The Friday Night Lights will shine a little less bright this season for the Tu’ifua brothers, Sione Jr. and Tui, starting defensive ends for St. Genevieve High in Panorama City.
They are missing their guiding light. Their father, Sione Sr., a construction worker, passed away in December after battling colon cancer. His wife, the Rev. Dr. Kalesita Tu’ifua who has or had United Methodist ministries in Arleta, Granada Hills and Sun Valley, knew how seriously ill he was. But the parents did their best to keep that information from their seven children, which include Sione Jr., Tui and their sister Mele, who is the student body president this coming semester at St. Genevieve.
The brothers quietly and stoically express their grief. It is evident their father is never far from their thoughts and their hearts.
“Growing up, he taught us about being humble, and everything,” said Tui, 15, a sophomore, who was with his father at the hospital when he died. “He reminded us that school was the No.1 priority — that school can get you anywhere. That you could play football, but if you don’t have your schooling, it means nothing to you.
“He used to take me to his work; he did construction. I used to get tired; I couldn’t do half the things he could do. And he’d say that ‘if you want to get a good job, work in an office with air conditioning, go to school.’ He was showing me what I didn’t want to do. He’d always try to teach us the right ways in life.”
Sione Jr., 18, a senior, nods his head. “He was a quiet guy, but I loved to hang around him,” he said.
Tui has spent most of his life here in the US, while Sione Jr. initially grew up with family in Samoa until arriving first in Seattle, then the San Fernando Valley two years ago.
Both played for St. Genevieve last season. Tui, a starter as a ninth grader who stands 6-3 and weighs about 220 pounds, is better versed in American football because he began in Pop Warner. Sione Jr., who stands 5-11 and weighs 200 pounds, played rugby “on the island,” as he likes to describe home. He hasn’t played football as long, but Coach Billy Para said he is a fast learner.
Last year Sione Jr. was a linebacker, but after adding strength from weight training, Para decided to move him to defensive end. He envisions them becoming the kind of disruptive force that twin brothers Malik and Marquis Jackson were for Birmingham High back in 2007.
“Tui is going to [eventually] sign a Division I scholarship,” Para said. “Sione, because he came from the islands (and to football) late, will probably have to go the JC route. But if they want to continue playing [in college], which I know Tui does, you’re gonna read about them.”
He fondly recalls the father as “very personable” and that he and his wife kept a healthy interest in the football program and their sons’ place in it. But that interest had nothing to do with what happened on the field.
“They’d check in with me weekly about academics, making sure they were doing what they were supposed to do and making sure there were no disciplinary issues,” Para said. “They’ve never tried to interfere with the coaching. They bought in. The mom still does.”
Para expects the brothers to be a critical part to any success St. Genevieve has in 2017. The coach said the Valiants — who went 11-2 overall last year and reached the semifinals of the Southern Section Division 12 playoffs — will probably begin the season stronger on defense. He does have some key offensive returners in quarterback Anthony Smets, running back Ray Beauchamp, receiver Zacharias Muhammad and lineman Johnatan Prado. Everyone else, otherwise, is new.
“We lost a lot of seniors from last year’s team,” Para said. “If there’s something I’m worried about this year, it’s the youth — just because we’re playing so many kids from the JV level on varsity for the first time. It’s been a learning experience since day one. Last year’s team built a foundation of what is to come. This team…has not yet found its identity. I think we’ll find it as we move forward.”
The Tu’ifua family is also moving forward. Tui said his mother “still cries once in awhile because she misses him,” but she is keeping the family together and encouraging the children to excel in the classroom.
“I give her props,” Sione Jr. said. “She’s taking care of seven kids and two churches. To not have our father with us…she’s a strong lady.”
Football will provide a needed outlet for the Tu’ifua brothers this fall. They said they are dedicating the season to their father’s memory. Both plan to have a photo of him taped somewhere on their uniforms or equipment.
“Every game, every play” will be about honoring his father’s memory, Sione Jr. said. “He was a football fan, even though he didn’t really understand the concepts of the game. But he would support us at every game.”