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VHS tapes and the ‘Turbo Tongan’: Houston Heimuli transferred back home to BYU to fulfill a legacy once abandoned

The son of BYU record-setting RB Lakei Heimuli, the senior is using his COVID-19 year of eligibility to walk-on.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Houston Heimuli is the son of BYU running back Lakei Heimulu who played for BYU in the early 80's. Heimuli is walking on at BYU from Stanford University under the COVID-19 extra year of eligibility. "It's surreal," Houston Heimuli said of being given the chance to play for Brigham Young University.

Nearly every night inside his childhood home in Bountiful, a 5-year-old Houston Heimuli would sneak into the basement in search of VHS tapes.

Heimuli, the son of former BYU running back Lakei Heimuli, had a whole system growing up. Wait for his father to fall asleep. Check the hallway for stragglers. And then make a run for it downstairs to pop on his father’s college highlights.

And in that basement, a young Heimuli began the solitary act of piecing together his father’s career. The tapes started with the 1983 Holiday Bowl. The Steve Young era after that. When the tapes finally moved to DVDs, he watched BYU’s 1984 national championship game on repeat.

“I would hear the old BYU calls from my room,” Hema Heimuli, Houston’s older brother who lived in the basement, said with a laugh. “My dad is humble, never talked about his career. So we learned [about his career] secondhand, like through VHS tapes.”

These old tapes are at the heart of why Heimuli is using his COVID year of eligibility to walk-on at BYU from Stanford. Those stolen late-night moments were the closest Heimuli thought he would get to the BYU program.

“I’ve always watched BYU football and because of that I started playing. I’ve always had a soft spot for BYU,” Heimuli said. “I didn’t think I would play for BYU ever.”

The 25-year-old’s journey to Provo is more difficult than you would think for the son of one of the program’s most recognizable figures. In fact, Heimuli’s family doesn’t liken it to a journey at all. That’s because they had given up on it years ago.

(Young Kwak | AP Photo) In his final season at Stanford, fullback Houston Heimuli kept his eye on BYU as he looked to make his next move.

Lakei Heimuli left BYU as the program’s all-time leading rusher. Now, he stands at seventh on the all-time rushing. He’s eighth on the all-time touchdown list. He’s also a member of the program’s lone national championship and had a stint with the Chicago Bears.

But the younger Heimuli wasn’t recruited to BYU out of high school. Then-head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff didn’t reach out to the family who lived less than an hour away.

So, Heimuli moved on. He went to Stanford and prepared to finish his college career there. He redshirted and became a captain. At the end of last season, he thought about the NFL draft.

“I wouldn’t say we were disillusioned,” Hema said. “It was just the reality, [BYU wasn’t happening].”

But it was sometime in 2020 — when Stanford played six games in a COVID-riddled season — the door to BYU opened slightly.

The NCAA granted everyone a blanket extra year of eligibility because of the coronavirus. It meant, if he wanted it, Heimuli could get a degree from Stanford and transfer.

At the same time, Heimuli used the added downtime to take note of a changing of the guard in Provo. Kalani Sitake had taken over as head coach after Mendenhall left for Virginia, and one of Sitake’s priorities was reaching out to legacy families.

Lakei Heimulu was one of Sitake’s favorite players growing up. As the first FBS Tongan head coach, Sitake looked up to the Tongan running back. Lakei was invited to LaVell Edwards Stadium in 2016 to run the flag out against Mississippi State. It was the first time he had been back since the 1980s.

“The culture was kind of different,” Hema said.

Houston Heimuli echoed that. So, he entered his name into the NCAA Transfer Portal on Dec. 1. He texted Sitake immediately after about his interest in BYU. Three hours later, Sitake was on the phone with Heimuli talking about walking on.

“As a former fullback, I have a huge appreciation for the consistent and important contributions Houston has made for his team over his career,” Sitake said when Heimuli signed.

On the football side, BYU is a necessary step for Heimuli’s career. While he played 42 games at Stanford, his snaps declined each year. He felt underutilized.

After his first season, Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren left for a job at Rice. The new offensive coaching staff had less use for a fullback like Heimuli. He finished his redshirt senior season with just two catches for 18 yards. He knows, regardless of how well he can block, he needs more touches to go to the NFL.

“The NFL draft, that’s always been the goal,” Heimuli said.

When Stanford played six games in 2020, Heimuli spent his off weeks watching BYU games. He would text his brother about how Masen Wake, BYU’s fullback, was being used.

“He would text, ‘Dude, BYU ran all over Navy,’” Hema said. “I think that’s when the wheels started turning. Houston was thinking maybe there’s some options for me here at fullback. I think he just needs more tape from an offensive perspective [for the NFL].”

But even if the draft doesn’t work out, coming back to BYU has a bigger meaning for Heimuli. It will be about wearing his father’s number. It will be about fulfilling a legacy started in a basement and, for a long time, stood dormant.

(Courtesy Hema Heimuli) In the 1980s, Lakei Heimuli set rushing records at BYU. Not one to advertise his own accomplishments, Heimuli's sons learned about his standout football career through bits of memorabilia, such as VHS tapes of his old games and this poster.

When Heimuli eventually committed to BYU this January, he thought about another thing he found in that basement.

As a 13-year-old, Heimuli was rummaging in a box looking for other tapes. But he ended up finding a poster — a cutout from an old game day program — of his dad labeled the “Turbo Tongan.” It is a picture of Lakei standing with high, white crew socks and a BYU practice jersey in front of a 1980s Chevy pickup truck.

Hema joked they should recreate the picture. Only this time, Houston Heimuli should stand in front of a bulldozer. It matches his style more than a Chevy, Hema says. Houston is a bit bigger and, admittedly, a bit slower than his dad.

But more importantly, it’s Houston’s own stamp on a legacy.

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