Given a 1% chance to survive, a Utah high school football star will continue his dream at BYU

Two of Ephraim Asiata’s friends were killed and he was injured in a shooting near Hunter High School in 2022. Now he’s rebuilding a career he thought was over.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ephraim Asiata, a top 15 player in Utah, joins his father Matt Asiata, a former NFL running back, and University of Utah player as he introduces his son’s choice of playing for BYU while surrounded by friends and family in West Jordan on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.

West Jordan • They communicated with him by flashlight, because that was the only way they could.

Desperate for good news, Joe Atiga, the boy’s grandfather, would gather a small herd of family and friends in the hospital parking lot, direct them to turn on their phone’s flashlight and wave it at the sixth-floor window above. Keep waving, he’d tell them, and wait.

Then the light from a cellphone would appear in the hospital room up above. Ephraim Asiata’s once-a-day check-in with the world. He was still up there, still breathing, still fighting.

The kid they called “Fatboy” was tough. Just a sophomore at the time, Ephraim was already one of the best football players in the state. But doctors had told his family he had less than a 1 percent chance to live after the bullets from a classmate’s gun ripped through his organs on Jan. 13, 2022.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Uncle Muka Atiga throws his arms up in joking despair at having to cheer for BYU as his nephew Ephraim Asiata gets ready to sign his letter of commitment to play football for the Cougars on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. The 3-star linebacker, one of Utah’s top prospects, made his choice, causing many of the Utah supporters in his family to joke about having to cheer for the rivalry team.

So Atiga, along with many family and friends in the crowd, would climb into their cars for a few hours of shuteye — the heat blasting to warm up their bodies from the 30-degree cold — and pray the flashlight would return the next day.

“We never left the parking lot,” Atiga said. “We couldn’t see him. Only his parents were allowed in the room. We’d all wait and eat home-cooked meals people dropped off.”

Two years, nine surgeries and three organ transplants later, Ephraim’s family sat waiting in a hotel ballroom waiting for him to give another sign. Their cellphones were once again pointed at him and a college football helmet resting on the table. To even be there is a miracle, they said.

“He wasn’t supposed to survive, period,” his mom, Tangi, said. “He wasn’t supposed to live at all.

“Say their last goodbyes”

Matt Asiata had never moved so fast.

The former University of Utah and Minnesota Vikings running back had received a call from his sister. “Fatboy is shot,” she said.

Matt and Tangi Asiata raced to the hospital, turning a 40-minute drive into 20, running every red light along the way.

Matt Asiata sprinted into the hospital and called for his son, shouting Ephraim’s name over and over as he raced through the hallways to his bed.

“Just to let him know, like, we’re here,” Asiata said.

When he got to Ephraim, his eyes were open but blank.

There had been a fight outside of the high school earlier that day between two separate groups of teens. A passerby stepped in to break things up, but the two groups kept at it.

They moved farther west on 4100 South near the Mountain View Corridor when a 14-year-old pulled out a gun and fired.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) More that a hundred people gather at the candlelight vigil of Hunter High football players Paul Tahi , 15, Tivani Lopati, 14, and Ephraim Asiata, 15, on Friday, Jan 14, 2022, in West Valley City, near Hunter High School along 1400 South at Mountain View Corridor. Paul Tahi and Tivani Lopati were killed in a shooting, while Ephraim Asiata remains in critical condition.

Two students — Hunter football players Tivani Lopati, 14, and Paul Tahi, 15, — were killed.

The 14-year-old shooter would later tell police he and his friends had been harassed by the other group, according to court documents, and that he fired into the crowd before throwing the gun over a fence and running away. In December of 2022, he pleaded guilty to reduced charges of manslaughter and is now serving a six-year sentence in a juvenile facility.

Ephraim, then 15, was shot, too, but was clinging to life.

Matt and Tangi, meanwhile, were clinging to hope.

“Everything looked fine,” Asiata said. “He looked out of it. But his eyes were wide open. I was like, ‘Man, maybe it’s not that bad.’”

The doctors told them things were dire.

The Asiatas said Ephraim was shot with hollow-point bullets, which enter the body with soft impact and then explode inside, spraying fragments into the organs. Doctors found Ephraim’s small intestine, liver and pancreas shredded. He needed a transplant, but they were unsure even then.

“We are bawling in the waiting room,” Matt remembered. “I was trying to hold my wife up.”

For hours, surgeons worked on the teen, trying to save his life.

“It’d be a good time to bring your kids in,” Matt Asiata said doctors told the family at some point. “Say their last goodbyes.”

Then came the waiting.

Matt and Tangi slept on the couch or the floor of Ephraim’s room, providing updates to family in the parking lot.

Ephraim had four surgeries in two weeks as doctors took out his small intestine and parts of his liver.

He drifted in and out of consciousness, but when he was awake he often found himself talking about football with his father.

