This isn’t something Utah or BYU is doing, it’s a fan thing, and that’s probably the best thing about it. —Matthew Sanders
It’s a welcome sign.
Amid all the vitriolic and septic wasteland that is routinely the buildup and execution of the Utah-BYU game, comes a fan-driven charity, a unique effort for a good cause.
Sam and Sela Vaenuku are just like any other parents. Their lives are centered around their eight kids. Sela, the mother, quit working when she had her third child. Their kids represent their collective hopes and dreams.
This past summer their big, strong, handsome son Gaius, their third child, left Utah in a car bound for his home in Texas to surprise his parents. He never made it. He was killed along with others in a tragic rollover accident.
His death makes the annual BYU-Utah game feel completely unimportant. Each year, BYU and Utah fans have plenty to say to each other during the week leading up to the big game. A lot of it is said in jest, with a portion laced in major dislike. This year's rivalry week has featured an honor code suspension and public explanation of a ritual-like Internet video.
Thank goodness there’s another way to spin things. A rivalry outlet featuring something positive arrived this week when a group that crosses fan lines established a leadership scholarship fund in the name of Gaius Vaenuku.
The idea is to sell memorial wristbands, decorated with Tongan art. They can be obtained online at KSL Deals and through donations to the nonprofit arm of the All Poly Camp, which will administer the scholarship. The scholarship will be awarded to a student who most exemplifies leadership, character and academic excellence. The student awarded the scholarship can use the resource to attend any college of their choice in the USA.
While the late Gaius Vaenuku signed with Utah last February, he was also recruited by BYU. Like a good chunk of players on both the Ute and Cougar rosters, Vanenuku represented the Polynesian community. Both schools draw heavily from this athletic pool.
This week fans, with no push or help from either university, took it upon themselves to raise money for the Gaius Leadership Scholarship.
“I don’t know what to say,” Sam Vaenuku, an employee of American Airlines in Dallas, told me Thursday. “I am very honored people would do this to remember my son."
Gaius, is remembered by his his father as a kind-hearted boy who used to take his school-lunch money meant for the week and gave it to others. “We’d ask him what happened to the money,” said the father, “and he’d say he gave it away to kids who didn’t have anything to eat.”
While Gaius never got to play a game at Utah, this effort hopes to cement his memory and draw fans from both sides in honoring a great young man who lived his life as a great example of the Polynesian culture.
“Both Utah and BYU have benefited from many cultures and people, whether it be the LDS faith or Polynesians, and they have given fans so very much,” said Tony Brown, a marketing guru who helped push the scholarship idea. Brown is a BYU fan.
The movement has been promoted across the Internet, including at LoyalCougars.com and CougarBoard.com, and efforts have been made for more wristband marketing on Utahby5.com and TexAgs.com, the latter a fan site for Texas A&M, a SEC school that also lost a player in the accident.
The appearance of Gaius at the All Poly Sports Camp, conducted annually in Utah, significantly elevated his profile and led to interest from recruiters throughout the country, according to Alema Te’o, the camp's director.
“Gaius Vaenuku was such a special part of our camp. We are deeply saddened by his loss and the loss of his friends. When we lose one of these young men, no matter the circumstances, it is a heartbreak to us all,” said Te’o.
“This isn’t something Utah or BYU is doing, it’s a fan thing, and that’s probably the best thing about it,” said Matthew Sanders, who has worked with Te’o in organizing the effort.
“This rivalry won’t be back for a few years. This is a way to end it temporarily on a high note,” said Brown.
To honor Gaius Vaenuku and fund a scholarship in his name, fans can purchase a GKV leadership wristband on KSL.com. All proceeds go directly to the scholarship fund.
Now it's time for this week’s predictions.
Last week I would have been perfect if my pick of Utah over Oregon State didn’t end in a Ute overtime loss and if Wisconsin had indeed defeated ASU instead of having that controversial Pac-12 officiating crew mess up at the end of the game.
Kansas State 24, Texas 21: Until the Longhorns start tackling, they’ll be suspect in every game.
LSU 28, Auburn 21: Look for the Tigers to hold serve in one of the toughest places to play, their own den.
Texas A&M 45, Southern Methodist 17: Johnny Football continues to put up insane numbers.
Stanford 28, Arizona State 21: After beating San Jose State and Army, the Cardinal need to hold the Sun Devils accountable. Pac 12 officials will be cross-eyed.
Utah State 17, USC 14: OK, I’m creeping out on the end of the limb. Aggies in a stunner.
Wisconsin 28, Purdue 17: Gary Andersen’s guys have to be fuming after leaving Tempe, Ariz.
Notre Dame 24, Michigan State 21: The Fighting Irish take to the air and put a blemish on the Spartans for the first time this season.
Florida 32, Tennessee 21: The Vols are still looking to recover after being blasted by Oregon.
BYU 24, Utah 21: Is this the game BYU will not hike a ball for a Ute touchdown? Look for BYU’s front seven to pressure Travis Wilson consistently. That will be the difference.
Last week 8-2; Overall 15-6 (.714)
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].