He’s Utah’s star up in the sky, that mountain peak up high. In the ring of life, he reigned with love and the Utes noticed pretty quickly that they were in the presence of a “King.” For those that got to know him he was the world’s greatest.
Gaius “King Keio” Vaenuku has been gone a little over four years, but is far from forgotten. His spirit was alive and well at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Senior Day, where the Utes honored him in the presence of his family with the rest of his graduating recruiting class. It was a touching moment that highlighted Utah Football’s commitment and dedication to being a family on and off the field, as well as the impact Vaenuku’s vivacious personality had on all of the lives he touched - despite never playing a down for the Utes.
“He was an attention guy, but he was such a neat kid,” Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley recalled on the kid he recruited to Utah years ago. “Such a character. The life of the party, I guess you could say. He was outgoing, he was always singing and dancing. If you ever watched his Facebook posts or his Twitter posts, you kind of got that from him. He was very good about ‘the process’ and felt great when he came to Utah.”
Vaenuku was a highly prized defensive tackle from Trinity High School in Euless, Texas who boasted 35 offers from schools such as BYU, TCU, Michigan and Florida along with the Utes. What ultimately tipped the scales in Utah’s favor was their emphasis on being a family and feeling like he was at “home” with the rest of the players, Scalley said.
“He came on an unofficial visit in the summer [of 2012] and went to the All Poly Camp and just said when he was around the Utah players that’s where he felt at home,” Scalley said. “He went through the season. He was courted by different schools, but I think we just had the best relationship with him. He was very upfront and honest about his feelings and wanting to be able to serve a mission and just be able to achieve all of his goals. We felt like that opportunity was at Utah. TCU recruited him hard and he went on an official visit there. Obviously being close to home was a big draw for him. He went to BYU [on a visit], but again just felt like when he was around our players that, that is where he needed to be - wanted to be.”
Scalley says Vaenuku wasn’t the typical “Utah Man” when they initially started to recruit him, but that he grew into the role as his recruiting process was winding down and it became clear that playing for the Utes was what he needed to do.
“What made him the ultimate ‘Utah Man’ was really going with his gut and his heart and knowing that was where his family was,” Scalley said. “His parents were really great about letting him make the decision, and in Gaius style, he did it in front of a camera in front of the television and my man- he was the Homecoming King that year and used his Homecoming crown with a drum and feather on it to announce he was going to Utah.”
Unfortunately, however, life often does not work out the way we want it to and that certainly was the case for the big eyed, bright smile boy who was on the verge of starting his promising future at 18 years old.
Everyone remembers what they were doing and how they received the news on July 30, 2013 (days before fall camp was about to kick off) that Vaenuku along with Texas A & M redshirt freshman Polo Manukainiu and 13 year old Lolo Uhatafe had tragically passed away in a rollover car accident on their way home to Texas in Cuba, New Mexico. Fellow incoming Ute freshman Leka Uhatafe and his father were also in the car, but survived the crash. It’s a chilling memory that Scalley says he will never forget as a coach and parent.
“I got the call from Sam Tevi and as a coach you can never turn off your phone,” Scalley explained of the events of that morning. “Phone calls at 2 am are either really, really good or really bad. When I got the phone call from Sam I texted, ‘Hey, did you pocket dial me or did you mean to call me?’ He texted me back, ‘No, I meant to call you.’ I said, ‘Is everything ok?’ He texted me, ‘No.’ So that’s when I called him and found out the news.”
“I just broke down,” Scalley said of his reaction to the news. “My wife is going ‘What’s the problem? What’s the matter?’ I called his family and that’s obviously never a fun phone call and they knew what was going on. It was horrible. It was as bad as bad can be and it was during the summer, so it was the end of July. We were heading into fall camp, right about to go into fall camp and as soon as everyone found out- I got on the phone with Kyle [Whittingham] and the rest of the guys. I don’t know how you put it into words really. It was just devastating. It wasn’t only Keio, it was Polo Manukainiu, who I had recruited, and his brother [LoLo Uhatafe] and Leka [Uhatafe]. The main thing was just finding out how everyone was. Only later did we find out how it all happened but that night was- obviously after that phone call I couldn’t sleep.”
What made the situation even harder, according to Scalley, is the instant and strong relationships he and the other coaches build with kids and their families when they recruit them and that promise as a fellow parent that their kid will be taken care of.
“You get to know these people. You get to know these families and when you are talking about taking over their boy for the next four to five years, that’s a big deal,” he said. “I have three kids of my own and when it gets to the point where they are going to go off to college, I’m going to want to know if they are going off to good people. That they are going to be safe, that they are going to be protected, that they are going to be taught the right things.”
For Scalley, all of those precious moments from getting to know Vaenuku through recruiting him came flooding back in that moment and they are memories he holds dear to this day even though many other recruiting classes have come and gone since then.
