Season in seclusion, part 1: East High football coach Brandon Matich tries to bind diverse team together

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4 2014 9:15 a.m. MST

He hesitates, compulsively tapping his “Boise State” blue-and-orange-colored Nikes — searching for the politically correct adage to expound his thoughts. “I’m really good at English. My vocabulary is off the charts. Obviously, I’m still a teenager and I talk with bad words, but I talk … ”

He pauses once more, this time peering toward the ceiling.

“Not as ebonical,” he giggles.

The business of football creates an avenue to escape reality. Players exchange rags for rushes; tattoos for touchdowns; and drugs for diplomas. Tuikolovatu tweets recruiting letters captioned by, “Playing football to get out of the struggle! #DreamBig.”

“My family is not wealthy, so I’m playing to help get out of the neighborhood we’re living in and to get out of the financial struggles,” he said. “I think that’s the main reason me and my brother play. We see the struggle my mom and dad go through, and we play football because that’s the only way we know how to get out. … When I feel my weaknesses I come to football and grind it out even harder.”

“Football is big, especially in the Polynesian community,” Langi adds. “If they don’t have football, they’re out banging with everyone else in the hood. Football is an out for these guys.”

Dreaming big doesn’t require ambitions of endless riches, luxury cars and red carpets. It’s much simpler.

“They make their garages bedrooms,” Matich says. “They have so many kids in the home that there’s not enough room. They board in the garage and throw a mattress on the floor.”

“Think of the motivation,” Sagers adds. “For mothers in particular, they love the fact that they can visualize their kid going to college rather than doing what their older brothers and uncles have done. I’ve seen kids that if they didn’t have any other transition after high school they would have no option other than to fall back into the gang life.”

This pursuit of betterment is a two-part equation. Too often players neglect classroom responsibilities and perish by the pencil. “It doesn’t do a kid any good if they’re a great football player and they’re not eligible through the NCAA clearinghouse,” Sagers says.

Folau encapsulates the student-athlete. He’s an accomplished pianist, a 4.0 GPA honor student and recently a Stanford commit. “It was a place that puts me where I can be successful,” he said of his desire to pursue sports medicine in Palo Alto, Calif. “I don’t want to only show my strengths on the football field. I want to show them in school as well.

“I’ve always strived to be in a position to help my parents and my sisters,” Folau continued. “I’m grateful for where I’m at right now. I just try my best in school and football to make (my family) proud. I know when I get older that I’ll be able to pay them back.”

Dedication to books doesn’t come naturally for others. Established habits and outside influences continuously threaten progress. Not long ago a highly recruited athlete failed to attend two ACT tests because his father neglected to transport him. He had one final shot before the scholarship hourglass tipped empty. At 11 p.m. the night before, Matich shot out of bed.

“I freaked out and thought he wasn’t going to make it again,” Matich recounted. “I jumped in my car, went and got him and put him in our spare bedroom. I got up early in the morning, went to the grocery store and got him pencils, a calculator and some snack food. I came home, made him a good breakfast, woke him up and he took a shower, and I drove him to the test at the University of Utah. I went home, came back, and took him back home.”

Matich didn’t receive financial compensation or reimbursement, and nowhere on his coaching contract is “chauffeur” written. “He’s more than a coach to us — he’s our guardian,” Tuikolovatu said. “He takes care of us.”