Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Salesi “Leka” Uhatafe understands wanting to hide from pain. He understands the crushing weight of guilt, as well as the random and seemingly endless reach of grief.
Fortunately, for both the lineman and the Utah football program, the Texas native is far more familiar with fighting through tragedy, than being defined by it.
The senior captain will play his last collegiate game in his home state, and when he does, he caps a career that is a lesson in resiliency and the transformative power of a team.
“I thought about it here and there, especially now going back home for Christmas and getting to play back at home,” he said. “I haven’t played back in Texas, so getting to play through all the things I went through…it’s a good journey for me.”
It was July 2013, during a short break between summer workouts and fall camp, and Uhatafe’s father and brothers drove to Utah to pick up him and incoming Utah freshman Gaius Vaenuku, who was one of his high school teammates, for a short visit in their Texas home. Uhatafe, who was entering his second year at Utah after redshirting as a freshman, was driving. Police believe the then 18-year-old fell asleep, and after the car rolled, killing Uhatafe’s two brothers, Polo Manukainiu, a redshirt freshman defensive lineman for Texas A&M, Andrew Lolo Uhatafe, 13, and Vaenuku. Only Uhatafe and his father survived.
Almost exactly two years later, Uhatafe lost his mother.
Through it all, he said, football has given him both a reprieve and purpose. It’s what he would tell anyone struggling or hopeless.
“More just kind of sticking through it,” he said of the advice he offers others. “It may seem like there is no way you can move with things like that, or when things aren’t going your way, but just kind of stick through it. And trusting the people around you and having faith. At the end of the day, I think anyone can get through anything. There isn’t a reason why you shouldn’t be able to.”
Uhatafe became the first in his family to earn a degree, and he was named a team captain this season as the only returning starter on the offensive line. He’s an intriguing mix of aggression and introvert with a splash of a unique and endearing sense of humor.
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It seems to happen nearly every year in Utah’s backcountry. Motorists get stranded in remote areas and end up fighting…
On the field or off, he’s looking to be an example.
“(Graduating) is a big thing for my family,” he said. “I’ll be the first one whose graduated. It’s just a good stepping stone for the rest of my family to move on and do better things.”
His leadership has transformed his own life while leaving an indelible mark on the program that he says saved him.
“I’d put him in that same category as those two defensive tackles (Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei),” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “Guys that have been in the program for a lot of years and done nothing but do everything right for us.”
He said Uhatafe’s leadership was critical this year as he was the only returning starter on the offensive line.
“He was mixed in with all of those guys who went to the NFL last year,” Whittingham said. “But this year he was the unquestioned leader of the offensive line, and he did a great job filling that role.”
He’s surprised by the confidence he’s gained and the impact he’s been able to have on his teammates and the program.
“I think about it, just how I’ve impacted the program (from my) first game to now, and seeing the changes that I wasn’t expecting when I first got here. I think this program has really developed me into the person I am today.”
He spent some time with his fellow seniors wandering the weight room reminiscing about the last five years.
“We’re all trying to take it all in, as much as we can, before we leave,” he said.
Uhatafe’s leadership, work ethic and resiliency have earned him the respect and affection of this teammates.
A grin spreads across quarterback Tyler Huntley’s face when asked about Uhatafe.
“O-G Lek! That’s my man,” he said, smiling. “He’s the biggest lineman I done played with. He’s so aggressive. I really love him.”
Sophomore cornerback Julian Blackmon has a similar reaction.
“Leka is amazing,” Blackmon said. “Him being one of our captains on the team, we all really look up to Leka. Every day he’s one of the guys who is always pushing everyone to be our best at all times. Just because it’s the end of the year doesn’t mean we can slack off. He reminds us of what coach Whit wants, and everyone listens to Leka. We all love Leka.”
He said the program wont be the same without the big man’s leadership — or humor.
“Losing him is going to be a hard one,” Blackmon said. “Especially because of his personality that he brings to the team.”
And if Whittingham is any judge of future NFL success, then the Heart of Dallas Bowl will only be the end of a chapter for Uhatafe and not the end of his football story.
“I believe he’s got a lot more football ahead of him,” Whittingham said.
Sometimes Uhatafe considers what his life might have been had he decided not to return to Utah or football.
“I think about it every once in a while,” he said, smiling slightly. “It just makes me laugh thinking about where I could be and where I am at now. It would be a huge change in just the person that I am. That’s kind of what keeps me in the direction I’m going now. Hopefully it keeps going the way I want it to.”
While he’s not sure what his future holds, he knows he won’t have to figure it out alone.
“I feel like I have that certain confidence from them,” he said of his brothers and Vaenuku. “I feel like they’re always watching me, pushing me to be better.”