Season in seclusion, part 1: East High football coach Brandon Matich tries to bind diverse team together
East tight end Joe Tukuafu agrees. Last season, in 2012, he watched from afar when he disregarded his studies. “I was mad at myself because it was a selfish move on my part,” he said. “I just hung out with my friends and chilled.”
Matich implemented mandatory tutoring sessions after practice, and one year removed, Tukuafu maintains a 3.0 GPA. “It really does bring up my self-esteem,” he said. “It has shown me to be a leader on and off the field and (raise) my character inside the classroom. Matich made me believe that school has to come first.”
In 2012, East expelled Tuikolovatu following an incident of attacking students in the hallways. “I didn’t even care. I think it was misdirected anger,” he said. He transferred to the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center. “(Sagers) said if my grades were good that I could come back. After the third term, I had a 3.6, and I said I wanted to stay at Horizonte to stay out of trouble. He said that’s all right, and I finished with a 3.9 GPA.”
Tuikolovatu is now back at East and out of mischief. “I don’t regret it because I learned a lot from that,” he said. “I think I’ve come pretty far. I learned that bottling up all my anger is not good — you can pop off at any second. I try not to be mad and live on the right side of life.”
“You can’t defend those things,” Matich added, “but at the same time, some of these kids come from such a unique background you’ve got to have the ability to see the big picture or you’re going to lose lives.”
Matich’s blueprint was working: The players were excelling in the classroom and on the gridiron. After East advanced to the state championship game in his second season, Matich believed he'd finally win a state title the next year and erase the one blemish on his legacy. The Leopards started 7-0 after outscoring their opponents 314-39. It seemed inevitable.
Before it was ineligible.
Coming Tuesday: Season in seclusion, part 2: Sanctions put the East High Leopards in crisis