‘He’s a miracle’: As Ephraim Asiata remains hospitalized, the West Valley City community gathers in support

The 15-year-old football player has been in the hospitalized for a week in connection with the shooting at Hunter High School

(Kevin Reynolds | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of people gather at the parking lot of a Smith's grocery store in Murray to show support for Hunter High School's Ephraim Asiata, who remains hospitalized after suffering a gunshot wound nearly two weeks ago.

Murray • He sat at the edge of the parking lot, staring up without expression into the high rise of Intermountain Medical Center.

With the aid of the afternoon sun at his back, and a makeshift space heater that blew into 40 degree weather, Travis Aiono crouched with the same gaze for hours.

The Hunter High School football assistant coach was hoping that if he sat there long enough, maybe his player Ephraim Asiata would notice from inside the hospital room. If he looked at just the right angle, maybe he could catch Asiata’s eye and give him some comfort knowing people were pulling for him.

“He’s a kid,” Aiono said of Asiata, a 15-year-old football player who was shot on Jan. 13 and has been fighting for his life inside the hospital ever since. “That’s exactly what he is. A kid. You feel hopeless up there.”

Many in the West Valley City community had the same idea as Aiono on Sunday — gathering in their own way around Intermountain to let Asiata feel the sense of community that was pulling for him.

It is a community in shock over the shooting at Hunter High School last week that left Asiata in critical condition and two other high school football players dead. Tivani Lopati, 14, and Paul Tahi, 15, were shot nearly two weeks ago after a fight broke out between two groups of students. Lopati and Tahi died.

The 14-year-old boy suspected of shooting the three boys is being held in juvenile detention, but prosecutors want him tried as an adult. Police continue to investigate.

It also is a community trying to support. Even if Asiata couldn’t see it, there was a procession of hundreds of cars that drove past the hospital and blasted Asiata’s favorite songs. A spontaneous gathering — much like the somber candlelight vigil the night after the shooting — amassed near the entrance to the hospital as well.

(Kevin Reynolds | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Polaris vehicle sits with the message "Ephraim Strong" written on its windshield at the parking lot of a Smith's grocery store in Murray on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, to show support for Hunter High School's Ephraim Asiata, who remains hospitalized after suffering a gunshot wound nearly two weeks ago.

“I don’t know Asiata,” Rick Ortenburger, who drove a Volkswagen Bug in the procession, said. “But I’m big on community. He is part of the community. It’s so sad what happened.”

Earlier Sunday, in the lobby of the Intermountain Healthcare Transformation Center, Asiata’s uncle, Muka Atiga, said Asiata left the ICU a couple of days ago, is “doing well,” and may be out of the hospital in a couple of weeks “at most,” though he added it’s difficult to say for sure.

“He’s got a long road ahead of him,” Atiga said, noting that doctors initially gave his nephew a “1% chance” of surviving his injuries.

“I think literally that’s all he needed,” Atiga said.

Atiga said Asiata hasn’t been out of bed much, but has been able to start communicating with people. He added that Asiata was able to be moved to a wheelchair and received a “little tour” of the hospital.

“He’s a miracle,” Atiga said. “Anything outside of the bed is a miracle already.”

Asiata, in many ways, is the essence of the West Valley community. He was born into the community and then blossomed in his own right.

Asiata’s father, Matt, played football at Hunter High School and went on to play five years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. Along the way, Matt made stops at local Snow College and eventually the University of Utah. He became a legend in the local ranks as he appeared in Sugar Bowls and broke records.

Ephraim grew up in that atmosphere. He was under 5 years old when Matt played at Utah. He often went to practices on the weekends and followed his dad around whenever they came back to West Valley. He even went to bowl games.

(Alex Vejar | The Salt Lake Tribune) Muka Atiga gives an update on the medical condition of his nephew, Ephraim Asiata, a Hunter High School football player who was shot and critically wounded nearly two weeks ago. Atiga said Asiata is out of the ICU and "doing well."

“Ephraim was ingrained early on [in the community,” Steve Tate, a teammate of Matt’s at Utah, said. Tate also had a son when he played with Matt. “They embraced our kids as family. It’s like a nephew.”

As Ephraim came of age, he didn’t take his father’s success as a right of passage. Instead, he became a community stalwart in his own right, going by his own name of “Fat Boy.” Asiata also played football at Hunter like his dad. He received scholarships offers from Wisconsin and Utah.

“Ephraim echoes his dad,” said Bryan Brown, who played with Matt at Snow College. “This is part of the reason why this hits so hard for so many people. We all saw what was about to happen, or potentially coming, with Ephraim.”

Many spent the week grappling with that question. Asiata’s teammates on the football team have been “constantly funneling in and out” of the parking lot, which Asiata’s hospital room window faces. Those down below have been receiving updates on his condition in the form of flashes from a cellphone light, Atiga said.

“He’s well-known for his athletic ability, so in football, everyone is cheering for him,” Atiga said. “It’s the same exact feeling in the parking lot every time they see those lights go on from the window. Everybody’s cheering as if he’s on the football field.”

Back at the parking lot, one woman walked out of a local store as she saw the cars heading to the hospital. She lamented teenage gun violence. Then, without hesitation, she got into her car and joined the others.

Maybe Asiata would see her. Maybe he wouldn’t. But one thing, everyone hoped, is the showing of community would help — both Asiata and a shaken community.