Utah guard finds comfort in game after mother's death

Matthew Piper
Salt Lake Tribune
Salesi Uhatafe

Salt Lake City -- Salesi Uhatafe had long admired his mom's dedication.

He couldn't remember a day when she missed work, or turned down a request for help. Whenever she felt less than 100 percent, "her go-to thing was a couple pills of Tylenol and sleep," he said. "That was her medicine for everything."

So when he listened to her voicemail after a class late this summer, when she told him that she'd called in sick at a warehouse for a popular video game retailer, he knew something was wrong.

The next day, she assured him she'd be fine.

The next day, Paea Latu, 54, collapsed. She died Aug. 6.

A big man with a soft voice who hopes to one day become a police officer, Utah's starting right guard has been dealt an outsize share of loss in his 20 years.

Prior to his freshman season, he was at the wheel during a triple fatal rollover in northern New Mexico that killed his brother, 13-year-old Lolo Uhatafe, his stepbrother, Texas A&M defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu, and fellow Utah signee and longtime friend Gaius Vaenuku.

Latu had worried that her son was again going so far away from hometown Euless, Texas, so soon after the devastating accident, but he summoned the courage to return for a redshirt year.

When he earned a vital role on Utah's offensive line in 2014, Latu would get home from her job at the warehouse and turn on ESPN to watch the ticker. He'd call — later and later, as it got closer to the holidays and her workload increased — to let her know the story behind the score. He had hoped she would save some time off to visit for a game in 2015.

Latu was nonresponsive from the time she collapsed that day. Uhatafe flew home to visit with her for about a week, telling her the things he needed to say and hoping that she could hear him. She died the day after he left again for Salt Lake City.

Back for the wake, he saw co-workers sobbing and heard stories of his mom's compassion. One co-worker's baby was in dire straits after birth, and Latu and her husband stopped by the ICU every day after work to say a prayer. When the boy survived, the co-worker asked Latu if she would name him. She chose Noah, he said.

Utah junior left tackle Sam Tevi, who graduated from Trinity High in the same class as Uhatafe, said it's sometimes tough to get a read on his friend, but that they've seen him laugh, at least. He's been the same "Leka," as they call him, around his teammates.

Explained Uhatafe: "Throughout all the things that have happened, football's been the thing that's always been the same."

He also has a childhood friend in center Hiva Lutui, a year ahead of him at Trinity, and extended family from his mom's side who live in the Salt Lake area.

Without their support, he said, "I would get probably so homesick that I wouldn't want to be here. ... It really helps, just knowing that there's people I can relate to that kind of know my history."

It's nice not to have to say anything. His mom's loss still fresh, he said, and he's trying to keep his focus on what's ahead of him.

"I'm a firm believer in everything happens for a reason," he said. "I'm kind of just waiting it out to see what it's happening for."

Michigan vs. Utah

When: Thursday, 8:30 p.m.

Where: Rice-Eccels Stadium, Salt Lake City

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: WWJ 950, WTKA 1050

Series: Utah leads 2-1

Line: Utah by 5.5