Kragthorpe: Utes’ healing from tragedy must occur on many levels
College football • Utah lineman Salesi Uhatafe, the surviving driver in fatal New Mexico, needs his teammates more than ever
Published: August 5, 2013 03:04PM
Updated: August 8, 2013 05:18PM
In this Oct. 21, 2011 photo, Trinity's junior defensive lineman Gaius Vaenuku (52) rushes Grapevine junior quarterback Brett Harbin (10) during a high school football game at Pennington Field in Bedford, TX. Texas A&M officials say freshman NCAA college football defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu died in a rollover crash, Monday, July 29, 2013, in New Mexico during a trip home from Utah. New Mexico State Police say Gaius Vaenuku, an incoming member of the Utah football team, also died after the wreck. Manukainiu was a 19-year-old redshirt freshman. (AP Photo/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Brandon Wade)

Utah’s football roster, which was updated just in time for Monday’s first practice of August, offers clues of a tragedy.

There’s an obvious gap near the bottom of the numerical list that No. 95, defensive lineman Gaius Vaenuku, was meant to fill. No. 74, offensive lineman Salesi Uhatafe, is written in italics, with the accompanying explanation that he’s due to arrive later.

That distinction gives this story multiple layers, beyond the death of Vaenuku, which is not to diminish his loss in any way.

The harsh reality is that amid everything the Utes do to memorialize him, they must be mindful that Uhatafe was driving the vehicle that crashed in New Mexico, killing Vaenuku and two other passengers: Uhatafe’s 13-year-old brother, Andrew; and his stepbrother, Texas A&M defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu.

So whether the Utes keep Vaenuku’s jersey hanging in his locker or wear No. 95 decals on their helmets, they also have to remember Uhatafe — because he’ll never forget what happened on the road from Utah to Texas.

Lives lost, lives radically altered. There’s dying, and then there’s living with it, as only Uhatafe can know.

“It’s tough on him, he’s been through a lot,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who attended Vaenuku’s funeral Saturday and met with Uhatafe’s family in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Euless, a Polynesian stronghold.

“We talked through a bunch of issues,” Whittingham said. “By the time we left, he was pretty upbeat and understanding the bottom line, that [Vaenuku] would have wanted Salesi to move on and get back with his teammates, and that’s the attitude he’s taking.”

It helps that community bonds and strong faith have enabled Vaenuku’s family to forgive Uhatafe. Yet that’s only part of the healing that must occur on so many levels.

Imagine what this is like for quarterback Micah Thomas or defensive lineman Sam Tevi, knowing they could have been riding in the SUV in New Mexico, if not for deciding to fly home to Texas during the short break between summer conditioning and the start of practice. They took the field Monday for the first time as college football players, missing a teammate — and a fellow Trinity Trojan, in Tevi’s case.

Knowing he recently rode around the Salt Lake Valley in Uhatafe’s vehicle, the one shown mangled in all those photos, is “kind of a chilling feeling,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ tweets last week were even more poignant: “People don’t understand how close you get and how fast you bond when each day you put your heart out there and work with one another.” And “I was supposed to ride back to Texas with them.”

Tevi knew Monday would have been like those old times in Euless. “He’d be right next to me, grinding,” he said, walking off the Ute baseball field.

Which is what Uhatafe will be doing, once he reports next Monday, according to plans. The task of his teammates will be to “just make him feel comfortable, make him feel at home — just the little things to keep a smile on his face,” Tevi said.

That never would have been an issue with Uhatafe, until now. For the Utes, this is not quite like the 2005 death of former lineman Thomas Herrion, who collapsed and died during a game with the San Francisco 49ers. In this case, there’s a survivor.

So as they honor the memory of a departed teammate, the Utes really need to support the one whose life goes on.