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

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

“The way he takes you in and makes you feel like he’s my dad, like you’re a son to him, that was a huge part of my life, a huge turning point,” said Tolutau.

Matich said he saw Tolutau making choices that were going to sabotage his future — on and off the football field.

“Ula was taking a wrong path,” Matich said. “His journey in school, as a freshman, was taking him down a path that wasn’t going to lead to a good life.”

So one day Matich saw him outside the gym, and he spoke frankly with the boy.

“I remember specifically having a conversation with him,” said Matich. “I told him he’s got to make a choice. He was going to get into that life of crime and gangs, or he was going to be a student and an athlete. … It wasn’t a pleasant conversation.”

Matich told Tolutau he saw massive potential in him, but that if he didn’t learn to make better choices, he wouldn’t even make it in the high school’s football program.

“He got very emotional,” Matich said. They talked about his life, his loss and what he hoped to accomplish for himself. Talented on the field and a good student in the classroom, Tolutau hoped to play college football; he hoped the sport that kept him off the streets would help him earn an education, maybe even an easier life. He’s been able to realize that dream as he verbally committed to Wisconsin this summer. He and Laupata laugh as they joke about him opening the Polynesian pipeline of players to the Big 10. He can’t stop grinning as he discusses his future as a college football player.

That’s a sentiment Laupata, who hasn’t committed to a college yet, understands as well. He works hard for the same reasons, but it’s Tolutau who is able to articulate what the game means to the boys.

“Where me and Tua come from, if you’re not playing football, you’re probably running around in the streets,” said Tolutau, voted a team captain this year. He still writes his brother's initials (M.F.) on his leg before every game. “Football is a safe way to represent my family, show all the good things my parents taught me.”

Tolutau was, ironically, a teen who Laupata didn’t initially like when he transferred from West his sophomore year with his uncle, Junior Solovi, who is an assistant coach for the Leopards.

“That first month (at East) was rough,” said Laupata. “East and West, we don’t like each other.”

Tolutau is a little more direct about the bad blood between the two rival schools.

“We hated each other,” said Tolutau, one of the state’s best running backs with 12 touchdowns so far this season. “We already talked trash to each other when he was at West.”

Added Laupata with a grin, “Ula wasn’t happy. I’m from Rose Park; Ula is from Glendale.”

But the two became good friends, despite their earlier neighborhood and school differences, by working together as teammates.

The rivalry between the neighborhoods was palpable when Matich took over the East High football program four years ago. He said with players from Glendale choosing West and players from Rose Park choosing East, those boundaries are less defined today than they have been in years past.

The friendship of these two high-profile athletes, who both have prominent family names in their respective communities, has also eased some tension between the neighborhoods.

“That relationship helps bond those neighborhoods,” said Matich. “(Glendale and Rose Park) are full of such great kids.”