Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Leki Fotu cried when his mother told him she’d signed him up for rugby. The teen, who’d just moved to Utah, wanted to focus on his first love — football.
“I thought rugby would help him develop, be more aggressive and more confident so that he can face the opponent,” said Toakase Fotu of her son, who became an All-American in the sport at age 14. “In Little League, he was the biggest kid on the field. But the offense would come running, and he would move away. … He was scared.” Needless to say, this made him the object of teasing — especially from his two older brothers.
But Toakase knew why her son responded the way he did, and she hoped rugby could give him the edge he needed without crushing his tender heart.
“He’s not a mama’s boy, he’s a grandma’s boy,” she said giggling. “My mom was spoiling him with her love and attention. She’s all about Leki. They’d sleep together, play together, sit together. He’s always had long hair; we never cut it. My mom would sit and comb and brush it and braid it. … His siblings would say, ‘You’re soft! You’re a girl!’”
His mother decided to sign him up for rugby the year before he started high school, but he didn’t want to play. She put him on the phone with his grandmother, Manu Mahe, who lives in San Francisco. “He’s had this bond that develop around Grandma since the day he was born,” she said. “I see him sitting there crying, tears running down his eyes, but he listens to my mom. He played rugby, and the coaches loved him. … After rugby, he became a mature young man.”
Toakase has four sons, and she said the 6-foot-5, 323-pound sophomore defensive lineman is not like his brothers.
“It’s very easy to describe Leki because he’s totally different from the other three,” she said, pointing out that he’s always been concerned about others, especially his mother and grandmother. “When we moved here to Utah, Leki was more like a big brother to everybody. He doesn’t think about himself. That’s just who he is.” That selflessness made him a great teammate, but his physical abilities and attributes made him a unique talent.
“I knew he was special,” said his high school coach, Herriman’s Dustin Pearce. “I’ve never had a player that big move that well. He moved from spot to spot faster than some of my skill kids. He’s a superior athlete, and it’s not a coincidence that he’s where he’s at.”
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said the sophomore, who is listed as Utah’s backup left tackle on the fall camp’s first depth chart, isn’t aware of how powerful he is.
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“He’s like a baby bear,” Scalley said during spring camp. “He doesn’t know how ferocious he can be. Once he figures it out, I feel very bad for offensive linemen.”
Soft-spoken and a little shy, Fotu doesn’t have a lot to say about himself. In fact, when asked to grade his improvement in the last year on a scale of one to 10, he wasn’t very generous.
“I’m nowhere near a 10 right now,” he said. “Compared to last year, I do think my technique has gotten way better, but that’s just thanks to the older guys, just being around them. But compared to last year, I’d say I went from a one to a five or six …No, maybe a four or five.”
Fotu said the only reason he’s made any improvement is become of the older players on the team, especially the team’s seniors — Filipo Mokofisi (whom he backs up heading into fall camp), Lowell Lotulelei and Kylie Fitts.
“I really look up to our three seniors,” he said. “Just their leadership and their experience, just the examples they set for us, not only on the field, but off the field too.”
Fotu said his only goal is to get better. He shakes his head when asked about winning a starting spot or trying to challenge any season or school sack records. In fact, he’s reluctant to even contemplate the possibility of an NFL future, even in the wake of Utah’s massive success in putting linemen in the NFL.
“I don’t really want to pay attention to any of that,” he said. “I’m just here to do what they ask me to do. Whatever happens, happens.”
Pearce said Fotu has always been the kind of player who puts the team first.
“I kind of looked at him as the silent assassin,” Pearce said. “He didn’t ever have very much to say. He’s very polite, very humble. He wanted no recognition. He’s a true team guy and very coachable.”
Toakase said that Leki chooses to live at home so he can use his housing allowance to help his family. And he isn’t just working hard on the football field. He’s made the dean’s list in his freshman year at the U.
“I’m so thankful to heaven that they put a good brain in my son,” she said, pointing out that Leki doesn’t even turn 19 until late August. “When the hype is high, he is calm. He knows how to handle the situation, the pressure.”
In fact, when she gets anxious or worried, it’s her son who calms her down.
“When I start asking him questions about this or that, he says, ‘Mom, are you reading the paper?’” she laughes. “He really respects his team, his coaches, and he loves the school.”
Scalley said Fotu has made progress thanks to that hard work.
“Last year I don’t think he could bench 225 pounds one time,” he said. “So he’s come a long way. Doug (Elisaia, Utah’s strength and conditioning coach) has done a great job with him. He’s gotten much stronger, and he’s getting more confident.”
And while Leki Fotu works hard to get on the field and earn his degree, his loudest, proudest cheerleader does her part. “My mom is 74, but when she’s here, she comes to my kids’ games since they were little,” Toakase said. “When we went to the Ute walk, I was scared because the elevation here is different, but my mom was walking fast. We sit at the top because Leki is a freshman, but my mom (doesn’t) care, she cheered for Leki, even though he’s standing on the side most of the time.”
Everyone hopes to see more of Fotu on the field this season. So how does one teach a baby bear just how ferocious he can be?
“A baby bear learns it by getting scraped up once in a while,” Scalley said smiling. “All of a sudden tasting blood for the first time. We’ve got to get him to taste blood for the first time, and then, you know, he’ll really like it.”