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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
University of Utah's Viliseni Fauonuku is photographed on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — The burly teenager sprinted through the house, frantically searching for the little boy who was just learning to talk.

He made his way to a remote bedroom and called the child's name before he even reached the room.

The mattress on the floor stopped him in the doorway. Something wasn't right.

"That wasn't on the floor before," the 19-year-old recalled. "I lifted up the mattress and he was just lying there."

Viliseni "Seni" Fauonuku scooped up the toddler and carried him to living room where the rest of the family had gathered.

"My mom started performing CPR," Fauonuku said softly. "Nothing happened."

The loving, little 18-month-old boy born to his older sister and named after him had suffocated under that mattress. And while it was clearly a tragic accident, 17-year-old Fauonuku blamed himself.

"He was a funny little guy," he said smiling, tears threatening to fall from his deep brown eyes. "He liked to go off by himself, watch the other kids play. I was always with him. He was one of my favorites."

Then a junior at Bingham High, Fauonuku stood helplessly watching his mother try to save her grandson, his sister heartbroken and frantic, and he crashed into such grief that he didn't think he'd survive.

"That's the worst thing I've ever been through in my whole life," he said, apologizing for stopping to choke back tears. "It's something I'd never wish up on anybody else, to ever have to witness that or go through that. Mentally and spiritually, it shut me down."

Fauonuku's grief sent him into a spiral that nearly cost him everything he'd worked for as a top high school football recruit. In fact, in the dark days that followed his nephew's tragic death, Fauonuku made decisions that would make him the poster boy for a Sports Illustrated article on how athletic programs shield criminals.

But those who knew him best said reporters didn't know the whole story. Instead of a hardened criminal who was protected from the full weight of the law because he was talented, they saw a heartbroken kid who was so devastated by a little boy's death that he prayed God might take him instead.

"He was not the same kid," said Bingham High head football coach Dave Peck. "This was not the same person that we'd grown to love. He'd basically given up on life."

Fauonuku grew up the youngest of seven children in California. When he was in seventh grade, he and his mother moved to Utah and he began to play sports for the first time in his life.

"I loved it right away," he said of football. "It was my first time doing anything athletic. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to put those pads on."

He was a lineman from the start because he was stocky and strong. He had plenty of relatives, especially cousins, but he'd never met his father.

That changed when he began getting into minor trouble in junior high. Fauonuku and his mom decided he needed the influence of a father, so she sent him to Texas to live with his biological father.

"It was weird," he said. "I got off the plane and there was this guy standing there … It was actually kind of rough. He's a strict guy and we bumped heads a lot."

It was difficult for Fauonuku to take direction from a man who hadn't been involved in his life. After two years, his parents agreed he needed to be reunited with his mom and siblings, so he moved back to Utah. He had cousins at Bingham, so he enrolled at school with them as a junior.

"Right away I loved it," he said. "Coach Peck had open arms for me, everyone had open arms and football was pretty much everything to me. It was the first time I thought about going to college."

The game would give him the opportunity, Peck told him. At first recruiters were skeptical because, at 5-foot-11, he was a bit short as defensive lineman.

"It was hard hearing people not even give me a chance," he said. "At the same time, it motivated me. It made me work a lot harder."

His grades were always good and eventually colleges saw his skill and drive more than his height. BYU was interested first, but then Utah coaches offered him a scholarship.

"I felt a lot more love from Utah," he said. He made a verbal commitment to Utah after his junior year.

Life for the young man was better than he could have imagined. The Miners won the 5A state title that year and he had serious interest from several colleges. Just after Christmas, his mom decided they needed to move from their home in West Valley City to South Jordan so they'd be closer to Bingham.

On the day of his nephew's death, Fauonuku stayed home from school to help with the kids and the heavy lifting. He was playful and optimistic as the day began, blissfully unaware that his life and the lives of his mother and sister were about to change drastically. His sister had named her second child after her youngest brother — Soka Viliseni. The family called the teen Seni and the toddler Soka.

"He loved to watch the other kids," recalled Seni with a smile. "He was an interesting kid just to watch and be around."

After the little boy's death, there was turmoil in the family. Fauonuku saw his sister and mother suffering and didn't want to burden them with his feelings of guilt and regret. He stopped going to school, stopped working out with the team and stopped talking to anyone about his feelings.

"My attitude was, 'Who cares?' " he said. "I didn't pass a single class third quarter."

It was during that time when an adult cousin suggested they take a gun and rob some people at a party.

"I was in such a low hole that whatever he said to do, I would have done it," he said. "We showed up, took money and drinks and didn't think anything about it."

In the weeks after the robbery, coach Peck reached out to him. He convinced him to engage in counseling with one of Bingham's counselors and she got him talking. She also introduced him to a group of young people struggling with the kind of life-altering loss that Fauonuku was navigating.

Peck said he was failing most of his classes at the start of fourth quarter, and he told his assistant coaches theyd better plan on playing without the talented lineman that fall.

But one of Peck's assistant coaches, Karl Cloward, wanted to reach out to the teen one more time.

"He said, 'I'm not giving up on him,' " Peck said. He and his wife, Lynnette, who is the team mom, invited Fauonuku to their home and asked him to enter into a contract with them to raise his grades and turn his life around. The young man agreed, and became the life preserver he needed.

"He met every single requirement," Peck said.

His grades came up and he earned a 3.0 in the fourth quarter of his junior year. He impressed college scouts and began realizing that throwing away his life was no way to honor his beloved Soka.

That spring after a 7-on-7 camp, Utah assistant coach Jay Hill told Peck they'd offered Seni a scholarship. Peck has helped a lot of high school students earn scholarships in his time as a head football coach, but this one made him so grateful he cried.

