Ute football player dies in fatal rollover crash in New Mexico
At 6 feet 6 inches with nimble feet and quick hands, Gaius Vaenuku was a player college football coaches from around the country coveted. But it's not Vaenuku's striking athleticism that he'll be remembered for.
"He was like the happiest kid you could possibly come across," said Viliata Tua'one, a high school coach in DeLand, Fla., and a family friend who was one of many distraught Tuesday after hearing news of Vaenuku's death in a Monday night car accident. "If you were to talk to him without knowing, you wouldn't even think he played football. He was so nice."
The incoming U. freshman defensive lineman was among three killed in a triple fatal rollover in New Mexico while heading from Salt Lake City to his home in Euless, Texas, for a quick visit before the open of Utah's fall football camp. Incoming U. offensive lineman Salesi Uhatafe survived the crash with minor injuries, as did his father, Salesi Sr. But Uhatafe's brother, Lolo Uhatafe, 13, and stepbrother, Texas A&M redshirt freshman Polo Manukainiu, 19, also were killed.
Incoming Utah freshman tight end Filipo Mokofisi met Vaenuku during his official recruiting visit to the U. in January, and in the short time since, they had forged a tight bond. Mokofisi said Vaenuku had a quick wit and an outgoing nature. "Every time you're with him, you would get a laugh out of him."
"He took me in," Mokofisi said. "He had a personality where you just met him and you feel like you knew him your whole life."
New Mexico state police say Salesi Uhatafe was driving when the group's 2002 Toyota Sequoia drifted off the road, overcorrected and rolled several times on U.S. 550 north of Cuba, N.M. Two people were ejected from the vehicle, and all three were dead when officers arrived at the scene.
Salesi Uhatafe and Salesi Sr. were transported to a hospital with minor injuries. Alcohol wasn't involved, but Salesi Uhatafe was the only one wearing a seat belt.
"Everyone who knew Gaius is heartbroken today," Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said in a news release. "He was the kind of young man who lit up a room and his future in football and life had no boundaries."
Vaenuku, Manukainiu and Uhatafe all attended Trinity High School in Euless. Vaenuku, whose U. athletics profile says he planned to study acting, leaves behind three brothers and three sisters.
Tua'one worked with Vaenuku at the 2012 All-Poly Camp in Bountiful, and said Vaenuku excelled in all aspects of not just football, but life.
"He's the kind of kid you want on your team, not just because he's big, but you want him because he helps teach the younger players what he learned," Tua'one said.
Trinity Principal Mike Harris told The Associated Press the deaths have profoundly affected Euless, where there is a tight-knit Polynesian community.
"They were students with bright smiles that everybody knew and everybody loved," the principal said.
In the U. release, Whittingham said "This is a sad day not only for University of Utah football, but for everyone whose lives Gaius crossed or would have crossed but for this tragedy. Our hearts go out to Gaius' and Salesi's families, and to the Texas A&M coaches and players."
Early Monday, Manukainiu tweeted "22 hour drive back to Texas on no sleep. Oh my."