Editor's note: This is the first in a series of commentaries looking at BYU's increased recruiting strategy among Polynesian communities.
PROVO — Growing up on the north shore of Oahu, Mark Atuaia and Itula Mili were inseparable barefoot Samoan kids on the beaches around Laie, and both became superstar football players at storied Kahuku High. Atuaia became one of the most prolific running backs in Hawaiian high school history. Both played at BYU, and while Atuaia never made it to the NFL, Mili, a tight end, did.
Almost quietly last month, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe announced he'd hired Atuaia as his assistant in BYU's athletic administration. Atuaia will be working as a mentor and liaison for student-athletes and coaches and "work with the community to build relationships and strengthening ties to BYU athletics."
It is the latter part of that quote that draws my attention.
I say "quietly" because that's kind of how it was delivered to the public through a simple functional press release. In the Polynesian community, the hire of Atuaia has been trumpeted as a huge step by BYU to prime its pipeline to the islands and cement relations in the culturally diverse corners of Utah's Tongan and Samoan communities.
The Cougars have had a tremendous resource at their disposal over the years with LDS ties to Hawaii, Samoa and Tonga. It has been good for them. But it is fair to say, at times, BYU has been better at working this sowing field than others, and at times has taken it for granted.
Not any more, with increased institutional interest by BYU administrators who are actively engaging Utah's 26,000-plus population with bloodlines to Tonga and Samoa.
"It is an awesome thing," said former East High, BYU and NFL player Fui Vakapuna.
"The things Mark Atuaia can do and what he represents to Polynesians is a very big deal, and it will be a big key for BYU and how it relates to our people. He can talk to kids but he can also be a voice to BYU's administration to educate them."
It has already had an impact, from Western and American Samoa to the North Shore of Oahu and even here in Utah, according to Gabe Reid, another former Cougar and a member of the LDS Church's Provo Wasatch Tongan Stake high council.
"No question, this is making a difference for BYU in recruiting Polynesian football players around the country. BYU has always done a great job taking advantage of loyalty by Samoan and Tongan families in their recruiting, but this has just enhanced it in a significant way."
Combine the Atuaia hire with Mendenhall's visit to New Zealand and sending offensive coordinator Brandon Doman to Samoa this past spring, and Reid says it becomes obvious BYU has gone on the offensive to strategize on how it can optimize its connections with Polynesian football players.
"Mark is a guy people look up to, can turn to and he understands what they are and will go through," said Reid.
While going to law school, Atuaia stood on the sidelines of BYU games alongside his friend and mentor Robert Anae. Players say of all the Cougar personnel, coaches and staff, it was the voice of Atuaia that stood out the loudest and most passionate every Saturday.
"Mark's motivation has always been he wants to be there for kids, to be a person they can trust and confide in. He's wanted to coach, but that opportunity never worked out for him and that's OK, because things work out for a reason," said Reid, who like Atuaia is of Samoan heritage.
"It's one thing to be of influence as a coach, but to be in the position he's in now just gives him a farther reach."
Both BYU and Utah have built their successful football programs on the backs of Polynesian football players. Both schools have excelled in finding and developing talent. They battle one another for many of the same recruits. Relationships are everything.
"We are a touchy-feely people," said Reid. "In order to reach an athlete, you have to go through his family. You have to find out who the decision makers are, and you must relate to them because that's where it all happens."
In the past six month, it appears BYU has "upped" its ante in this sweepstakes.
"And that's where this move is key for BYU," said Reid. "Mark is one of the great examples of what is important and should be important for Polynesian youth who grow up believing their one big chance to make it to the big time is to get in the NFL. The reality is, not everyone makes it to the NFL, and there has to be more for them to shoot for."
Atuaia did just that. He is the ultimate example.
One of Hawaii's most celebrated football stars, Atuaia's college career at BYU was up and down. I remember just after his LDS mission to Arizona, he was in Tucson preparing for the Copper Bowl when a frustrating practice led to him throwing down his helmet. Obviously growing from that experience, as a senior he made huge plays in extending a game-winning drive against Wyoming in the final WAC championship in Las Vegas in 1994.
That was the end of Atuaia's football career. He had every excuse to get a job and never return to school again. He got married and was on his way to becoming a dad to six children. Seven years after his final BYU season, Atuaia finished his degree at BYU-Hawaii in 2003 and returned to Provo to get his master's degree in public administration in 2009. He then volunteered to help coach BYU as an aide to offensive coordinator Anae and entered law school, where he earned his doctor of jurisprudence at J. Rueben Clark Law School in 2011.
Atuaia just finished working as an assistant to BYU's dean of student life, Vern Heperi.
"Mark proved how important it is to get an education, that it is a worthy and necessary goal, that there is life beyond football and education is a high priority," Reid said.
The Atuaia hire carries more weight than shuffling or creating titles on BYU's campus.
Next: BYU is directly targeting Polynesian LDS ties in Utah and the South Pacific.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company