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High school football: Family of ineligible Timpview players speaks out about controversy

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 5:56 a.m. MDT

 (Family photo) (Family photo)

PROVO — Peni Teisina would take his young children to work with him on a construction site for their benefit — not his.

As they struggled to keep up with their father in the hot, humid Hawaiian sun, he told them the reason he wanted them to suffer just a little.

"He would tell them that when they were sitting in an air-conditioned school, they should think of him sweating in the sun," said Salote Teisina, Peni's daughter. "And he said, 'Remember, the pencil is lighter than the shovel.'"

It is a lesson that Peni and his wife, Lesieli Teisina, taught Salote and Salote's four other biological siblings, as well as 11 other children the Teisinas took into their home as if they were their own. Gaining an education and earning a better life was so important to the Teisinas that Lesieli Teisina decided to move to Utah in 2008 with their two youngest biological children (both sons), the son of a friend, and three cousins whose mother had passed away when they were toddlers.

 (Family photo) (Family photo)

Salote Teisina said trouble is everywhere on the small island and keeping young people invested in something like sports can be the difference between a productive, satisfying life or a life of crime and heartbreak.

It was the passion her sons expressed for football that prompted Lesieli to move to Utah after two of her daughters moved to the state to attend college. Despite the distance from her husband and language barriers, Lesieli Teisina felt strongly enough about the opportunities in Utah that she bought a house in Provo and moved here with the six teenage boys.

Ironically, her desire to find the best opportunities for each boy began a series of events that would eventually lead to Timpview losing two region titles, a season of victories and a No. 1 seed in this year's 4A tournament.

Sione Tuifua, left, Lai Teisina (75), and Lesieli Teisina, right, celebrate after a Timpview game. (Family photo) Sione Tuifua, left, Lai Teisina (75), and Lesieli Teisina, right, celebrate after a Timpview game. (Family photo)

Timpview lost two region titles due to playing a single ineligible player in each of the last two years. Last year that player was Lai Teisina, the Teisinas' youngest biological son. This year that player — a practically homeless young man from Hawaii who'd never played football before — was Sione Tuifua, a person the Teisinas took in.

Salote Teisina wants people to know that no one involved in the controversial incidents intended to deceive, cause trouble or break rules. It was, instead, the combination of a compassionate family, cultural issues and a language barrier that led to unprecedented punishments for Timpview High and its football program.

But to understand what happened in the case, one has to go back to Hawaii where Lesieli and Peni Teisina first became concerned about keeping their children out of trouble and motivated in the classroom.

 (Family photo) (Family photo)

Lai Teisina is the youngest of the couple's five biological children and says football has always been his passion.

"Football has just been there my whole life," said Lai, who was a chubby child with a good-natured disposition when he was younger. "I don't know where I would be without it. It's just a door for me to get into college."

He was 12 when his parents decided that Lesieli Teisina should move to Utah with their two youngest boys and four other boys they'd raised.

"Maybe Lai was 10 or 11 years old, and my oldest son was 12 or 13, and I said, 'What do you want for your future? What's your goals?'" Lesieli recalled asking them. "Both of them answer, 'NFL.' I say, 'How can you play football? You are fat? You cannot move. You cannot run.' They say, 'You will see mom.' So I change my heart."

And she changed residences.

She bought a home in Provo and the three oldest boys went to and graduated from Provo High. She decided to rent the house in Provo to someone else, and she moved to Saratoga Springs where Lai and Ben Teisina (the older son) and another boy living with them attended Westlake High School.

Lesieli Teisina said the family had many cousins in Utah and they played at various high schools. Each encouraged them to come to their school when they moved to Utah, but they settled on Westlake.

A year later, the renters had left the Teisinas' Provo house in disrepair, and she decided to move back to that house and fix it up with the help of her daughters.

And while her older son, Ben Teisina, and his friend decided to stay at Westlake and graduate, her younger son, Lai Teisina asked if he could go to Timpview High.

A friend, Tevia Tolutau, talked up the T-bird football program and said how much it had helped him in achieving his goals.

"Nobody recruited me," said Lai, an offensive lineman who has several collegiate offers to play football. "I just heard that Timpview had a good program and my dream is to play football, so I wanted to go there."

The problem is that because the house was in Provo High's boundaries, the Teisinas should have filled out a request for a hardship waiver. Students can go anywhere they want for academic purposes, but once they establish athletic eligibility (which they do by simply attending a school), they have to file transfer and hardship requests with the Utah High School Activities Association to be eligible to play sports.

The Teisinas thought the move made him eligible. They weren't aware his out-of-boundary status needed approval.

