High school football: East players overcome adversity to find success, brotherly love

Published: Monday, Sept. 30 2013 4:15 p.m. MDT

Father and son, Hopate Tolutau and Ula Tolutau, cry after learning that the UHSAA ruled that East High can compete in the playoffs at East High School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012. The Tolutau family has also gone through deaths and arrests in the family, but the tribulation has bound Ula closer to his football team.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY – Tualagi Laupata didn’t have to say a word to Ula Tolutau about the excruciating pain so deep and dark he isn’t sure words will ever do it justice.

All he had to do was look into his friend’s eyes and he felt Tolutau understood his agony in a way few could.

The East High senior woke up on Valentine's Day 2011 to the cries of his mother. His baby sister, Jennifer, just 14 months old, had died in her sleep — without warning and without explanation.

Not that an explanation would ease the pain left in the hearts of her family. The way she died only adds to the painful questions that always accompany the death of a loved one.

“I live with my uncle, but my mom had called me to come and stay the night over there,” said Laupata, who plays safety for East High. “I held her one last time. There was nothing wrong with her. She was a healthy baby.” When he finally made it back to school, there was one friend, one teammate, one brother he knew would understand his loss, even if he never could find the words to express it.

It was senior running back Ula Tolutau, a young man who knew all too much about walking through pain and loss.

“I look to Ula because he went through this,” Laupata said. “When I came to school, Ula was there for me.”

They do not need to discuss their respective broken hearts to feel the support offered by the other’s friendship.

“We don’t really tell each other or talk about it,” said Tolutau. “He didn’t mention it that much. We don’t like to bring it up. We just keep it within ourselves.”

They admit they can sense when the other is having a bad day, a tough moment.

“We just know about each other, we understand,” said Laupata.

Tolutau had his turning point two years earlier when he was a freshman. In August 2009, his older brother, Tevita Tolutau, was arrested for robbing a Walmart.

“That was really hard,” he said. “It was hard because the FBI raided my house; my whole family was there, and they made everybody exit. I was in the shower, half naked, and I was scared. My brother was at my auntie’s and they took him from there. … I was lost at the moment.”

Six months later, in February 2010, his cousin, Maile Fine, whom he regards as a brother because he lived with the Tolutaus from the age of 4, accidentally shot himself. He was a freshman at East when the accident occurred.

It was a devastating blow to the already struggling teen.

“I was just mad at everybody,” said Tolutau. “I didn’t go to school; I stayed home.”

Two things kept him from taking the same path his oldest brother chose — his parents and East head coach Brandon Matich.

“The sun to my darkness was my parents,” Tolutau said. “How strong they stood. They were hurting, but they didn’t show it around us kids.” Things he took for granted, even tried to avoid, like family home evening, suddenly became cherished moments.

“We’d been doing it forever, but since my brother passed away, it meant way more.”

Tolutau was a good student and freshman class officer at East when Brandon Matich did something that Tolutau said changed the course of his life.