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BYU, Utah football: Blood is thicker than water

Lifelong Cougar fan changing his colors this week

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 11:06 p.m. MDT

Tom Sitake, a lifelong BYU fan, has a son, Kalani, who is an assistant coach on Utah's football staff. He has torn loyalties for this week's game as a father who has had two sons play for the Cougars. Flags from both schools fly in front of his house, but he bleeds red Saturday because of Kalani's importance to the Utes' chances of winning. (August Miller, Deseret News) Tom Sitake, a lifelong BYU fan, has a son, Kalani, who is an assistant coach on Utah's football staff. He has torn loyalties for this week's game as a father who has had two sons play for the Cougars. Flags from both schools fly in front of his house, but he bleeds red Saturday because of Kalani's importance to the Utes' chances of winning. (August Miller, Deseret News)
PROVO — This is a week Tom Sitake should be torn in half, his emotions frayed, his loyalties tested.
He should be a guy in conflict, talking to friends, speaking to a shrink while he's laid out on a sofa in some room with fish staring at him through a big plate-glass wall.
Sitake has been a BYU fan all of his life — as loyal as you'll find on the planet. But his son, Kalani Sitake, a former Cougar fullback, draws a paycheck from the University Utah as the Utes' linebackers coach. It's his son's job to find a way to disrupt and ground Max Hall and the Cougar offense come Saturday.
"It's pretty simple," Sitake said Monday as he prepared for this week and a game he calls the most dramatic in rivalry history. "My loyalties are with my son. I love my son, I support Kalani, I have his back and he can count on me, win or lose.
"I am a BYU fan, I always will be, but my son has my love, my loyalty, and I want him to succeed."
Tom, who turns 59 on Wednesday, feels things in this conflict that few others will ever know.
To crawl inside his mind and know his heart, you have to know how devoted he is to what he believes. And in this case, his family comes first, even when he's flying two flags at his house — one blue and the other red.
His oldest son, David Pela, played defensive end for the Utes in the early '80s. Kalani turned down Hayden Fry at Iowa, Fisher DeBerry at Air Force and recruiting attention from Nebraska while a prepster in St. Louis, Mo., when LaVell Edwards came calling the day before signing day in the late-'90s.
His third son, T.J., followed Kalani to BYU out of Timpview High and finished his career in a loss to the Utes three years ago in LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Tom had to console T.J. that day. Then he went over to congratulate Kalani.
For the better part of a decade, Tom Sitake was a regular face seen at every BYU football practice from 1994 to 2005. Even now, when there is no conflict, he goes to BYU tailgate parties, where he helps shovel out food with his Polynesian friends who wear Cougar blue.
A year ago, he was released from his LDS Church calling as the first counselor in a Tongan ward bishopric. The bishop he served with was Joel Tuialeva, the uncle of former Cougar and Philadelphia Eagle running back Reno Mahe. The second counselor he served with was Jackson Unga, father of current BYU running back Harvey Unga.
Former Cougars Rob Morris, Brett Keisel, Justin Ena and the Heimuli brothers have been in his home. So have current players Ray Feinga, Harvey Unga, Fui Vakapuna and many others. His friendships with Cougar players go back to punter Lee Johnson, quarterback Jim McMahon and Vai Sikahema. Yet, he's had Utes, many of them his nephews — Kautai and Loma Olevao, Sione Pouha and Chris and Ma'ake Kemoeatu — in his house as honored guests.
"Tom is a level-headed guy who likes to sit down and slowly figure things out. He's a philosopher," said Bishop Tuialeva, who has known Tom Sitake since both were teens attending the church-owned Liahona High School outside Nuku'alofa, Tonga. "He is very wise and he loves his family and sons. I just love the guy."
The director of vocational rehabilitation at Utah State Hospital in Provo, Tom has been under scrutiny since son Kalani followed Ute defensive coordinator Gary Anderson from Southern Utah to the Utes.
While sitting down for lunch on Monday, a longtime friend, Timani Tonga, called him on his cell phone and asked who he'd pick this week. Tonga then told Tom as the patriarch of the family, he had to choose his son.
Another phone call. His brother Monty, a BYU graduate and die-hard Cougar fan, called and asked if he could score some tickets for Saturday.
Once viewed as a rock-solid BYU loyalist, folks in Provo wonder where his loyalties stand these days. A few seasons ago, he had a jersey made, and one side of it was red, the other blue. When asked if he'd pose in that for a picture, Tom declared he just couldn't do that to his son and refused. He is on a fashion binge to wear red for seven days leading up to Saturday's game.
Recently, his wife, who is a vice principal at an Alpine School District school, wanted him to go to a BYU practice and get a football signed. Jackson Unga urged Tom to accompany him, which he did. But he felt the eyes of a few on him at that practice, questioning his motives in being there. Then LaVell Edwards saw him, walked up and shook his hand and said, "Kalani is doing a great job, you must be proud of him."
Then Edwards called him Mr. Blue.
A year ago, after Utah defeated Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and a group were celebrating and invited him to be part of a photo shoot, which he did. Whittingham introduced Tom Sitake to the others, "This is Mr. Red."
You see the spotlight Tom Sitake dwells in these days.
Still, it's simple for the soft-spoken father, who describes himself as loyal a BYU fan as you will find.
"I will choose my son, I always will. When the game is over, win or lose, he will have my support. If BYU loses this game, I'll feel very sad for those players, but I will be proud of my son," Tom said.
When he talks to Kalani, it is rarely about football. "We talk of family and of his children, my two grandkids that I love so much.
"This will always be about family. There are others who have ties to Utah and BYU," Tom said. "The sad thing is, fans, not players, make this rivalry ugly. They say things that are nasty to players and coaches. I've seen it at both places. Utah fans can be the worst, but BYU fans are equally guilty — and they're sober.
"At the end of the day, when the games are over, families remain families and loyalty should always be the priority; it is with me and it should be for us all. This is just a game."
Sitake said, in his opinion, Saturday's game will match two of the best football teams to ever face off in this rivalry.
"It is a huge game and it will be close," he said. "It will be competitive because they both have great players whom I respect. I hate to see one of them lose, but one of them will.
"The only way I can look at this is both teams should come out and play their best and the best team should win. That's all you can ask for."

BYU-UTAH RIVALRY WEEK

No. 16 BYU at No. 8 Utah
Saturday, 4 p.m.
Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: The mtn.;
Radio: 700 AM, 1160 AM, 102.7 FM


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

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