"I didn't even know I had to fill out any paperwork," said Lesieli Teisina. "I thought all I do is transferring from school to school. When they told me Lai couldn't play because of that, I feel sad."

There is a tryout checklist every student athlete fills out when he or she tries out for any athletic team statewide. On that checklist it asks parents if a student has attended another school. When that's checked, it alerts school officials to ask if transfer paperwork has been filed with the Utah High School Activities Association. She did not check it because she didn't know she needed to do so.

Her daughter said her mother wasn't trying to be dishonest.

"Had we known we had to fill out additional paperwork, it would have been done," said Salote Teisina. "I was on my (LDS) mission when my mom moved, and she barely speaks English."

Lai Teisina started every game in the 2011 season for the T-birds, so when the violation came to light (because another player from Westlake who was denied a transfer to Orem pointed it out), Timpview was punished for playing him with a fine, loss of region title, forfeiting that season of wins and a year of probation.

"I felt bad because I didn't know what was happening," said Lai Teisina. "I didn't know what was going on. I felt like it wasn't fair — that it was my fault. It was hard for me because my whole team suffered."

While Lai was devastated that he'd cost the team those wins and the 2011 region title, Timpview head coach Cary Whittingham said the team didn't blame the boy.

"None of the kids cared a lick," said Whittingham. "They were all pulling for him to be eligible. He missed a bunch of games this year because we didn't know where (his transfer) was at. … He didn't do anything intentionally."

The school's new principal, Todd McKee, wanted to ensure there were no other problems so he checked the roster himself. That's when he found the second ineligible player who'd participated in four games this season — Tuifua.

Tuifua lives with the Teisinas.

Salote Teisina said her parents knew Tuifua, an immigrant from Tonga who'd lived with several relatives before the Teisinas took him in last year. When Lesieli Teisina went home for Christmas last December, she decided to bring Tuifua back to Utah as he was the same age as Lai Teisina. She hoped Lai might be a good influence on Tuifua, who was struggling in school and not on track to graduate.

He calls Lesieli Teisina his aunt, and she feels and acts like she is his family.

"My parents love the kids (they take in) like they love me and my brothers," she said. "And of the 16 kids, 12 have graduated from high school."

Unfortunately, the UHSAA's rules aren't equipped to deal with a situation in which aunts and uncles might raise relatives without actual legal guardianship. The rules require a court order exchanging guardianship because of cases in the past where players have lived with friends, coaches and even boosters to skirt the rules.

But Salote Teisina said her parents were just trying to help a young man with very little direction and support. Tuifua had never played football, and only did so at Lai Teisina's urging so he could be a part of something that would help him in school and life.

"He didn't really want to play at first," said Lai Teisina. "But then he wanted to try something new. It has helped him a lot. It kept us busy, and he liked it."

At one point, Tuifua quit the team.

Whittingham and the other coaches went to him and asked him to come back because they knew he had a better chance to graduate if he was part of the team than if he was not. Their kindness led to him playing sparingly at the end of games Timpview was winning handily.

"Football is so important to them that it was easy to keep them involved in school," said Whittingham.

Even after the state declared him ineligible and forbid him from playing, Timpview coaches encouraged him to stay involved. He was on the sidelines of the team's games, even if he could never play. Salote Teisina believes the support of the team and coaches have helped Tuifua, who has made up massive credits and should graduate next spring.

While the UHSAA will discuss changes to the rule about teams that play ineligible players, little has been discussed about how ineligible players are discovered and how to avoid the problem in the first place.

Whittingham said that because Tuifua had never played sports at another high school, he's not sure that his case ever would have been caught if McKee hadn't audited their roster. He's certain Timpview won't have problems as McKee's made changes to their internal system.

But as for the rest of the state, he's not sure.

"Every school has out-of-boundary kids," he said.

Salote Teisina said she's just grateful that the team embraced both boys and never blamed them. She's grateful that her brother was able to play in the playoffs and that he has several offers to attend college on a football scholarship.

And she's grateful the T-birds won the 4A state title with her brother in lineup. After all he'd been through, she said, he deserved the joy that came with that win.

While some may disagree with using athletics to help young people achieve success in academics, the Teisinas know first-hand how sports can be what saves some people. It can be, as Lai said, the door to greater opportunities.

"You know, as I reflect on the season and about my brothers, I have come to learn a great thing from them and it's the importance of being humble and grateful," said Salote Teisina. "We have so much to be thankful for this season, and I'm thankful for parents that cared enough about their children to leave Hawaii to come to Utah. ... She gave up being with her husband every day so that we could find a future for ourselves and I'm so happy that we (my parents' biological kids) are doing everything that we can to make them happy."

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