Gordon Monson: Utah’s all-everything defensive tackle Leki Fotu is a menacing man with a tender prayer in his heart

In this Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018 photo, Utah's defensive tackle Leki Fotu looks on during NCAA college football practice in Salt Lake City. Strong defensive lines are a trademark of Utah's football program. After experiencing a drop-off in production along the line of scrimmage a year ago, the Utes are focused on re-establishing their dominance up front this season. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

When the menacing man steps onto the field, he looks as terrifically terrible as a brutish football tackling machine can look. Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu is a bad, bad hombre, a 6-foot-5, 335-pound force of humanity, with the bulky biceps and the big body spilling out of his distressingly stretched uniform and the big hair flowing from under his bucket-sized helmet.

His exaggerated form is the football equivalent of a Freightliner diesel rig on a piece of open road, the sound of a loud snarl and a booming growl into a megaphone filling the air, a mass of defense who would just as soon tear the limbs off a running back as look at him.

That’s what’s on the outside.

What’s on the inside, before every game, is a hurt-but-still-striving kid with a prayer in his heart and on his tongue, humility and gratitude in his soul, and a wound that can only be healed by living well and playing hard.

His prayer is more a quiet conversation with, a message sent into heaven to, his 3-year-old baby sister, Emma, the sweetheart who in the far reaches of his mind is still a boundless, beautiful toddler. Thirteen long and transformative years have gone by since that awful August day when she veered away from supervision, somehow climbing into an elevator in a Bay Area hotel lobby, riding it a few stories up, and then growing scared, looked out over a high balcony, down at a family celebration going on far below and … she fell.

Nothing is more tragic than the death of a playful innocent.

“I love her,” Fotu says, noting the present tense.

Before every game, he dedicates his effort on the field to little Emma, promising her that he will do his best to pay tribute to her with his love and his work.

Try beating that for worthy motivation.

But there’s more.

A few weeks after his sister’s passing, Fotu’s father, Likiliki, a gentle man who suffered from the real effects of a broken heart, died from what doctors diagnosed as a stroke. Fotu knows better. He says his dad could not conquer the loss of his little girl.

“His heart couldn’t handle it,” Fotu says.

The brute, then, talks to his dad, too, gathering his focus and strength, promising proper application of his mind and body to the task at hand, honoring his father and his family with his performance.

Pity the offensive linemen who attempt to mess with that.

Most of the time, they cannot.

Leki Fotu is one of the best defensive tackles in the country, positioned to commence a great senior season after having been named first-team all-Pac-12 a year ago. He might have been a mid-round NFL draft pick in April, but opted instead to return to Utah to further hone his craft and win a league title as an integral part of what might become one of the Utes’ best-ever defenses.

He believes with increments of further growth, he can have a greater impact than he already has had at Utah, and that a higher draft spot can be earned.

At present, the former is more important to him than the latter.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley says what makes Fotu such a great player is remarkable athleticism for a man of his dimensions.

“He’s big and he can move,” says Scalley. “Beyond that, if you come watch him practice, you see that he has a great work ethic. If he’s hurting, he doesn’t show it. He’s humble. He’s a kid we’re so fortunate to have. When he played against Washington his freshman year, we said, ‘That dude’s a stud.’”

Fotu developed the aforementioned athleticism by playing rugby, a sport at which he became proficient, eventually making a junior national team, in his formative years. He says he didn’t really get completely attached to football until his senior year at Herriman High School.

The main reason he played was to follow the trail blazed by his older brothers, who had become father figures for him in the absence of his dad. Fotu’s uncle, Viliami Mafi, also guided his path. Earlier, his oldest brother, Joe, had taken up the game on the advice of a counselor who thought it a space where he could get his anger out. He went on to play at Illinois. Another brother, Anthony, played at Arizona. His younger brother, David, is at Utah.

There are six siblings in Fotu’s family, a group that moved to West Valley City from Oakland when his mother, Toakase, decided a relocation would be positive for everyone.

“We didn’t have much,” he says. “But we had each other.”

Fotu ended up doing the football thing at Herriman High, which put him in a place where he could thrive. “A blessing,” he calls it.

When he arrived at the University of Utah, his thriving went throttle up.

Most talent evaluators thought he would make a fine college player. A badge of honor — USC wanted him. But he instead went with the Utes, a decision that has been perfect for him. Now, he is part of an ominous defensive front that includes Bradlee Anae and John Penisini, among others, any number of whom could — likely will — end up in the NFL.

That kind of talk almost embarrasses Fotu. He’s too good not to know his station and status among the Utes and with pro scouts, but his response to it is … well, there’s more work to do.

“I try not to worry about the NFL, I worry about what we have going on here,” he says. “I think we have a special team, a team that can be great. Most importantly, these are my brothers. I love ‘em.”

And they love him back.

“Leki’s not a me-first guy, not arrogant at all,” Scalley says. “That’s what you want. You want your big guys leading the way. The players respect him, they voted him as a captain for summer workouts. When he speaks, they listen. He’s a big, tough guy and I wouldn’t want to mess with him, so I don’t. But he’s grateful and humble.”

A year ago, Fotu collected 33 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and three sacks. He is known for clogging the run and collapsing pass protection, which is pretty much everything a D-tackle can do. But he feels as though he can get better, and will get better. He owes that, he says, to his dad and to his sister, but also to his living brothers and sisters, his uncle, his mom.

“When I’m out there, working and sweating,” he says, “I think of them. I know I’ve already been through hell, so I can handle it.”

He talks to them before and after games, too.

So, it turns out that Utah’s man of menace is much, much more. As hard as he is on the outer layer, he’s a big lovable lug on the inside. “A teddy bear,” one Utah insider calls him.

Fotu’s all right with letting that be known, probably because he’s fully aware that none of his inner softness is evidenced to opponents, outside of an occasional grin beamed through his face mask. Nobody ever called Fotu’s play soft. Just his heart.

A heart that reaches out to his beautiful baby sister, and to a father who could not bear her absence after she was gone. If Fotu thinks he communicates with them before every game, and honors them and their memory with his play, then so be it. Pity the foolish and uninitiated opponent who even begins to cast any of that into doubt.

Leki Fotu plays for them, plays like a beast for them, and there are few offensive guards, offensive tackles, centers, quarterbacks, running backs, coaches in the Pac-12 left who require reminding of the effects of that potent and forceful, sweet and meaningful cause.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.