PROVO — More than several people around BYU's football program won't forget 2016's heartbreaking 20-19 loss to Utah, although few of those same people remember it as BYU offensive lineman Ului Lapuaho did.
Sure, the prospect of losing yet another game to the Utes provides a lot to dwell on, but for the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Hunter High School product, the memories have more to do than just the loss, as it was the last game the then-promising prospect started.
His outing against the Utes that year severely inflamed the meniscus in both of his knees to the point where it became unbearable. Two surgeries, and almost a full year and a half later, Lapuaho rejoined the team and has been working his way back.
Nothing about the process has been easy.
"It's been a rough road. No doubt," Lapuaho said following Wednesday's practice session, which involved snapping photos with a visiting youth football team. "But I'm so happy to be back, helping out where I can."
The help provided by Lapuaho has been primarily as a blocker on field-goal protection, with no action seen in the regular rotation along the offensive front, a unit where he was considered a main cog and one of the more promising prospects on the team back in 2015 and into the 2016 season.
But injuries have a way of upending everything, and certainly pushed Lapuaho back considerably.
The primary reason surrounding Lapuaho's relatively slow recovery wasn't due to anything done or not done on his behalf, but reflective as to when the surgeries were performed. One knee was operated on in November 2016, according to Lapuaho, while the other had to wait until May 2017.
"To do them both at the same time would have amounted to like 16 hours, and that was just too much. It was the surgeons call," Lapuaho said. "So I had to wait and it is what it is."
With playing in 2017 an impossible prospect, Lapuaho spent the season as a fan, without being part of any of the team functions.
"It was hard. Harder than I thought it would be," Lapuaho said. "I love this program and love being with the guys. I love my teammates, so not being out there was the toughest part, especially not being with my good friends Tuni Kanuch and Tejan Koroma."
The thought of just hanging it up didn't cross his mind much, however, as he drew on strong encouragement from his wife, Janae, among several others, including a new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and new offensive line coach Ryan Pugh.
"They believed in me and I'm so grateful they gave me a spot back on the team back in January," Lapuaho said. "They've been amazing and I've received complete support from since day one. It would be easy for them to just move on to the younger guys, but they've made me part of them and the relationship with both of them feels as if they recruited me and they've been with me since I was a freshman. I love both of them."
Getting over two knee surgeries was a huge challenge for the mammoth lineman, who describes it as having, "newborn legs on a grown man's body." As could well be imagined, his first few practices didn't go all that well, with Lapuaho's "mind being well ahead of my body on sets, which was really frustrating."4 comments on this story
But through further rehab. Lapuaho's legs have caught up with the rest of his body and mindset, to the point where he feels physically back to where he was in 2015.
The goal for him now is to help wherever possible while maintaining a leadership presence.
"This is my last season, but I wouldn't have missed it and I'm so grateful to be back," Lapuaho said. "Of course you want to play more, but the biggest thing for me is to back helping out in a program I truly love. I love BYU football and being a part of it, if only for one last year. It's something I didn't want to miss."