Mahelona Remembered as Universal Vol

The Volunteer family is rekindling memories of Jesse Mahelona, a former UT defensive lineman who died last weekend in an automobile accident in his native Hawaii. His image remains with the Tennessee family, both past and present. Go inside this Free Read courtesy of

Patrick Murphy-Racey knew the shot he wanted. And Jesse Mahelona was the only man for the job.

The task was to find a cover shot for the 2005 Tennessee football media guide, and freelance photographer Murphy-Racey wanted a face to which everyone could relate. Not a face that was tied to race or ethnicity or even a moment in time - just a face. Former football staff member Scott Altizer nominated Mahelona because of his eagerness to help in situations like this one.

What they captured were eyes that portrayed exactly what Murphy-Racey was seeking: The Universal Volunteer.

"That picture epitomized him. He was a very intense guy. He liked to play to win," said Dan Brooks, a former UT assistant and Mahelona's position coach who noted how the defensive tackle meshed with the team immediately after transferring to Knoxville. "When a junior college guy comes into the mix, a lot of times you wonder how this guy is going to fit. Jesse came in and fit right in with our football team."

Ironically, the hard-nosed look Mahelona displayed in the photo was far from his personality.

"What was funny was that we needed this really intense look - this really hard-core, intense look for the cover. Jesse was not like that," Murphy-Racey said. "He was a cut-up. He was a really fun and happy guy with a smile on his face all the time. So it was hard for him to get the picture because we had to get him to come out of his normal reality."

Murphy-Racey sent Mahelona outside to a water hose with grass and mud, asked him to smear it on his helmet to show real battles on the field, and then he had to spray the big lineman in the face with a water bottle to mimic sweat.

"And so he was like, `OK!'" said Murphy-Racey, who holds the photo as his greatest cover shot. "It was a lot to ask anybody to do, and he was awesome."

Four years later, the Volunteer family is rekindling memories like those as Mahelona, a former UT defensive lineman, died last weekend in an automobile accident in his native Hawaii. But his image remains with the UT family, both past and present.

"He was from a very big family," said former Tennessee assistant coach Steve Caldwell, who recruited Mahelona. "He and his brother, I think, were very close. They were divers, and his brother actually dived for tropical fish and different things out of the oceans for zoos and live aquariums. So that was something they did for a living. Just very unique people, to say the least."

Mahelona will be remembered in the stat books for recording 77 tackles in his two years at Tennessee, earning first team All-America and second team All-SEC honors. His competitive spirit and humble attitude was contagious in the locker room.

"There are not a lot of guys who would tell you that practice is fun, but I think that guy had fun at practice every day," Brooks said. "He was the kind of guy who would have fun out in the street by himself, I think. He also had a very fierce side about him that wanted to be good. He wanted to be good for himself, and he wanted to be good for the team."

No matter his Hawaii heritage and distance from home, Mahelona proved his love for Big Orange Country.

"Jesse was a wonderful young man that loved Tennessee, loved his teammates, coaches and the Tennessee people," said former Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer. "Jesse loved to compete and wanted to be the best. He was an outstanding player and practiced like you are supposed to prepare.

"As good as he was on the field, he was an even better person. He had a kind heart and wonderful passion for people. His faith was strong and he was not embarrassed to share his faith."

Specifically, Fulmer remembered how Mahelona impressed him during his recruitment when the coach visited the prospect.

"Jesse and I had a special bond from the beginning of the recruiting process, and especially after he made dinner for me in my recruiting trip to see him," Fulmer said. "Living with some guys in an apartment, Jesse shopped, prepared and cooked a native Hawaiian dish for me when I went to the home visit. It was incredibly good, and the fact that he had done it all himself was a wonderful gesture of his maturity and feelings."

Just as Mahelona thought of others, now others are thinking of him. The Jesse Mahelona Trust was established on Wednesday, his agent announced, to help support his pregnant widow and infant daughter. More information can be found at Arrangements for Mahelona have not been announced.

For Tennessee fans, thanks in part to Murphy-Racey's photo, Mahelona's image lives on. And you can bet once that photo was snapped, that big smile came right back.

"When you think about people, especially people who have passed away, you have an image burned in your mind about them," Murphy-Racey said. "You want to remember people as being happy. My memory of Jesse Mahelona will be of him always laughing. Not just happy or smiling, but laughing - just enjoying every minute."

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