God bless football: Utah transfer weaves unusual path to USC


Tal Volk | Daily Trojan

Tal Volk | Daily Trojan

Stevie Tu’ikolovatu still uses a flip phone.

He’s a 6-foot-1, 320-pound left tackle for the University of Southern California. His fingers barely fit the buttons and he hunches his shoulders as he types.

His teammates tease him for it, but Stevie doesn’t mind. It’s cheap, he says. He doesn’t have to freak out if he drops it, and it keeps him off social media. It just makes the most sense.

That’s Stevie. He never asks for more than he needs. He knows what he loves in life — football, family, faith — and he doesn’t spend time worrying about much else. And if there’s any type of stereotypical mold for a college football player, he shatters it.

He’s 25, happily married, a father. He’s working toward a Master’s in gerontology. He’s a devout Mormon, several years older than most of his teammates after taking two years off to fulfill his mission in the Philippines.

And he’s a starter for one of the winningest football programs of all-time.

In many ways, he has it all. But a year ago, it was a slightly different story. He was second-string for the University of Utah, still trying to claw his way back into the starting rotation after an injury suffered two years before. He was finishing up his sociology degree and trying to figure out if football was really meant for him.

It’s only been a few months since Stevie left Utah to take a chance on USC. But as he returns to face Utah this weekend with three games under his belt, he has to admit — life as a Trojan is looking up.

***

From the beginning, Stevie was taken seriously on the football field.

It started when he was seven, just a kid from Utah who grew up loving the violence of the game. By the time he hit sixth grade, he was the kind of kid that no one wanted to play football with at recess. Even if it was just touch. He was too big. He hit too hard. He didn’t know how to take it easy.

He was the third of four brothers and spent most of his time at home wrestling and fighting. They were a football family, and Stevie was raised in the bleachers of football stadiums, watching his brothers from the sidelines. By the time he was ten, he told his mom he would play in the NFL someday.

His career took the normal trajectory of a stand-out athlete — playing varsity as a freshman, acting as the star of the team by senior year, committing to play for the college he rooted for as a kid.

He had plenty to look up to — his uncle, Sione Po’uha, played defensive tackle for nine years with the New York Jets. Growing up, Po’uha was tangible proof of what he could achieve.

“I’ve always looked up to him as the kind of person I want to be,” Stevie said. “It was a real human being reaching the same goals that I have and coming from the same background, the same city, same position, same everything. Everything’s the same.”

Up until age 19, football was Stevie’s main focus. But after redshirting for his freshman year at Utah, he took two years off of college for the most important experience of his life — his mission.

Every Mormon has the option to take part in a missionary, a two-year project in a different community with a goal of bringing locals into the faith. Stevie was assigned to the Philippines, a country he’d barely heard of before.

Shortly before he left, Stevie had a dream, the type that remained fresh in his memory for months afterwards. He was sitting in a house with a floor made of sand, listening to a voice he didn’t recognize in a language he didn’t understand. Outside, the wind was blowing a palm tree gently.

He had no idea why he remembered the dream, why it was so vivid or stuck to him so closely. He shook it off and followed his call.

Every day for two years was the same — rise at 6:30, study the Bible and local languages, then head out into the community until well past dinner. It was fulfilling work, but Stevie carried the heavy weight of living up to what he believed was his call from God.

“It’s kind of scary because you’re young, but you’re expected to do maybe even more than grown ups do because you’re on the other side of the world, living on your own,” Stevie said. “You’re on a different part of the world trying to preach something that not the normal 19-year-old would be interested in. That pressure’s always up because you don’t want to mess up.”

A year and a half into his mission, Stevie visited a local family to teach a lesson from the Bible.

As his companion launched into his lesson, Stevie began to daydream. His mind wandered, eyes tracing around the room and settling on the window as his thoughts slipped away for a moment.

Then, it clicked.

This was his dream. Everything was the same — the house, the family huddled on the couch across from him, the view out the window. Only one thing had changed. After a year and a half on the island, Stevie was fluent in Ilocano and Cebuano. He could understand every word his companion said.

Stevie took it as a sign. He was in the right place at the right time. From then on, he didn’t worry at all. The dream stuck with him, pushing him to stay close to his faith, to trust he was on the right path, even when he left the Philippines at the end of his mission.

When Stevie returned from his mission, he came back with a purpose. It was November 2012, right in the middle of football season. He had lost 110 pounds, dropping to 240 —the lightest he could remember weighing since sixth grade. He set goals for his new life in Utah. He wanted to gain back the weight and gain back his spot on the Utah team.

The gaining weight part was easy — “I love to eat,” Stevie said, holding his hands up with a grin. But after his mission, everything was easier, especially football. He knew he was more grounded, more focused in the gym and on the field. By summer training camp, he was a starter, excitedly gearing up for his first college game.

It didn’t take much for that to change. In a pileup during practice, Stevie tore several ligaments crisscrossing the top of his left foot. It meant surgery, a pin, two plates, 12 screws and months of rehabilitation. There was only one week left before the season began.

It was the first time Stevie ever questioned football.

The doctor asked if he wanted to keep playing football. He warned that many athletes don’t recover from this type of injury, that the rehab would be grueling. For a moment, Stevie paused, unsure what to think.

