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Amy Donaldson
Provo native Maka Unufe went from high school dropout to Olympian inspired by his family
Coming out here, its the same field, you play on it everyday, but in the back of my mind, it's the Olympics. It's the biggest thing. So it was scary. —Maka Unufe

RIO DE JANEIRO — From the hopelessness of being a jobless high school dropout to representing his country on the world’s grandest stage, Provo native Maka Unufe smiles and shakes his head as if he still can’t quite believe the life he’s living.

“I literally got there (to Opening Ceremonies), and it felt like clouds were around me,” he said two days before helping the U.S. rugby sevens team win its second game of pool play against Brazil 26-0 Tuesday night in Deodoro Stadium. “It was like, ‘Wow.’”

While walking with the rest of Team USA in Friday’s Opening Ceremonies was beautiful but surreal, playing in his first two Olympic rugby games Tuesday was a little different.

“I would say scary,” he said of how he felt after his first day of playing the sport that earned him a trip to Brazil. “Coming out here, it’s the same field, you play on it everyday, but in the back of my mind, it’s the Olympics. It’s the biggest thing. So it was scary.”

Unufe was disappointed with how he played in the U.S. team’s 17-14 loss to Argentina earlier Tuesday afternoon. So he was determined to make the most of any contributions he might make in Team USA’s second match of the day, which came a few hours later against the host country.

“This game, I wanted to do better for my team,” he said after scoring a try as time expired. “Versus Argentina, I did a lot of messed-up things, so this game I was trying to play better than I did last time.”

He said it’s difficult for him to move past mistakes, but his teammates helped him do so today. “For me, I dwell on it a lot,” he said. “I have to work on my mental game. I dwell on it, but my boys pick me up. They tell me to forget about it, there is always next game. … I am happy I made a try.”

Unufe has had to pick himself up before.

One of seven children, he proved himself to be a phenomenal athlete with a less-than-impressive work ethic. He never dreamed, even a little, of representing his country at the Olympics.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t think of being an Olympian,” he said. “I just thought of being an NFL player.”

He loved football, everything about it. And frankly, so did his mom.

“It’s the one thing I told him not to do,” said Leslie Unufe of Rugby. “I didn’t know he was going to be so good at it.” Maka Unufe’s high school football coach, Saia Pope, said the young man was a gifted athlete who didn’t see the value of the classroom, despite his best efforts and those of his mom.

“He wasn’t a student,” Pope said. “He didn’t like to go to class.”

Tuesday night at Deodoro Stadium, the world got a glimpse of Unufe’s speed and strength as he took off for a run and nearly scored about a minute after being inserted into the match.

“He is a great athlete,” Pope said, noting he scored a touchdown the first time the ball was thrown to him in a high school game. “I couldn’t believe how fast he was. I had him run the 40, and every time it was under 4.3.”

Pope said he could squat 405 pounds and bench 315 as a senior in high school.

“I tried to talk to him, talk him into going to class,” Pope said. “For him, it was just too overwhelming, and he ended up dropping out of high school.”

Unufe breaks into a huge grin and seems genuinely delighted to talk about his former coach in an interview with the Deseret News at Flamengo Club, where USA Rugby trained for this week’s pool play.

Unufe is intensely loyal to his family, said his mom, and that fierce affection clearly extends to his coach.

“When I dropped out, I moved far away from Saia,” he admitted. “I moved to Saratoga Springs with my wife and her family, then we moved in with my mom.” They got married six years ago, and while Rebecca Unufe worked to support the family, he took care of their infant son. He thought about getting his GED, playing football at Snow College and trying to play football at Utah, the school he’d committed to during the recruiting process.

“But it just didn’t work out,” he said. “I just kept procrastinating it. Then I never did it.”

He said he let his dream of playing in the NFL die.

“I never thought about sports,” he said. “I thought that was over. When I dropped out, I didn’t really think of anything in the future, I was just in that moment in time. I was just being lazy.”

After he and Rebecca moved to Salt Lake City, his cousins called and asked him to play on the Utah Warriors Rugby team. He thought, ‘Why not?’

“And from there, I made it to USA Rugby,” he said of his meteoric rise in the sport he’d only played for a few months as a child when he flew to Tonga to visit his father. The most important reason to continue to pursue the sport wasn’t his passion, which he has in spades. It was the fact that he could support his family.

Asked what motivated him to make the sacrifices and do the work necessary to be a world-class athlete, he said, “just seeing my wife come home every day and being emotional about (the fact that) we didn’t have no money. I already knew I was being lazy. … My son and my wife motivated me to do better.”

His family grew to include two daughters as he made himself an integral part of USA Rugby’s success. As soon as it was announced that rugby sevens was being included in the 2016 Olympics for the first time, that became his dream.

“As soon as I heard we were in the Olympics, it was one of my goals,” he said, admitting transitioning from football to rugby was very challenging.

When he found out, he and his wife shared an emotional moment of gratitude.

“We’ve been married for six years,” he said. “To see me go from dropping out of high school, to come from nothing, to this, it was just emotional.”

And after Tuesday’s matches, Unufe has something else to prove.

“A lot of people look down on us because we’re in the U.S., and it’s rugby,” he said, noting they play Fiji Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. in the final match of pool play. “We’re not supposed to be good at it. The best part is that we can be underdogs. I would rather be an underdog than a high topper.”

And that might be because if there is one thing Unufe knows, besides the rough, gritty world of rugby, it’s how to fight his way to a better place.

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