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Family keeps Villa Park's Tafuna going
VILLA PARK — Meki Tafuna walked off the field last week to a loud ovation and people yelling his name, the senior running back having just scored a late touchdown to help Villa Park rally to a playoff victory.
The sounds were familiar, as it was Tafuna's 24th touchdown of the season. But one voice was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and it kept ringing until Tafuna finally reached the sideline. That's when he saw his mother, Kalesita, cheering from behind the fence alongside his four younger sisters, each of them in attendance for the first time this year.
"I was really shocked," Tafuna said. "I just got a big smile on my face. I pointed at her and blew her a kiss. It was a special moment.
"I teared up."
It was the first time Tafuna had cried in about a year, following a tragedy that had everyone familiar in tears. His sister, Anna, three years old and the youngest of 10 siblings, died last September after being accidentally struck by a car. Kalesita was the driver.
Recounting the story leaves the 17-year-old Tafuna in tears again, the tragedy compounded by the deaths of his father, who died of a heart attack in 2005, and older brother, Alexander, who drowned at the age of 2 before Tafuna was born.
"My mom, she means a lot to me," Tafuna whispered. "She went through a lot and she needs somebody to succeed for her. This season is for her and my family."
Football has always been about much more than wins and losses for the Tafuna family. Tafuna started playing when he was four, tagging along with his two older brothers. Their father, Inoke, signed them up for Pop Warner at early ages, exuberating as much joy as his kids. Kalesita still remembers her husband racing down the sideline whenever one of the boys broke a long run.
"He never missed a practice," Kalesita said.
The boys’ best days consisted of hopping into their father’s truck and accompanying him to work, mixing cement for Inoke’s construction company.
“We used to always want to go to work with him,” Tafuna said. “We were really close.”
Kalesita, who married at 16 and then moved with Inoke from Tonga to Orange County, began working around the clock as a caregiver upon his passing, at one point holding down three jobs. Family members say the soft-spoken Tafuna took the loss the hardest and still does, his emotions sometimes raging inside.
Football became a refuge for the 6-0, 225-pound Tafuna, made evident in his bruising style of play. But the tragedies have also manifested into academic issues, fighting, and tension at home, particularly with Kalesita's second husband, Dean, who has raised the children while she works six days a week.
"My mom is kind of scared. She says I need anger management," said Tafuna, half-kidding. "Once I get angry I just start not caring and wanting to quit."
Tafuna reached that point this past winter, convinced he should drop football and focus solely on family.
"I didn't want to listen to anybody, just trying to figure out why everything was happening to me and my family," Tafuna said.
Tafuna had watched as older brothers Tene and David starred at Villa Park, only to fall into trouble and stray from their father's plan — to honor their Mormon faith by going on a two-year mission after high school and use football to maximize their education. Tafuna eventually listened to that familiar voice, improving his behavior while keeping himself on track to graduate and serve the mission.
"My mom kept reminding me of what my dad would tell me," Tafuna said. "So I continued playing football for my family."
Tafuna, following his mission, might also be playing for a university, having garnered interest from Oregon, Utah and Colorado, among others. He said a turning point came this past spring during a conversation with Villa Park coach Dusan Ancich, who stressed a change in attitude and love for teammates, which includes younger brother Juni.
"He's come a long way," Ancich said. "The stuff that he's gone through by 15, 16, some people don't hit till their seventies, eighties. He still has times when he reacts to situations that maybe he shouldn't. But he's improved mentally, physically and socially. He's not perfect but he's become a better person."
On the field, Tafuna has been the Spartans' best player. He's rushed for more than 1,200 yards and doubled as a destructive defensive end. He's also saved his best for when his team has needed it most, all while battling injuries the entire season.
"We ask a lot of Meki," Ancich said. "It'd be similar to having a LeBron James. When the game is on the line, you give the ball to your best player. He's the star of our team."
On Friday, Villa Park (11-1), which won its third consecutive Century League title this season, will play Tustin (12-0) in the CIF-SS Southwest Division semifinals. The Spartans are meeting the Tillers in the postseason for the third year in a row. Kalesita said she is trying her best to rearrange her work schedule so she can be there for her son.
"I'm so proud of him," said Kalesita, fighting back tears while preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for her family. "He has a big heart. My family, it's a struggle. We've been struggling, but we're still strong. We're still here."
That's why Tafuna is still playing, for Inoke, Alexander and Anna, for his other brothers and sisters, and for Kalesita. Especially for Kalesita.
"She's saved my life," Tafuna said. "If it wasn't for her I wouldn't be in this spot right now. I wouldn't be playing football. I wouldn't care about life. I just love her to death."
Life, love and death, the Tafunas know them all too well.
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