Not one of Polo Manukainiu’s friends was at his funeral, because in the tightknit Tongan community, everyone is family.
Manukainiu’s blood family, his Euless Trinity High School family, his Texas A&M family and his friends who ultimately became family, filled the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Colleyville Saturday.
More than 1,000 people attended the service to honor the lives of the 19-year-old and his 14-year-old brother Lolo ‘Uhatafe, who both died in a single-vehicle car crash on U.S. 550 in the high desert of northwestern New Mexico.
“Twenty minutes before the accident Polo called me and said, ‘Mom, guess what? In 10 more hours I’ll be home,’” Tulima ‘Uhatafe, mother to the two teenagers said at the funeral.
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Manukainiu, Lolo ‘Uhatafe and 18-year-old Gaius “Keio” Vaenuku died July 29. Vaenuku played football alongside Manukainiu on Trinity High School’s Trinity Trojan football team. Lolo ‘Uhatafe would have started at Euless Junior High this month.
The trio were on their way back home from a trip to Salt Lake City when Manukainiu and Lolo ‘Uhatafe’s brother Siaosi Salesi ‘Uhatafe Jr., 18, overcorrected after their 2002 Toyota Sequoia drifted off the side of the highway. Manukainiu and ‘Uhatafe died upon ejection from the impact. Vaenuku died on the way to the hospital, while ‘Uhatafe Jr. and his brothers’ father Salesi Uhatafe survived with minor injuries.
Texas A&M teammates
At the funeral, attendees mostly wore all black, and just as soon as tears streamed down their cheeks, smiles graced their faces. The Tongan family mourns their dead, but they never forget to laugh. They wore straw mats called Ta’ovala’s wrapped around their waists. Ta’ovala’s signify respect, Manukainiu’s uncle David Eteaki said.
Tulima ‘Uhatafe recalled the last dinner she had with Manukainiu. The two were at a restaurant, and she spoke to her son about his future at Texas A&M, and his future in football. Tulima ‘Uhatafe told her son she wanted him to be able to help his six younger siblings.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to change everything.’ ” Tulima ‘Uhatafe sobbed. “He said it, but now he’s gone.”
Tulima ‘Uhatafe spoke of how special and sweet her son was. She recalled the day she knew Manukainiu belonged at A&M, and how the defensive lineman made it to the Aggies’ 2012 signing class.
Two busloads of A&M football players arrived at the church lead by head coach Kevin Sumlin. The players wore black slacks and black T-shirts with small A&M logos. Sumlin sat facing attendees, right next to the podium.
Sumlin recalls the day he first received a phone call about Manukainiu, “we got to go see this guy,” fellow coaches told Sumlin.
“He [Manukainiu] came to us, and all he talked about was his mom and the ability for her to see him and A&M,” Sumlin said holding back tears. “And once she saw that, she was so happy for him.”
Eteaki recalls talking to his nephew about where to attend college. He recalls telling Manukainiu that though he had his pick of schools, he should go somewhere close to family.
The uncle housed Manukainiu during his senior year of high school because he was “acting up like teenagers do,” but the gentle giant quickly regained focus.
“He was reserved until you got to know him,” Eteaki said. “You’ve heard the expression ‘gentle giant,’ everybody wanted to be his friend.”
The 6'5” 275-pound teenager was quick to volunteer for local charities. More than 2,500 people attended his vigil Friday night at Trinity High School.
Eteaki began to sob when he spoke of the overwhelming love and support from the community for Manukainiu.
“Not only him [Manukainiu], but those two boys would be so proud. I tell you, who wouldn’t want to go out like this? I’m crying because the outpouring of respect is unbelievable. The outpouring of love is just crazy. They would be just as proud. I think they would cry right now too if they were looking down,” Eteaki said.
Aggie football players stood side-by-side in silence as they watched Manukainiu’s casket carried out of the church and off to the burial. Eteaki walked by and hugged the coaches.
“I know the heavenly father gave me those beautiful sons to take care of, but they belong to him now,” Tulima ‘Uhatafe said.