uscfootball.com/Dan Weber

Smiles and tears in memories of Simi

His USC friends and family said goodbye to Simi Vehikite -- with tears and lots of love and plenty of smiles. Above, more than 30 of Simi's Trojan teammates after lighting candles in his memory at Tommy Trojan.

It was the way Simi would have wanted it. Lots of smiles with an emphasis on the good times and wonderful friendships.

That's how more than 30 of his teammates and many more friends and family, from both Simi Vehikite's actual family and the extended Trojan family, came together Friday to remember the former USC football player who died last week in Hawai'i.

"No one typified 'faith, family and football more than Simi,' " USC coach Clay Helton said, after re-arranging his travel schedule to be here, in a nod to his theme for Trojan football now. Simi got there first. "A great teammate, we love you buddy, Clay said. "We'll never forget you."

And in a final call, Clay noted all of Simi's teammates who had come back to send him off with their memories. One of those was Ravens running back Buck Allen, who had flown in Friday morning from Baltimore and was heading home in the afternoon.

"The Trojan family is eternal," Clay said, "never more so than now."

That's how USC team chaplain Mike Sylvester of Athletes in Action saw it as he conducted the ceremony and noted that part of "getting over our grief" after losing someone so young is "by sharing stories." And that "the best way to honor Simi is by taking what he gave you and paying it forward."

Cody Romness was one who paid it forward first. "I was a teammate of Simi's," Cody opened, then stopped and corrected himself. "I'm still a teammate of Simi's."

And almost as if he were still there, Cody described "the weekly jam sessions where Tongans, African-Americans, Hawaiians" and guys who looked like Cody would sit down in a circle the way Simi directed them and "sing Bob Marley songs," or as someone later said, "Taylor Swift,"and maybe be a bit surprised at how everyone knew all the words. Even if it may have taken some doing, they said, when it was pass-the-mic time to get the microphone out of Simi's hands.

Marcus Simmons talked about how expressive Simi could be without words, "just one raised eyebrow," he said imitating a familiar Simi gesture. Or how "he'd feed everybody -- and always on his dime," Marcus said. "Man I'm really going to miss him."

Rugby teammate Joey Krassenstein talked of Simi returning to rugby after his football eligibility was finished as he completed his degree and how his football instincts had taken over, earning a yellow card on his first kickoff when he obliterated an opponent in mid-air before he came down with the football. Joey reminded Simi that you have to let them touch down first. But Simi reminded him "not to be so serious, it's about having fun."

J.R. Tavai recalled how he was intimidated on his USC recruiting visit at the thought of really being able to play at USC. But after seeking out the counsel "of another Poly guy" and having breakfast with Simi at Jack's 'n Joe -- where coincidentally that elaborately carved surfboard mounted on the wall is a gift from talented woodworker Simi -- "he made me confident I could play at USC," J.R. said. "I'd never felt so confident with another Poly."

All J.R. said he is hoping for is that "Simi's welcome in his new home is the same as Simi's welcome for me at USC."  

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No one articulated the gift of Simi more than his teammate and best friend, John Martinez, who with his dad, Steve, had helped get this all together from Salt Lake City thanks to the Student-Athlete Academic Services staff who had become so close to Simi. The Martinezes had made the eight-hour drive down for the day just two weeks after John's ACL surgery.

And almost certainly against doctor's orders, not only did John stand throughout the event, he also walked over from the McKay Center to the Tommy Trojan statue where the "Tommy cam" would show Simi's friends, family and teammates lighting candles in a ceremony that could be shared with Simi's family back in Hawai'i as they tuned in to watch.

After his surgery, John's doctor had told him he'd prescribe crutches for him. No need to, John said, he had the beautifully carved cane that Simi, who would make a professional career out of his talent back in Hawai'i, had given him. He just hadn't imagined he would need Simi's gift to help him for this moment.

John talked of taking Simi home to Salt Lake City for his first exposure to snow -- and to Christmas.

"He'd never had a Christmas dinner before, or Christmas presents," John said, grateful that he could give that to Simi, who had been born in Tonga, moved to New Zealand as a youngster where he joined the National Junior rugby team. But his athletic exploits there convinced people he'd be better off playing football and earning a college scholarship. So Simi moved back to Hawai'i -- alone. And USC came through with a scholarship for the 5-foot-11, 225-pound linebacker and fullback.

"I felt so honored to be able to do that for him," John said.

He also picked up on Simi's special all-purpose catch-phrase. "sometimes . . . " that Simi could apply to those moments when he'd needed someone to go get his cleats when he'd forgotten them or when John's car, parked wherever it was and by whoever was driving it last, had been towed once again.

"Hey, sometimes, Bro," Simi would say.

"Sometimes . . . " indeed. Or all the time, John said.

"How many blessings you had if you were in his life," John said. "He will be missed forever, he will be loved forever . . . this is what family is all about."

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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