“These motherf’ers are so lucky you can’t play right now,” he remembered his dad whispering to him one night, as if searching for something to motivate him, to will the boy’s body to respond.

As Ephraim gained a little more strength, his father convinced him to do small workouts in his hospital bed, a light incline bench press or sparring while sitting up in bed.

“I was out of it,” Ephraim said. “But my dad, is always going be the same. Always pushing me. I didn’t want to move, but I’m happy my dad got me to do that.”

After four weeks in the hospital, the doctors said there was nothing more they could do at the time. Ephraim still needed a small intestine, liver and pancreas, but finding a donor could take years. Still, he was free to leave and begin to rebuild a life he didn’t recognize anymore.

‘He would’ve starved to death’

Before the shooting, Ephraim Asiata was the prototypical college prospect. At over 6-foot and 230 pounds, his frame terrorized offenses at Hunter and he logged 10 sacks and 61 tackles as a sophomore. Coaches whispered that he might be the best prospect in the state.

But when he returned home from the hospital, Ephraim had plummeted down to 150 pounds. He couldn’t eat. His body wasn’t closed from the surgeries. He was on an IV eight hours a day to get the nutrients to survive, and even that was tenuous.

“Your body just doesn’t absorb any nutrients without a small intestine,” Tangi said. “He would’ve starved to death basically.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) More that a hundred people gather at the candlelight vigil of Hunter High football players Paul Tahi , 15, Tivani Lopati, 14, and Ephraim Asiata, 15, on Friday, Jan 14, 2022, in West Valley City, near Hunter High School along 1400 South at Mountain View Corridor. Paul Tahi and Tivani Lopati were killed in a shooting, while Ephraim Asiata remains in critical condition.

A nurse visited once a day and Ephraim was in and out of the hospital until June. They were told it would be at least four years before he could get the transplant he needed.

But in July, doctors said they had three organs ready in Nebraska. Ephraim Asiata went into the Omaha doctor’s office before the transplant and asked one question.

“Can I play football again?” Matt Asiata remembered his son asking. “That was off the table before. The room went silent for a minute. The doctor goes, ‘Yes, I don’t see why not.’”

Ephraim broke down crying.

He stayed in the Ronald McDonald House after the surgery. His parents traded off weeks staying with him. His siblings flew in from Utah. It wasn’t until October he came back for good, finally ready to see what came next.

A climb back

In the summer of 2023, Ephraim Asiata sat in the heat of a construction site more frustrated than he’d been in months.

He’d helped with his grandfather’s construction business for years, always the strongest one putting up retaining walls. It is why he relished living with him during the summer, living off the few dollars Atiga slipped him for lunch.

But this time, Ephraim couldn’t pick up the same rocks he used to.

When he returned from Nebraska, he knew he had to put on weight. His solution was to help out with construction during the day and run with his football team at night.

“That was our lifting period,” he said. “I was trying to get back to the same groove.”

Originally, he didn’t know if he wanted to play football again. He didn’t know if he physically could, or if he’d be recruited.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tangi Asiata becomes emotional talking about the challenges and hard work faced by her son Ephraim Asiata, a top 15 football player in Utah, following a shooting that left her son in critical condition and killed two of his classmates in 2022. Surrounded by friends and family Ephraim persevered and announced his commitment to play for BYU during the announcement in West Jordan on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.

“I just had thoughts that schools wouldn’t think I could play,” he said.

His mom transferred him from Hunter High School to Herriman High, too. She claimed it was so they could put the shooting behind them. But Ephraim knew she was scared it could happen again.

When school started back up, he gave up working construction and replaced it with three-hour lifts after practice. He went from 150 to 190 by the time he played in his first game for the Mustangs.

“His mom cried the whole day before his game,” Matt Asiata said. “Then I cried. He came up to me on the sidelines, gave me a big ol’ hug. That was a big moment for us. Football is in our blood, right?”

Ephraim again looked like a college linebacker. He had four sacks in his second game back and finished with more than 50 tackles on the season.

USC, Utah and BYU called with renewed scholarship offers.

Most figured that USC and Utah would be the easy choice. His father played at Utah. USC was the Big Ten school with the headline-grabbing coach.

But Ephraim knew what he wanted. He said he wanted to be close to home, where the family could be part of his story.

In the recruiting process, BYU defensive line coach Sione Po’uha became an extension of that family. He played at Utah like Matt Asiata, making it an easy fit.

“They were always the first ones to step up to my family. Ask them what they need, what they want,” he said. “I feel I need that with everything that happened.”

So late last month, with his family all around him in a hotel ballroom, the memories came flooding back.

His dad whispering in his ear in the hospital. His siblings flying out to Nebraska on their days off. His grandparents waiting in a parking lot for weeks, only seeing him by flashlight.

Once again their cellphones were pointed at him, this time ready to capture a moment of pure joy.

He told them he was going to play at BYU, that his decision was also for them, for everyone who made a miracle happen.