He watches his future teammates from the sidelines, lifts weights by himself and waits until practice is over and the coaches are gone before he begins running ladders.
Joe Tukuafu suffers alone.
But he isn’t suffering silently.
“I want to make it known that this rule isn’t fair at all,” the 21-year-old says. “I want to stand up for what I believe is right. I’m standing up for student-athletes in this whole process.”
Back in 2014, Tukuafu, then a senior at East High School in Salt Lake City, signed a National Letter of Intent to play football at Utah State University, one of about 44,000 athletes to sign an NLI to play collegiate sports that year. After returning from a Mormon mission late last year, Tukuafu became one of the roughly 2 percent of athletes nationwide to request a release from that letter.
He never has enrolled at USU. He hasn’t played organized football since high school. And it seems he will have to sit out another year because officials at Utah State will not grant him a release.
Position • Tight end
Height • 6 foot 4
Weight • 280
Class • Freshman
Age • 21
Hometown • Glendale
Last school • East High School
“I hate it for the situation,” USU coach Matt Wells said last week. “He’s a great kid, it’s a great family. We openly communicated everything to him and his family, his school coach throughout the whole process. The decision was made knowing the penalty involved.
“[O]ur institution upholds the National Letter of Intent,” Wells added. “It’s our school’s policy to uphold that.”
Utah State is within its rights to deny the release. Had the Aggies pulled or reduced Tukuafu’s scholarship while he was serving a mission for his church, the letter would have been void.
“We supported him the entire way,” Wells said.
Tukuafu and his family know the rule. They just don’t believe it’s fair, and they haven’t been afraid to speak up about it.
Tukuafu made his decision known to officials at Utah State last winter. He enrolled at BYU in January. The story hasn’t gone away in the months since, as Tukuafu and his family have taken their case public.
“I think a lot of people are media shy,” the family’s patriarch, Pasa Tukuafu, said. “In this situation, I think he has a legitimate argument to make in reference to the unfair and unreasonable stance Utah State has taken. … I wish more people would speak out, to make an argument on their situations. Because it’s in the best interest of the athlete.”
While transfers have been labeled an “epidemic” by some college coaches, only about 2 percent of athletes request to be released from their NLI, according to national data. In 2015-16, transfers from four-year colleges and universities made up 6.5 percent of the total athlete population, according to the NCAA.
For comparison, a 2015 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that more than a third of all college students will transfer.
Still, the NCAA has chosen to penalize athletes, forcing them to sit out a year unless they transfer to a lower division or already have completed their undergraduate degree.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake said in June he would not force athletes to honor their NLI after returning from a mission, should they want to go elsewhere.
“If a player comes home from his mission and doesn’t want to come back to BYU, I will release him,” Sitake said at the Cougars’ media day. “If people want to transfer, we will release them. The last thing I want is a player that doesn’t want to be here. So why would any other coach want that?
“To me, it’s pretty easy. If a kid doesn’t want to be a part of your program, then let him go somewhere so he can have a great experience and do well, and then you can bring in someone else who wants to be part of your team.”
Kyle Whittingham said he can envision a time when the NCAA will rid itself of the transfer penalties.
“There’s a lot of change on the horizon,” he said. “That could be one thing that happens. Everyone goes back to how coaches can move whenever they want, so why tie the players’ hands like that? And there’s some validity to that. There is definitely validity to that.
“We’ll have to see how things go … but I don’t think you’ll see things become more stringent. I think it will loosen up if anything.”
When he signed in February of 2014, Tukuafu wore an Aggie beanie and hooded sweatshirt. He spoke to reporters about “following your heart.”
“I saw myself there. I saw myself playing there,” he said. “I love Logan. Love the atmosphere. The little college town. That will get a recruit going, the college feel up there.”
But Tukuafu said he did not fully understand the NLI process when he signed, with the consent of his parents, as a 17-year-old.
“The way I knew it was after one year, you’re a free agent,” he said. “… I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
After graduation, he went on a Mormon mission to Argentina. The two-year commitment ended up running long because he required knee surgery.
The irony of Tukuafu’s situation is that if he had not felt compelled to honor one commitment, he might not have found himself embroiled in a controversy over his choice to change his mind about another.
While the Salt Lake City man was serving his mission, he started to feel a pain in his knee. He chalked it up to some wear and tear from high school football, playing soccer and trekking around Cordoba. When the pain persisted, it was decided he would need to leave South America. After his surgery, Tukuafu still wanted to fulfill the promise he had made to his church leaders and complete 24 months as a missionary. So he extended his service and returned to the mission field.
“If I hadn’t got injured, I would have probably come back and played at Utah State,” Tukuafu said. “That would have been before the whole change up.”
But three years after signing a national letter of intent to play college football for USU, Tukuafu returned home and had a change of heart. Instead of playing for the Aggies, he wanted to join the new BYU coach Sitake in Provo.
Tukuafu had a bond with Sitake. He originally had committed to Utah before being flipped by the Aggies.
“He was the first one to recruit me,” Tukuafu said. “We always had a connection.”
The player also thought a move to Provo would benefit him on the field. He studied game films, watching how offensive coordinator Ty Detmer used his tight ends in multiple ways.
“That was a big factor in coming down to BYU,” Tukuafu said.
So he enrolled at the school in January and told Wells and USU assistant coach Frank Maile. By spring, Tukuafu was on scholarship and practicing with the Cougars.
“I went to spring ball thinking I’m here to play,” he said. “I thought I did pretty good coming off the mission. I was expecting to compete [for playing time] this fall.”
Then came the snag.
Now Tukuafu feels he is losing a race against time.
“I’ve missed three seasons,” he said. “My dream is playing at the next level, but I’m a 21-year-old freshman. … If I want to make it to the draft, I only have three or four years. Because I’m 21, age is a big factor against me.”
BYU’s season starts Aug. 26, and USU has shown no indication of relenting on its position.
“What is Utah State getting out of this by taking this stance?” Pasa Tukuafu said. “I don’t get it, especially with a program that hasn’t been too successful the past couple of years. They’re taking a hard position. I think it will affect them in recruiting.”
“I honestly think it will,” the younger Tukuafu added. “Especially with mission kids. I feel like it would have them second-guessing if I should sign.”
Tukuafu, meanwhile, is holding out hope that Utah State officials will have a change of heart.
“I’d like to stay positive, so I do think there’s hope,” Tukuafu said. “I’m just hoping they make a good decision. I honestly think it’s common sense. If a kid doesn’t want to be in your program, go on with life and let him chase his dream.”
Note: Eric Butler contributed to this story.