“Just all of the different home visits. The home visit where he said he wanted to be a Ute. Just how excited we all were,” Scalley reflected. “The family finally being done with the recruiting process, I was so fired up and had to keep it a secret until he announced it over the television. Other than that it was just the text messages back and forth. The conversations. Everything from just what was going on during the football season, to he was preparing a talk for church and wanted some input. He was very good about opening up, and I think those conversations meant the world to both of us. Ultimately I think that is why it was so tough to see him go.”
It’s hard to believe that Vaenuku would have been nearing his 22nd birthday this year. He probably would have had his degree in hand, and possibly be looking into an NFL career or maybe pursuing his lifelong dream of becoming an actor. He surely would have been a Ute fan favorite at this point with his megawatt personality whose specter can still be found on YouTube.
“He was a singer, a very good singer at that, and he embraced everyone. Everyone he was around loved him,” Scalley said. “He was a really popular guy- obviously Homecoming King- that kind of tells you what people thought of him. As popular as he was he was really, really, really good to everyone which is why I think you see just the outpour of love for him and his family. What he meant to the staff members at Euless Trinity, what he meant to the coaching staff [here]. He was a leader, a captain, he was the one who would lead the Haka when [Trinity] would do it.”
“In terms of what he wanted to do, he wanted to be an actor,” Scalley continued with a laugh. “He really did. He wanted to become an actor and he made that known. We just kind of had a back and forth with the nicknames and what he was going to be with, all of the different costumes that he would wear and some of his pictures. The dude was always wearing sunglasses and again he was a really talented singer. We didn’t recruit him because of his singing ability, we recruited him because he was a dang good defensive lineman. Really, really talented. Him, Sam Tevi - Hiva [Lutui] was before them - and Leka [Uhatafe] were all a part of that recruiting class.”
To this day, Scalley makes a point to visit Vaenuku at his resting spot in Texas or to check on his family when he’s on recruiting trips. Scalley says he isn’t sure if Vaenuku is “there” with the team or not, but would like to think they have done him proud wherever he may be.
“I’d like to think he smiles down on us and what we are doing just because he loved it so much,” Scalley said. “He’s in a much better place, probably doing much more important work. Where I’ve felt him and where I’ve always tried to keep his memory is any time I go recruiting is to visit his family and to go visit his gravesite.”
Scalley says the idea to honor Vaenuku on Senior Day didn’t come from just one person. Everyone came together and decided it was the right thing to do as brothers, as a family.
“The great thing about it is that it wasn’t just one. It’s not just one person who has kept Keio in their memory,” Scalley said of the decision to include Vaenuku with the rest of the 2016 seniors. “It’s been a bunch of people. We knew during this season with it being Sam’s senior year, with it being Hiva’s senior year- obviously Keio didn’t come in with Hiva, but he came in with Sam. We knew from the outset this would have been his senior year so with the idea of Senior Day coming up we just thought it was right to honor a guy that would have been a senior at this point.”
All 24 seniors honored in Saturday’s pregame ceremony donned the same helmet sticker worn in 2013 to honor Vaenuku after his passing. Vaenuku’s family received a framed picture of their fallen son as well as hearing his name called to thundering applause from a crowd of 46,000 strong, while his glowing face beamed down from the scoreboard at everyone in attendance. It was a sobering reminder of a promising life ended much too soon and the reality that it can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere.
“Never take anything for granted. He was on top of the world. He was going to go to the University of Utah. He was going to become an actor. He wanted to go on a mission and fulfill his dream. In the blink of an eye it’s over,” Scalley said. “It could have been anyone and so I think that was the biggest thing and just how important family is. You look at his family and how his mom has responded and how she just handles that situation with such poise and composure and strength. I didn’t see a tear drop and I think the first time I heard her cry was when I called her to tell her ‘Hey, come to Salt Lake City. We are going to take care of you and we are going to honor Gaius as a senior.’ It’s the first time I’ve heard her cry was on the phone. It’s unbelievable. Amazing family, amazing woman, but again the biggest thing I got out of it is live every day with no regrets and it’s all about family.”
Scalley hopes Gaius Keio Vaenuku’s legacy with Utah Football is the knowledge that he was where he was supposed to be even if it wasn’t for long and that it was never just about the game; it was so much more than that and always will be. Though his time at Utah was brief he was United Together with his teammates - an Eternal Soldier. Gone but never, ever forgotten and very much loved.
“We are family and he was coming to the right place,” Scalley said. “As great of an athlete as he was, we were more than just about the athlete. We were going to take care of him and I think that is what his family has felt over the years is that it wasn’t just about football. Had it just been about football I don’t think we would have held those relationships. It was more than just about football and I think that will obviously continue.”
After a long pause to gather his thoughts, Scalley continued, “He was special enough that God felt he needed him. He just was a special, special kid and we were lucky enough to know him.”