. … I forgive (my dad), though. I don't know why things happen, but it's something I needed to forgive and forget. I can't think about it. I can't let it take over me."
East High football coach Brandon Matich said Patrick's most impressive moments don't come on the football field.
"I think that outside of my wife, Patrick is the most impressive human being I've ever met," said Matich. "Our (players) and myself, we turn to Pat for everything. If there is an issue at the school, I usually consult Patrick first. He's the first guy I make contact with. The kids look up to him; he takes care of everybody."
When Matich considers the situations the teen has navigated, he is even more impressed.
"It's shocking," he said. "But the way he's turned out, he could have completely gone the other direction."
Chunky most of his life, Patrick made a commitment to better health when he was in junior high and put himself on a diet. His aunt said he didn't eat after a certain time at night, and never really explained his reasons for wanting to shed pounds. He didn't ask for help and he didn't waver in his quest.
"It was amazing to us," said Tae Palau. "He is just a very committed kid. Whatever he puts his mind to, he will do it."
Patrick said he avoids bitterness and resentment by focusing on his blessings, which include not just a family that went to great lengths to keep him, but significant football talent. His skills earned him a scholarship offer from BYU, which he said he's grateful to accept but only after he serves a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I'm so excited to go on a mission," he said, the smile returning to his face. "Every game, I don't know if anyone even realizes, but ever since freshman year, I have (the scripture) Ether 12:27 written on my gloves or my towel or any gear I wear. I heard it at my closest friend's brother's mission farewell. It's helped me so much."
He said it promises that if he's humble and accepting of the circumstances that come his way, God will "make weak things strong."
"There are a lot of problems out there, not football, like school, friends, everyone I'm around," he said. "You can find trouble everywhere. It doesn't matter. Trouble will always be there."
And in both his best and worst moments, Patrick summons his mother. He misses her embrace, basks in her love and remembers her advice. He believes she watches over him, and he smiles shyly at the thought of what she might say to him today.
"I wish she was here," he admits wistfully. "I know she'd be happy and excited, but not because of football. I think she'd be excited because of my education."
And while he tries to honor her with the way he lives, Patrick said he is also honoring the grandparents who have loved him so well.
"They make me happy and I want to make them happy," he said. "Because of them, I'm a better person. They're my biggest role models, and they tell me the truth."
Which is why, when Patrick will stand on the East High football field this Friday night and be honored at the team's senior night, he will not be thinking about what he's lost or what he never had. Instead, his only thoughts will be how grateful he is to have his aunts and uncles in the stands, his grandparents by his side and his mother in his heart.