SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah football player was among three teenagers killed in a rollover accident near Cuba, N.M., early Tuesday morning.
Defensive tackle Gaius “Keio” Vaenuku died in a crash that sent teammate Salesi Uhatafe to the hospital with minor injuries. The incoming freshmen to the program were teammates at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. They were headed home for the weekend before the Utes open fall camp Monday.
Uhatafe’s stepbrother Polo Manukainiu, a defensive tackle at Texas A&M, and 13-year-old brother Lolo Uhatafe were also killed in the accident. Uhatafe’s father, Salesi, Sr., survived.
“Everyone who knew Gaius is heartbroken today,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in a released statement. “He was the kind of young man who lit up a room and his future in football and life had no boundaries. Words cannot express our devastation over the loss of Gaius. This is a sad day not only for University of Utah football, but for everyone whose lives Gaius crossed or would have crossed but for this tragedy. Our hearts go out to Gaius’ and Salesi’s families, and to the Texas A&M coaches and players. We are praying for the speedy recovery of Salesi and his father.”
The Associated Press is reporting that the 2002 Toyota Sequoia the group was riding in drifted off the road on U.S. 550 and the driver overcorrected, causing the vehicle to roll several times.
Manukainiu and the youngest Uhatafe were ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene. Vaenuku was pronounced dead after being transported in an ambulance.
Officials said the two survivors were taken to the hospital and had minor injuries. Authorities said alcohol was not a factor and that the driver was the only one who was wearing a seat belt.
A Monday morning Twitter post by Manukainiu indicated that drowsiness may have been a factor. The Tweet read: “22 hour drive back to Texas on no sleep. Oh my.”
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin issued a statement on the death of Manukainiu.
"We lost a terrific young man," Sumlin said. "Polo was loved by his teammates and coaches. Anyone who came in contact with him was struck by his sense of humor and smile. My heart aches for his mom and family members."
The 19-year-old Manukainiu also played high school football at Trinity. He signed with Texas A&M in 2012 and redshirted last season.
Vaenuku was the 2012 District 6-5A Defensive Player of the Year in Texas. He helped lead Trinity to the area championship by racking up 72 tackles (13 behind the line of scrimmage) and seven sacks. He is survived by his parents, Sam and Sela Vaenuku, and four siblings.
When Vaenuku committed to the Utes in January, he told the Deseret News why he ultimately signed with Utah over TCU — noting it was tough to say no to Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs.
“I love the (LDS) institute building there. That thing is huge and is going to really help me prepare well for my mission,” Vaenuku said. “Playing football isn’t the most important thing for me right now — serving a mission is and Utah has a great environment to help me prepare for that. Honestly, if TCU had that same institute building and all it had to offer then I probably would have committed there.”
Vaenuku was also attracted to BYU, but decided Utah was a better fit.
“I liked BYU and felt good there, but not like how I felt being at Utah,” he said. “Utah just felt more like it was home and the place I needed to be.”
Vaenuku, who planned to play one season before departing on an LDS Church mission, was eager to join high school teammates Uhatafe and Sam Tevi, a defensive tackle with the Utes.
“I’m very good friends with both Sam and Salesi and I wouldn’t be the player I am today without having the opportunity to go up against Salesi,” Vaenuku said. “I would have committed to Utah even if they weren’t going there, but it definitely makes it better that they will be.”
Vaenuku expressed his appreciation for the coaching staff as well.
“I love the defensive coaches there and I know that Utah has a great tradition of developing defensive linemen and preparing them for the NFL,” he said. “I couldn’t be more happy that I’m going to be a Ute.”
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