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Polynesian players add their flavor to UNM football

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

When Saga Tuitele came to New Mexico as the Lobos’ offensive line coach two years ago, quarterback Tevaka Tuioti had the perfect greeting for him.

The two are Southern Californians, and Tuioti told Tuitele that his family said to call the new offensive line coach “Puka,” as a reminder of his past and all of the fellow Polynesians who know him from Tuioti’s family.

“I looked at Tevaka and said, ‘How did you hear that?'” Tuitele said. “Puka was a name they called me when I was younger, a kid. I said, ‘Don’t ever call me that.’

“That’s a testament to our team. Our team is close. Our culture on the team is almost the same as the Polynesian culture.”

Polynesians are known for their love of family and inclusion of fellow Polynesians. Everybody is a cousin.

“You ask any of these Polynesians,” Tuitele says. “It’s no longer six degrees of separation. It’s like two.”

The Lobos (3-2, 1-0 in the Mountain West Conference) feature five players with Polynesian roots – Tuioti, Evahelotu Tohi, Sitiveni Tamaivena, Alexander “Moana” Vainikolo and Radson Jang – who have added their cultural values to the family vibe on the UNM team, which plays at Colorado State on Saturday. All of the UNM players refer to each other as brothers. They are a united group who have the same goal: to win.

“The team is very family oriented,” said Tuioti, who was the starting quarterback but has been sidelined with a broken clavicle suffered against Liberty on Sept. 29. “In the locker room, we’re brothers. Off the field we also do stuff together and we look out for each other.”

Jang, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman, holds UNM coach Bob Davie in high regard, especially after this past weekend, which included a 50-14 win at UNLV.

“He’s a very solid man,” Jang, a Hawaiian, said of Davie. “I wasn’t supposed to travel (to UNLV). My family already made plans for me to be there (in Las Vegas). I talked to coach Davie about it, and he was willing to help me out with my situation. He worked out to where I would go and travel and see my family. I even got to play.”

Tuitele said he noticed the Lobos were like a family when he came to New Mexico. He recruited Tamaivena and Vainikolo and assured them that defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove would take care of them as if they were his sons.

Tohi said he felt blessed that UNM recruited him. He said not many schools targeted him after he suffered a knee injury at Glendale Community College in Arizona. Now he’s the Lobos’ leading tackler with 30 stops. He came up with a big interception vs. UNLV.

“The coaches are another reason why I committed here,” Tohi said. “Coach Davie is very welcoming. And, from the Polynesian culture we are very welcoming people.”

Tohi has been a leader for the Lobos and among the Polynesian players as he made it a point to take each of them under his wing.

Tohi learned that from his past. He said that former Lobo and Tongan Tevita Fonua, an offensive lineman who played at UNM 2015-16, did the same for him.

Family is definitely important to Tamaivena and Vainikolo. The two linebackers live near each other in Albuquerque with their families, including their baby sons. Tamaivena’s son, Suliasi, is 1, and Vainikolo’s son, Nehemiah, is nine months. Jang sometimes watches the babies to help out when the moms need a break and the dads are busy.

“I love their kids,” Jang said.

Davie said he is grateful that Polynesian players chose to play at UNM. It has been different for them. Jang called being in Albuquerque a culture shock. But the Polynesian players say that the community has been hospitable.

“It’s the internal operation of it and how kids enjoy their experience here more than anything,” Davie said.

Earlier this season, Davie said he likes his team and enjoys the atmosphere. Tohi helped with that. The redshirt senior linebacker has stepped up with the loss of senior linebacker Alex Hart (knee).

This week, the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame announced that Tohi has been added to the 2018 Watch List for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award. It goes annually to the most outstanding Polynesian college football player that epitomizes great ability and integrity. The Watch List is composed of 51 players from 34 FBS schools. Tohi is tied for the team lead in takeaways (three) and interceptions (two).

“As Polynesians we come from a very spiritual lifestyle,” Tohi said. “I just want people to know me as someone who is very spiritual. I try to stay as humble as I can. In the football aspect, I like to bring that physicality. That’s what Polynesians are known for, the hard hits and the physicality. We all bring that across the board.”

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