The melting pot of Euless, home to football power Trinity High School, absorbed tragic news Tuesday after two college football players and a third teen were killed and two other people were hurt in a rollover accident in New Mexico.
Former Trinity players Polo Manukainiu, 19, a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M University, and Gaius Vaenuku, 18, a freshman at the University of Utah, died Monday, along with Andrew Uhatafe, 13, according to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety.
Euless is home to one of the largest populations of Tongans
outside of the South Pacific islands. A number of them, as well as students from other countries, play on the Trinity football team.
A vigil Tuesday afternoon at Trinity’s new activities center drew some 1,000 mourners.
“They meant the world to me,” former Trinity standout Sam Tevi, who is also entering his first season at Utah and rushed back to Texas upon hearing of the accident, said in an interview. “All three of them. I miss them with all my heart and I love them. … I don’t know what I’m gonna do without them. … I felt like I should have been in that crash with them.”
Salesi Uhatafe, 18, a freshman offensive lineman at Utah and former Trojans player who was driving, and his father, Salesi Uhatafe Sr., were transported to San Juan Medical Center in Farmington, N.M., with minor injuries.
New Mexico State Police, citing their preliminary investigation, said the driver drifted off U.S. Highway 550 about 85 miles north of Albuquerque, over-corrected and lost control, causing the 2002 Toyota Sequoia to roll several times.
Two of the teens who died were ejected from the vehicle. Only the driver was wearing a seat belt. The accident occurred about 6:50 p.m.
Trinity, which sits in the shadow of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and not far from Trojan Trail, has won three state football titles since 2005. The championships are proudly displayed on the front of the school’s field house.
Steve Lineweaver, the veteran coach of the Trojans’ football team, declined to comment at the request of the victims’ families. But he addressed mourners at the student-led memorial and concluded the gathering by having the football team belt out “Lean on Me.”
Directly related to Trinity’s success is its large number of players of Polynesian descent, many of whom have earned college scholarships. Tongan churches dot Euless Main Street and team tradition calls for the goose-pimpling Haka dance before games. In at least one photo from his high school days, Manukainiu is leading the way, his tongue wagging and his long hair flashing behind him.
“They were great, great kids,” Trinity principal Mike Harris said of Manukainiu and Vaenuku. Andrew Uhatafe attended junior high in the same school district. “Great personalities. Not only were they physically bigger than life, but so were their personalities. … They were kids you loved to send out as ambassadors for Trinity.”
Manukainiu, 6-5, 275 pounds, redshirted last season at A&M but was expected to add depth to the defensive line this fall. On his Twitter account Monday, he posted “22 hour drive back to Texas on no sleep. Oh my.”
News of the accident prompted an outpouring of tributes on social media, from A&M Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin.
“Polo was loved by his teammates and coaches,” Sumlin said in a prepared statement. “Anyone who came in contact with him was struck by his sense of humor and smile. My heart aches for his mom and family.”
Manziel tweeted: “Heart hurts waking up to news about Polo.”
Manukainiu, a recreation, parks and tourism science major, had a Twitter account featuring a humorous Tongan and Samoan version of the Harlem Shake and a caricature drawing of the lineman while in town for the Cotton Bowl in December.
A&M also lost offensive lineman Joey Villavisencio in December 2011 in a car accident, with the team dedicating a playground in Bryan to his memory in March. Manziel mentioned him in his Heisman acceptance speech last fall.
Vaenuku, a 6-5, 290-pound defensive tackle, had planned to play one year at Utah before going on a two-year Mormon mission, the Deseret News of Salt Lake City previously reported. He preferred to go by his middle name, Keio.
“He was the kind of young man who lit up a room and his future in football and life had no boundaries,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in a prepared statement.
Both teams are set to report for fall camp this weekend.