Lobo QB Tuioti still hasn’t been cleared (or ruled out) after three concussions

Lobo quarterback Tevaka Tuioti is hit by two Air Force players during this November 2019 game. Tuioti, who has sustained three reported concussions, has not been cleared for team activities. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

University of New Mexico quarterback Tevaka Tuioti has yet to be cleared for team activities because of three reported concussions, the latest occurring on Nov. 7 against Hawaii.

He has yet to be ruled out of team activities despite those concussions, even though multiple concussions can result in long-term disability, psychological issues and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), doctors say.

And the University of New Mexico hasn’t done much to resolve any mystery around its one-time starter.

UNM second-year coach Danny Gonzales has said only that Tuioti checks in with medical staff weekly, and if he is not cleared before the start of preseason camp on Aug. 3, he’ll become a student assistant coach. Tuioti’s status for the season will be determined before camp begins, Gonzales said.

UNM has shielded Tuioti from interview requests from the media. He hasn’t spoken publicly since his latest injury in November. Gonzales says it is because he believes Tuioti doesn’t have answers for his status with “all the scenarios, the unknown out there of what is going to transpire with him.” Gonzales wants to wait until there is a final determination before making the quarterback available to the media.

Meanwhile, because UNM isn’t allowing Tuioti to speak publicly, media – the Journal included – aren’t getting to ask questions such as how he feels, why it might be taking so long to determine whether he can play again and what he sees in his future, both on the field and off.

The Journal reached out to Tuioti’s father, Faafoi, through social media, but he likewise declined to speak to the Journal.

CTE is a progressive and fatal brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries, including concussions and repeated blows to the head. CTE is associated with the development of dementia.

“The more concussions you have in frequency, within a short duration of time, the more likely you are to have neuro-psychological symptoms and develop CTE, which has been all over the news and the NFL,” Dr. Marc Malkoff, the professor and vice chair of neurology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, said in an interview with the Journal.

Malkoff was told in general terms about Tuioti’s three concussions but doesn’t have specific knowledge of Tuioti’s medical particulars. Malkoff had been the professor of neurology and neurosurgery at UNM before leaving for Tennessee in 2014.

“Typically after three concussions, especially within a season, they recommend you stop playing, or at least you’re out for more than a year,” Malkoff said. “And, they may recommend that you stop playing a contact sport. If you’re in a sport that a concussion is not likely to occur, like maybe track and field, it would be a different story, but unfortunately football is not one of those sports.”

Tuioti has sustained three concussions that were reported/documented, according to Journal archives:

⋄ Sept. 9, 2017 in a 30-28 loss to New Mexico State;

⋄ Sept. 8, 2018 in a 45-14 loss to Wisconsin;

⋄ Nov. 7, 2020 in a 39-33 loss to Hawaii.

The final one seemed to be the most severe. After the Rainbow Warriors went up 39-30 with 6:33 left in the game, Tuioti tried to lead a comeback, but he took a hit directly to the top of his helmet at the end of his 23-yard run. Tuioti stretched forward as he was hit by Hawaii’s Cameron Lockridge, who was ejected for targeting.

Tuioti played as a redshirt junior last year and is listed as a senior. He has an extra year of eligibility because of the coronavirus-delayed and shortened 2020 season.

In 2020, he threw for 475 yards, second on the team, completing 37 of his 66 passes with four touchdowns and one interception in the two games he started.

Now he is one of the Lobos’ eight quarterbacks, a group that features Kentucky transfer Terry Wilson.

UNM is set to have seven quarterbacks on scholarship for the 2021 season: Tuioti, Wilson, junior Trae Hall, freshmen Bear Milacek and CJ Montes, Brandt Hughes, who is listed as a redshirt senior, and Isaiah Chavez, the Rio Rancho High product who began last year as a walk-on and the fifth-string QB.

After leading the team to two wins to close the season, Chavez will be on scholarship before the season begins, Gonzales said.

The Lobos also have walk-on quarterback Connor Genal, who started one game last season and suffered a wrist injury.

Hall sustained injuries to his ribs last season. Hughes missed the 2019 and 2020 seasons because of shoulder injuries.

Hall, Hughes and Genal have all been cleared for team activities, Gonzales said.

“I think when we start Aug. 3 it’s going to be the best competition on this team,” Gonzales said of the quarterbacks. “CJ has been here the same amount as Terry, and those two are a lot further along than I anticipated. That’s a positive from how we’ve had to do things with Zoom meetings. All those guys are competing to be the alpha male, which is something we’ve not had around here. I can’t wait to see that competition start.”

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