For BYU Football, this is a big week. Not only are the Cougars preparing for Utah — a rivalry series they haven’t won since 2009 — but they are set to be invited into the Big 12 Conference.
For Cougar running back Lopini Katoa, this may be the biggest week of his life.
And suddenly, Saturday’s rivalry game just doesn’t seem that important.
As Katoa practiced for Saturday’s game this week, he also prepared for his mother to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor Friday.
Angie Katoa got out of surgery around 12:30 p.m. on Friday. Most of the tumor was able to be removed, and was sent to testing to verify that it was benign, but a small portion was left due to the threat it posed as it was connected to a vein. Katoa is recovering in a local hospital.
“Nobody wants to hear that, you know,” Katoa said. “But the biggest thing is seeing how much love and support [has come in], especially from the teammates. It definitely helped out, me and the family.”
Angie Katoa, a mother of five, had noticed minor symptoms, like headaches, dizziness and pressure in her head, but it wasn’t until she experienced numbing in her arm that she finally decided to go through with a doctor’s appointment.
The initial evaluation and blood work came back normal, but the neurologist decided to do an MRI test just to be safe. The results showed a tentorial meningioma, a benign tumor located where the brain connects to the brainstem.
That was a month ago.
“It’s my son’s senior year playing football, so I didn’t really want to do it right now,” Angie Katoa said. “But every time I talked to my kids and every time we talked about waiting a little bit, it didn’t seem like the right decision. So we’re doing it now.”
With the pending surgery, and the possibility that it would be the one game she could watch in person this season, Angie went down to Las Vegas to watch her son in the season opener against Arizona in Allegiant Stadium.
After the surgery, Angie is expecting to be in ICU for a day, then spend up to five more days in the hospital before being sent home to recover over six to eight weeks.
Because she will miss the majority of the season — if not all of it — Katoa, who’s a self-proclaimed momma’s boy, said having his mother in Allegiant Stadium was special.
“We all knew that she was doing the surgery this week, so [it would be] the last time she’d be there,” said Katoa. “The last thing I wanted to do was let her worry about my games when her health is more important.”
Angie Katoa was even more upset to miss this week’s game because it’s rivalry week.
Because of the pandemic, BYU wasn’t able to play Utah last season, so the Cougars have waited even longer to try to snap a nine-game losing streak against the Utes. It’s a big game, and she really wanted to be there.
Lopini Katoa ended up telling his mother, by their accounts, to stop being ridiculous. Her health is the most important thing and takes priority over any game, he said.
“It’s not so much about the game as it is my son,” Angie Katoa said. “I’ve always supported my kids and it’s really hard for me to take the role of them now doing something for me. I’m really active in their lives and it’s very hard to flip that. That’s what I’m trying to wrap my head around.”
Lopini Katoa isn’t sure if this will be his last season at BYU, but that’s how he’s looking at it.
Katoa is listed as a redshirt junior right now, but only because BYU didn’t change any returning players’ classifications due to the NCAA’s blanket waiver. Technically, this is his fourth season playing for the Cougars.
“I’m kind of just taking it a day at a time, but I’m seeing it as it could potentially be the last one,” Katoa said. “So, go all out like it is and then respond from there.”
On Saturday, BYU will pay tribute to the victims of 9/11 and former Ute Ty Jordan, who was killed in an accidental shooting last December. Katoa’s not sure what it will be exactly, but he will honor his mom that day as well.
Katoa has reflected on those things this week and been reminded of what’s truly important to him.
“I think it definitely helped me just to see there’s more to life and not to stress over little things that may come my way,” Katoa said. “Especially Utah week, people want to put a lot of pressure on us as we’ve been behind in the past few games with Utah. But really, it just helped me see that none of that really matters in the big scheme of things. … Obviously, the past week and past couple of days have been really good for me just to see there’s more to life, and just be thankful that I’m on the field.”