A pair of worn-out work boots, the leather on the toes scruffed from toiling on his hands and knees, are symbolic of this hardworking floor product installer. It is such a great symbol that he wrapped two pairs of them up and gave them to his oldest sons for Christmas. Tevita Akau asked that they rise above him and the life he had known as a child.
The work boots of Tevita Akau who has proved symbolic to his father and his struggle to lift his family out of poverty through education. | Courtesy Akau family
There are more ways for Polynesian immigrants to make it in America besides sports and the ever-competitive world of football, declares a former player on Tonga’s national 19-and-under Rugby team.
Akau, 46, of Syracuse, is a third cousin of Tom Sitake, father of BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, the first Division I football coach of Tongan descent. Akau is also the adopted brother of Star Lotulelei, father of former Utah All-American and first-round NFL draftee by the same name.
Tevita grew up in a grass hut in the village of Fahefa on Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. He had nothing. His parents had nothing. They were humble, poor and struggling, but Tevita could play rugby. He was big, strong and fast and played center three-quarter, lock and flanker. He played for Tonga’s 1989 national championship rugby team. After high school graduation at age 17, he joined the LDS Church in 1989, and his father, a devout Methodist, disowned him because of it.
A member of the Tongan national champion 19-and-under rugby team in 1989, Tevita Akau is in the middle row at the end of the right side. | Courtesy Akau family
Akau moved in with Makaa’fi Lotulelei and his family a few miles away in the village of Tokomololo, where he continued playing rugby, and then he accepted a call to serve as a Mormon missionary. His mission work took him to the small island of Lofanga, inhabited by 200 people. There, he baptized Mesi Sitake and his son Folau in 1992. Mesi is the uncle of Tom Sitake, father of BYU’s football coach.
In 1998, Akau and the Lotulelei family migrated to the United States. He and his adopted brother Star were eager to take on the adventure. In time, Star’s son Star became a college football sensation, a dominating defensive lineman for the Utes after a stint at Snow College. In 2013, he signed a $9.6 million contract with the Carolina Panthers.
After moving to Utah, Akau met his wife, Lesieli, at church. They were soon married and the couple had five children. He began work in construction. But his eyes were opened. If his children were ever to succeed in this world and break out of poverty, he and Lesieli had to have a plan that didn’t involve sports. They demanded their children study, attend college, get an education. It was the greatest portal.
Tevita Akau explains his story at a Provo restaurant this week. | Dick Harmon, Deseret News
“Kalani (Sitake) is very fortunate to have the opportunities he has had. He is blessed and lucky,” said Akau, who took time out this week for an interview at a restaurant near a job at Utah Valley Regional Hospital construction in Provo. “Star is one in a million to make it to the NFL. Education is the only way for the majority to make it, to break out."
Akau’s oldest daughter Kesaia will soon graduate from the University of Utah in pre-med. Her plans are to go to medical school and be a cardiologist.
Akau described what he got for Christmas from his son Tevita with tears in his eyes.
It was wrapped up in a toy puppy. It was an acceptance letter to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
MIT officials told Tevita that he was the first student of Polynesian descent to be accepted to the school, the first Tongan. The letter congratulated Tevita, saying his application was one of the most impressive reviewed by the admissions committee and was part of the most competitive group of applicants in MIT history.
At MIT, Tevita the younger, Akau's second child, hopes to study aerospace engineering, electrical engineering and biophysical engineering.
His father’s pride in his children for taking his challenge to task is overwhelming as he discusses this opportunity. He is emotional, grateful and humbled. His son, a senior at Syracuse High, has already graduated from Weber State with an associate degree at age 16 while he is a junior in high school.
Tevita Akau (left) and his son, MIT-bound Tevita Asilolohea Akau with Mr. and Mrs. Star Lotulelei at the graduation of the son from Weber State University. | Courtesy Akau family
“I’m very proud of him. For me, raised on a small island and raised very poor, I attended a government school, Tonga College. And to work to get there, it was like earning a million dollars. It was a hardship to make my school fees," he said.
“I had a problem with my father. The Methodist Wesleyan church in Tonga and the LDS Church are rivals. If you converted to the LDS Church, they disown you, even if they love you. It is a very hard decision for families to make over there. The Lotulelei family took me in.”
When Akau got to America, he realized how lucky kids were in the United States.
“Especially in the Tongan community. They have all the opportunity in the world. I decided, for my kids, they don’t play sports. I am the first generation in my family to come to the United States. For me, I want to end the struggle of my father and my mother. They never attended school, not even elementary school. My brothers and sisters saw that only through education we could succeed.
“I decided to move my family from Salt Lake City to West Point,” said Akau. “I wanted to be far away from the bubble in the Tongan community, a social society where many people decide not to get out of the bubble. The way I think is I have to get out and put my kids out there and away so they can break out and make school their priority.”
When he wrapped up his old work boots as a Christmas present to his two sons, he told them he wanted this family hardship to be over.
“I was born in a hut made of coconut leaves. Never forget that,” he told them.
“Go to school and when you are successful, go back to Tonga and help the people.”
Sports is a great portal for Polynesians in America. Of the top 10 high school football players ranked by Rivals.com, more than half are Polynesians who are committed to play at schools like Alabama and Washington. Their futures look bright.
But there is another way.