And then came the reckoning.

Three months after the robbery, his past caught up to him. Police showed up at his house, arrested him and he confessed. While he was doing better, he still hadn't abandoned his feelings of guilt.

"I still didn't really care what happened to me," he admitted.

It wasn't until he saw the pain he was causing his mother and family that he began to regret his decisions.

"I thought it was just myself," he said. "I realized, I'm really doing this to my mom again and my family … It made me realize that five minutes of doing something stupid can change your life."

He faced a first-degree felony charge and prosecutors initially moved his case from juvenile court to adult court. It was during that time that reporters found out about the arrest, and three weeks into Fauonuku's senior season, they began questioning Peck about his decision to allow the 17-year-old to play football with an armed robbery charge hanging over his head.

Peck said he'd heard rumblings about Seni's struggles, but he had no idea the boy faced criminal charges until reporters questioned him about the incident. Even after he found out, he felt compelled to fight for him.

"I knew if I took football from him, we'd lose him," said Peck. "I believed in him as a person. It felt like an isolated thing, at the lowest point in his life, when he didn't have the support he needed, he'd made a mistake. We could all be in that position."

So Peck chose to suspend him for two games pending the outcome of the case. He endured stinging criticism, but he said it was worth it to see Fauonuku turn his life around.

"I told him every time I saw him that I loved him and that he's going to go on to do so may good things," Peck said. "What he did broke my heart. But I knew he was with the wrong person. If I thought he was a gangster, a thug, I wouldn't want him near my program."

Peck didn't just help Fauonuku salvage his senior season, he went to bat for the teen with Utah coaches, who obviously had concerns when they heard about the arrest. He met with Utah coaches, begging them to give the boy another chance. Utah coaches decided to make the offer conditional on how the case was resolved.

"It was a conditional offer," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He had to hold up his end of the bargain. Ultimately you want what's best for the player, what's best for him as a person. But I'm one who believes in second chances most of the time. And in Seni's case, we felt he deserved a second chance."

Fauonuku has not squandered the effort of his coaches or the faith of his family.

"He's made the most of it," said Whittingham. "He's been a model student-athlete. Seni has exceeded expectations. ... and he's done everything that's asked of him."

Both Peck and Whittingham see firsthand how sports saves some who might otherwise be marginalized in society.

"For a lot of kids, it's really all they have," said Whittingham. "Not that Seni's family didn't love and support him, but for a lot of these young men, football is the one constant in their lives. They see themselves as football players. We try to expand on that, push the value of an education and being well-rounded, but for a 17-year-old in high school, that's the thing they feel is the focal point of their lives."

And he understands why Peck used the sport to help Fauonuku make permanent changes in his life.

"It's rewarding," said Whittingham of watching young men make the most of a scholarship opportunity afforded them by sports. "That's one of the major reasons you coach. Sometimes they don't have a lot of direction, focus or stability, and they grow up right before your eyes. They become accountable, committed people. And so far he's done everything right."

Fauonuku said the publicity following an article in Sports Illustrated about criminal records in college football was painful.

"It was rough," he said. "Because it happened when I was starting to turn things around. As much as I was trying, people were still looking at me like I was a criminal or a bad kid."

And despite feeling better thanks to the school's counselors and Bingham's coaches, he said his heart had not really healed.

"He was still always on my mind," Fauonuku said of his nephew. "There were days when I would break down, leave school, leave practice. My mom noticed, but she couldn't do anything for me."

His case lingered in adult court for months before it was decided that justice would be better served if he was prosecuted as a juvenile. The judge, Fauonuku said, gave him a lecture that he still hears today.

"He made me realize how low I'd dropped," he said. "He set me straight. He said he didn't care if I was a football player or not. He didn't care if I was the best player in the country; he said, 'You're still a citizen of this community.' "

Fauonuku was ordered to serve 125 hours of community service and given six months probation.

"It opened my eyes to how serious what I'd done was," he said. Under terms of his probation, Fauonuku could only go to school, practice and on errands with his mom. One of the most satisfying moments was showing the judge his report card with a 3.5 GPA.

"What turned me around definitely wasn't just one person," he said. "It was everybody. I realized there were a lot of people who cared for me and I was disrespecting them by not honoring that and taking care of myself."

He said a teammate, Kesni Tausinga, explained the Mormon Church's plan of salvation to him and it helped him find peace with his nephew's death.

"It gave me an understanding of my nephew and where he is now," he said. "It sparked my curiosity and the more I learned, the more I fell in love with (the gospel)."

And as much as his coaches, family, friends and faith have sustained him, he shakes his head when he thinks of where he would be without football.

"I would have just gotten deeper into doing the things I shouldn't be," he said. "I would probably be in jail or on the streets. I never wanted to ask (coach Peck) why he didn't kick me off. To be honest, he probably should have. But he just told me I was a good kid who made a bad decision.

"… It's pretty amazing, my life today. The best parts of it are seeing how everything paid off, never giving up, doing what I'm supposed to do and all the hard work I've put into it."

Fauonuku's body surges with adrenaline as he and his teammates stand on the sidelines waiting to take on Northern Colorado in the first game of the season.

But in the midst of the chaos, he felt a calm come over him. He felt the spirit of a tiny angel all his own, whose life he now honors with his every action.

"In (the Northern Colorado game), some feeling, right before the game came over me, and I knew it was my nephew," he said, tears returning to his eyes, a smile wide across his face. "I knew it was him. I went into the game and had a great game … I always feel him with me."

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com