SALT LAKE CITY – Tualagi Laupata didn’t have to say a word to Ula Tolutau about the excruciating pain so deep and dark he isn’t sure words will ever do it justice.
All he had to do was look into his friend’s eyes and he felt Tolutau understood his agony in a way few could.
The East High senior woke up on Valentine's Day 2011 to the cries of his mother. His baby sister, Jennifer, just 14 months old, had died in her sleep — without warning and without explanation.
Not that an explanation would ease the pain left in the hearts of her family. The way she died only adds to the painful questions that always accompany the death of a loved one.
“I live with my uncle, but my mom had called me to come and stay the night over there,” said Laupata, who plays safety for East High. “I held her one last time. There was nothing wrong with her. She was a healthy baby.” When he finally made it back to school, there was one friend, one teammate, one brother he knew would understand his loss, even if he never could find the words to express it.
It was senior running back Ula Tolutau, a young man who knew all too much about walking through pain and loss.
“I look to Ula because he went through this,” Laupata said. “When I came to school, Ula was there for me.”
They do not need to discuss their respective broken hearts to feel the support offered by the other’s friendship.
“We don’t really tell each other or talk about it,” said Tolutau. “He didn’t mention it that much. We don’t like to bring it up. We just keep it within ourselves.”
They admit they can sense when the other is having a bad day, a tough moment.
“We just know about each other, we understand,” said Laupata.
Tolutau had his turning point two years earlier when he was a freshman. In August 2009, his older brother, Tevita Tolutau, was arrested for robbing a Walmart.
“That was really hard,” he said. “It was hard because the FBI raided my house; my whole family was there, and they made everybody exit. I was in the shower, half naked, and I was scared. My brother was at my auntie’s and they took him from there. I was lost at the moment.”
Six months later, in February 2010, his cousin, Maile Fine, whom he regards as a brother because he lived with the Tolutaus from the age of 4, accidentally shot himself. He was a freshman at East when the accident occurred.
It was a devastating blow to the already struggling teen.
“I was just mad at everybody,” said Tolutau. “I didn’t go to school; I stayed home.”
Two things kept him from taking the same path his oldest brother chose — his parents and East head coach Brandon Matich.
“The sun to my darkness was my parents,” Tolutau said. “How strong they stood. They were hurting, but they didn’t show it around us kids.” Things he took for granted, even tried to avoid, like family home evening, suddenly became cherished moments.
“We’d been doing it forever, but since my brother passed away, it meant way more.”
Tolutau was a good student and freshman class officer at East when Brandon Matich did something that Tolutau said changed the course of his life.
“The way he takes you in and makes you feel like he’s my dad, like you’re a son to him, that was a huge part of my life, a huge turning point,” said Tolutau.
Matich said he saw Tolutau making choices that were going to sabotage his future — on and off the football field.
“Ula was taking a wrong path,” Matich said. “His journey in school, as a freshman, was taking him down a path that wasn’t going to lead to a good life.”
So one day Matich saw him outside the gym, and he spoke frankly with the boy.
“I remember specifically having a conversation with him,” said Matich. “I told him he’s got to make a choice. He was going to get into that life of crime and gangs, or he was going to be a student and an athlete. It wasn’t a pleasant conversation.”
Matich told Tolutau he saw massive potential in him, but that if he didn’t learn to make better choices, he wouldn’t even make it in the high school’s football program.
“He got very emotional,” Matich said. They talked about his life, his loss and what he hoped to accomplish for himself. Talented on the field and a good student in the classroom, Tolutau hoped to play college football; he hoped the sport that kept him off the streets would help him earn an education, maybe even an easier life. He’s been able to realize that dream as he verbally committed to Wisconsin this summer. He and Laupata laugh as they joke about him opening the Polynesian pipeline of players to the Big 10. He can’t stop grinning as he discusses his future as a college football player.
That’s a sentiment Laupata, who hasn’t committed to a college yet, understands as well. He works hard for the same reasons, but it’s Tolutau who is able to articulate what the game means to the boys.
“Where me and Tua come from, if you’re not playing football, you’re probably running around in the streets,” said Tolutau, voted a team captain this year. He still writes his brother's initials (M.F.) on his leg before every game. “Football is a safe way to represent my family, show all the good things my parents taught me.”
Tolutau was, ironically, a teen who Laupata didn’t initially like when he transferred from West his sophomore year with his uncle, Junior Solovi, who is an assistant coach for the Leopards.
“That first month (at East) was rough,” said Laupata. “East and West, we don’t like each other.”
Tolutau is a little more direct about the bad blood between the two rival schools.
“We hated each other,” said Tolutau, one of the state’s best running backs with 12 touchdowns so far this season. “We already talked trash to each other when he was at West.”
Added Laupata with a grin, “Ula wasn’t happy. I’m from Rose Park; Ula is from Glendale.”
But the two became good friends, despite their earlier neighborhood and school differences, by working together as teammates.
The rivalry between the neighborhoods was palpable when Matich took over the East High football program four years ago. He said with players from Glendale choosing West and players from Rose Park choosing East, those boundaries are less defined today than they have been in years past.
The friendship of these two high-profile athletes, who both have prominent family names in their respective communities, has also eased some tension between the neighborhoods.
“That relationship helps bond those neighborhoods,” said Matich. “(Glendale and Rose Park) are full of such great kids.”
Both the boys and their coaches understand the role football plays in the lives of these young men. In fact, it was Tolutau’s grades dropping at the end of football season that prompted Matich to have that pivotal chat.
Now Matich leans on them to lead other boys who struggle with the same complex issues that are not easily addressed by school officials.
“Ula really decided to change on his own,” said Matich. “That’s why he’s a Wisconsin-type kid. He has natural leadership qualities in him. I’ve leaned on him heavily; I trust him; I respect him. It says a lot about Ula that he made the changes, because a lot of these kids don’t make it out. They don’t feel like they can. The pull of the neighborhood is stronger than academics or sports. We battle it all the time with a lot of our kids.”
Tolutau just has to think of his parents and those initials on his leg to find the will to continue on the productive path he’s chosen. Laupata, who hasn’t committed to a college yet, only has to remember why he wears number 14 every week.
“I wear it to represent my baby sister,” he said of Jennifer. “She was 14 months old, exactly.”
Both of them said they don’t dwell on the darkness they’ve endured, choosing instead to use it to inspire and strengthen themselves and their teammates.
“Every day you should cherish the moments you have,” said Laupata. Adds Tolutau, “When good things come to you, you’ve got to take advantage of it. I don’t think of the past that much. If I do, I only try to rebuild from it.”
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