Former East High School (Salt Lake City, UT) tight end Joe Tukuafu was highly recruited while playing for the Leopards. Utah was the first to offer him and he initially committed there. However, the 6-4, 230-pound Tukuafu ended up signing his National Letter of Intent with Utah State prior to serving an LDS mission to Argentina.
“I had originally signed with Utah State before my mission,” said Tukuafu. “I went on a visit to Utah State and saw all the facilities and all that. I want to go to BYU but I haven’t been released from Utah State, so I talked it over with my mom and my dad.”
While serving the people in Argentina, Elder Tukuafu heard about the developments at BYU from family and friends back home.
“I heard about what was going on at BYU while I was on my mission,” said Tukuafu. “I heard a lot about what was going on from the boys back home. Coach Sitake was now there and things were changing.”
As a tight end and wide receiver for East High School, Tukuafu excelled. He racked up 37 receptions for 706 yards averaging 26.1 yards per catch as a senior in 2013. He also hauled in eight touchdown receptions as well. When he entered the mission field an old injury resurfaced.
“I played tight end and receiver at East High School before going on my mission,” said Tukuafu. “I served my mission in Argentina but had to come back to the USA for knee surgery. It was an issue with my meniscus from football, so I came back home then finished my mission in Houston, Texas.”
The experiences of a mission often change the perspectives of men who eventually mature throughout the two year experience. Elder Tukuafu’s perspective and goals had changed causing him to really ponder the idea of attending BYU following his mission.
“When I thought about football it was always in the back of my head,” said Tukuafu. “I always thought, ‘I wonder how BYU is going to do? Do I see myself there? Is that a school where I should go and should I consider it?’ It was something always on my mind because BYU has a great environment, and after you serve your mission we all know what’s more important. We all know what we need. We all know how we should behave and have a bigger perspective on life and how to live. BYU is just a perfect fit. I see myself there personally playing with my boys. We want to keep it going.”
The boys Tukuafu is referring to are his former teammates A.J. Lolohea, who signed with Weber State prior to serving his LDS mission, and Ula Tolutau, who signed with Wisconsin prior to his mission.
“I was talking with A.J. and Ula and we want to keep it going,” said Tukuafu. “We all talked about what school would be the best fit for us, and what school we would all have the most fun at. We kind of had a checklist of things and we thought BYU was the best place for us. We have some of the younger East High boys down there at BYU like Meti [Taliauli]. We’ve all been playing together since we were little kids so we want to keep it going at BYU.”
Upon Elder Tukuafu’s return home from serving in Texas, the Utah State staff made an effort to get him to sign another National Letter of Intent, which would effectively end his recruiting process. However, Tukuafu decided to hold out.
“No, I didn’t sign but they actually tried to have me sign [again],” said Tukuafu. “I talked to my dad about it but we kind of held it off on doing that.”
After signing a National Letter of Intent a student-athlete who hasn’t enrolled after 18 months is no longer held to the binding contract. So, if Tukuafu didn’t sign another NLI then why would there be a reason for need of a release from Utah State?
“That’s what I understood too, but Ilaisa [Tuiaki] kind of broke it down for me,” Tukuafu said. “Utah State makes it really hard for mission kids who come back and want to change their minds on where they want to play. There is a release rule somewhere where the school has to release that player, because he did sign that NLI with them from the beginning. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but I’m just going off from what both schools are telling me.”
Tukuafu now waits on a release from Utah State to see if whether or not he can attend BYU as a scholarship athlete, or if he will have to pay his own way as a walk-on and lose a year of eligibility.
“If I don’t get a release then I’ll probably just go to school, which means I won’t be able to redshirt this fall,” said Tukuafu. “That means I’ll lose a year of eligibility, and then next year is when I can be on scholarship. It’s the same situation as A.J. Lolohea who signed with Weber State but is going to go to BYU. So, basically I’ll be a walk-on in January [as of now].”
Utah State doesn’t gain anything by not releasing Tukuafu, but it does harm Tukuafu, who feels BYU is now a better fit for him.
“Yeah, Coach Wells told me straight up, ‘I’m not going to release you,’” Tukuafu stated. “I know [Coach Tuiaki] is going to call him and see if he can talk him out of it though. I don’t fully understand it.”
Now relying upon the efforts of BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, Joe Tukuafu patiently waits and is hoping that Utah State head coach Matt Wells will relent.
While Tukuafu waits to hear back from Utah State concerning an official release, he was also waiting to hear back from the NCAA Clearinghouse as well. The issue was with his grades and he had hope he would be cleared to enroll next month at BYU.
TotalBlueSports.com elected to wait on publishing this article until Tukuafu sent along an update concerning his status with the NCAA Clearinghouse. On December 28th, TBS received word from Tukuafu that he has been cleared to enroll.
“Yeah, I have heard back and I’m now Clearinghouse eligible,” an excited Tukuafu said.
With the Clearinghouse hurdle down there’s another speed bump in Tukuafu’s path. Before he catches any passes in Ty Detmer’s offense, Tukuafu will have to first shed the results of the over-abundant love he received from all the people he served among in Texas.
“I feel like I gained some weight,” Tukuafu said with a laugh. “I’m about 6-4 now and weigh about 285. The church is growing out there, but I ate more burritos than I can count. I gotta lose some weight now and that’s the plan.”
Though he’s physically grown from a tight end to the measurables of an offensive lineman, Tukuafu still holds that strong desire to catch passes and score touchdowns. He wants to drop his mission weight and get himself down to a size more conducive to playing tight end.
“Yeah, that’s what I talked to Ilaisa about,” Tukuafu said. “I told him I want to play tight end still, so that’s what I’m going to do when I get there.”
There is another former outstanding East High School product in linebacker Christian Folau, who signed with Stanford prior to serving a LDS mission in San Jose, California. Upon his return home, could Folau join his old East High School teammates at BYU? Joe Tukuafu seems to think so.
“I give it a 99 percent chance that he ends up going to BYU,” said Tukuafu. “I just think he goes to the Y. You know, after your mission who doesn’t want to go to the Y? You grow up a lot on your mission and your perspectives change. I think he comes [to Provo] when he gets home.”
While the path Folau takes remains yet to be seen, the good news is Tukuafu can now enroll at BYU. The question now is will it be as a scholarship athlete or if he enroll as a walk-on with the financial burden associated with paying your own way. It’s up to Coach Wells to decide.