Provo • Jeremy Falk, unhappy with his experience as a sophomore football player in Kearns High School's downtrodden program, quit the sport.
Ilaisa Tuiaki brought him back. Having witnessed the work of a new coaching staff, Falk spoke with the Cougars' offensive coordinator. Tuiaki persuaded him to play as a senior, citing his own memories and friendships that stemmed from high school and college football.
"That really motivated me to want to get back into it," Falk said 10 years later as he pursues his own coaching career. "He was a big influence on me. I want to be that kind of influence on young kids' lives."
Such interactions made Tuiaki's Kearns experience memorable as a sophomore English teacher and assistant coach. The story of his first job involves how he competed professionally in mixed martial arts with the nickname of "Ogre 6" and handled airline baggage to further support his wife and four children with a $29,000 teaching income while managing classes of as many as 43 students.
And then he made life much tougher for himself and his family. He became a University of Utah football graduate assistant, requiring food stamps and other federal assistance while living in married student housing.
"I didn't want to go back to that," said his wife, Viola. But "I knew I could be holding him back from something greater. It was really a time for us to see how passionate we both were about what he wanted to do."
The move has paid off in multiple ways. Tuiaki, 38, is in his second year as BYU's defensive coordinator under coach Kalani Sitake after having coached full-time at Utah State, Utah and Oregon State for increasing salaries.
Tuiaki values those Kearns years, when he was known in the classroom as "Coach" or "Mr. T." He worked with a highly diverse student body in the western Salt Lake Valley after graduating from Southern Utah University.
"Being young, being male and being Polynesian in a community like that, there's a natural fit, at least for me and the kids," he said. "It was fun that way, but it was really difficult. You don't learn that stuff in college. You learn how to manage a class … but to reach kids from different backgrounds, it was hard. But it was probably one of the [most] rewarding parts of my life, as I look back on it. I felt like I touched every single kid."
One mother credited him for motivating a student who otherwise may have dropped out of school. He tried to learn about their lives, such as the student who continually arrived late because he had to get his siblings ready for school amid their mother's addiction.
He taught those students "the way I see him raise our kids," said Viola Tuiaki, who's now a mother of six. "He's very open and honest with them. … He's a kid at heart, which is why the boys loved him and the girls appreciated him, even though he [made] stern corrections at times."
Coaching football was an education of its own. "You think you're smart, you're ready," he said. "I really didn't know anything."
Tuiaki contributed to Kearns' turnaround working for coach Bill Cosper, a tough Texan. The Cougars ended the 2006 season with a 17-14 win over rival Hunter, then Falk's '07 team made the Class 5A state playoffs for the first time in 14 years by rallying from 17 points down to beat West Jordan 40-29.
Tuiaki believes his personality balanced Cosper's strict approach. Not that he lacked fire himself. "Oh, man. He was intense. I wondered, 'What did I get myself into?'" said Chad Harwood, who worked closely with Tuiaki. "His intensity was out of love for the game, love for the kids. The kids thrived off it."
The team's '07 season ended with a 56-10 playoff loss to Alta, the eventual 5A champion. Two months later, Utah assistants Gary Andersen and Sitake — two of his former SUU coaches — contacted Tuiaki about a graduate assistant's position. This is where his story diverges.
Tuiaki's version is he saw an opportunity to get a master's degree paid for, enabling him to make more money as a high school teacher. Everyone else's recollection is he aspired to coach in college.
"He knew where he wanted to go with his coaching career. He needed to take that next step to make it a reality," Harwood said.
By Viola Tuiaki's account, Kearns principal Steve Hess told him, "You've got to be where your heart is."