“It was depressing, man,” Stevie said. “I felt like I worked hard for something and it got taken away, and I didn’t do anything wrong. I tried to live my life right and do everything right. I just felt like, I don’t know if this sport’s for me, dude.”

He didn’t quit. Stevie loves football. He loves playing, competing, being on a team, grinding out a hard win. He doesn’t quit easily. But Stevie also started thinking about a future without football.

He began taking over 20 units a semester. He set a goal of graduating with a sociology degree in three years. He did it in two and a half. Stevie’s starts were few and far between and he never found himself in the same rhythm with the Utah team. But in the meantime, he found his Plan B.

Still, Stevie wanted something new. Even as a senior, he wasn’t starting for Utah. It wasn’t a lack of effort or intensity in practice. He just couldn’t seem to make it back into the rotation. And though Stevie was no longer questioning whether football was right for him, he began to question if Utah was right for his future.

So he took a chance. In May, he graduated from Utah and applied to the USC gerontology program. He came to Los Angeles unsure if he would even have a spot on the team. Half a year later, as a starter, he grins when he thinks about the risk he took.

“The risk paid off big time,” Stevie said. “It paid off more than I expected, and I hope that I’m giving the team and the University more than they expected. It’s one of the best choices I ever made.”

That faith — that it will all work out, that he will find his place — was found on his mission. It’s one of the many ways that Stevie holds his mission and his religion close to his heart. When he needs inspiration, he thinks back to what he learned in the Philippines.

If he tried to explain all that he learned, he says, he’d be talking all day. He laughs at the idea of trying to describe that journey in a few simple sentences. But if he has to choose, the biggest lesson came down to love.

“I learned to love everyone the right way, to love everyone and see everyone the way that Jesus looks at them and Jesus loves them,” Stevie said. “After it’s all said and done, we all belong to one family. The people I served is[sic] literally my brothers and sisters. The best thing I’ve learned is to look at them, to love them and to serve them like Jesus would do.”

In many ways, his teammates see this in every practice. He checks in on his fellow linemen, gives them advice or pep talks when they need it. He greets younger players, like freshman lineman Connor Murphy, every day, shouting “Hey Murph-dog, you good over there?” as he warms up and stretches out his legs.

“I’m pretty sure big old Stevie could probably be my dad,” Murphy joked. “He’s like seven or eight years older than I am. I’m just a little freshman. He’s just a huge leader on this team. Soon as he’s come in, he’s demanded respect, not by his words or anything, but by his physical presence. This guy is a sound leader.”

And in many ways, that’s what Stevie brings to the Trojan defensive line. Entering the offseason, the defensive front for USC was one of its larger areas of concern. The defensive line lost six players from its 2015 rotation, including redshirt junior Kenny Bigelow Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury during spring workouts.

Following Bigelow’s injury, speculation arose regarding the inexperienced USC defensive line that would be led by a new, first-year coach in Kenechi Udeze this season. Stevie appeared to be an answer to many of the questions of experience on the line.

“He is an older guy who’s had game experience coming from a great program in Utah,” said senior linebacker and team captain Michael Hutchings. “He’s a big-time game changer for us [by] being in the middle and being that run-stopper. I said it in camp, he’s a huge difference-maker for our defense; It was a blessing for him to come to our team.”

And Stevie’s size makes him an ideal nose tackle for defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s “5-2” scheme — which calls for a stout, wide, defensive tackle to occupy blockers while other defenders roam free to pressure the edges.

“He’s been a really great addition, not only to the defensive line, but to our whole defense,” Pendergast said. “He leads by example, and the other players gravitate towards his work ethic.”

After the Tuesday practice preparing for the Utah game, Stevie stays the latest out of the defensive line, working on hand technique with a dummy on the side of the field. The second he steps away from his workout, he is swarmed by reporters who press microphones close to catch his soft, underspoken voice.

He doesn’t always get this level of media attention, but with his upcoming return to Utah, Stevie is right in the center of the spotlight. He’s asked how he feels about returning home, and he laughs, joking that he’s ordered 60 tickets for his family.

“I can’t wait, man,” he said. “I’m excited. I know the boys at Utah are excited. I talk to those boys every day. I’ll probably get boo’ed a couple times, but that’s the game of football.”

The Utah game will be a return to the past for Stevie, a chance to prove that he’s grown, that he’s made the right choice. Compared to a disappointing 1-2 start for USC, the Utes sit on comfortable 3-0 beginning to their season, and quarterback changes have left fans questioning whether the Trojans will even out their record this weekend.

But for Stevie, this weekend will be a victory, no matter what. His role here at USC has been different — a starter, a leader from the very beginning. He’s found a new home.

“The big thing about Stevie being here right now is how well he’s playing defensive tackle,” Helton said. “I think his first three games have been phenomenal. The maturity level that he’s brought, he’s grown a lot of young kids up in a hurry, so I’m very thankful he’s here.”

The scrum of reporters ask what makes him most excited about being at USC. His answer is immediate — the education.

It surprises a few. But that’s just Stevie.

  • GeorgeCurious

    Now this is a great sports article. Kudos to Julia Poe for her excellent storytelling skill.