By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Last year as a Kealakehe junior, Tavita “Tui” Eli took the SAT twice and qualified to play college football. He’s intent on taking it a third time to better his score and himself — the story of his life for the student-athlete, whose daily goal is to sharpen himself in all areas.
Eli is 6 feet, 4 inches and 285 pounds, one of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation’s top collegiate prospects as a two-way lineman. Last year, he was an All-BIIF first-team selection at O-line, along with his teammate Feke Sopoaga-Kioa.
The pair went the University of Washington football camp during the summer. Eli attended the Oregon State camp, and Sopoaga-Kioa participated in the All-Polynesian camp, held in Utah and assisted with instruction from college coaches.
Kealakehe coach Sam Papalii likes Eli’s length and mobility. Papalii has coached at the University of Hawaii, Arizona, Utah, Iowa State and UNLV. He can spot Division I talent a mile away, and even faster when someone is under his nose.
“He can move for a big guy, and enjoys playing on both sides of the ball,” said Papalii, who then projected Eli’s collegiate potential. “Someone could take him at offensive line as a guard, tackle or center. At D-line, in a three-technique (with a hand on the ground), he could be a nose guard in a 3-4. He’s got a lot of flexibility. He’s smart and competitive. Somebody is going to get a good lineman when they get him.
“He was on the junior varsity in 2011 and then we brought him up to the varsity. We knew we had a player. This year, we threw him on the D-line. He’s got a bright future.”
Eli talked to the Oregon State coaching staff, but is keeping his options open. He’s holding a 3.4 grade-point average. His work in the classroom is a serious topic of discussion with his educational-based parents.
His dad Vaeluaga Eli is a teacher at the University of Nations in Kona; mom Julie is a preschool teacher at the school. Vaeluaga teaches a Samoan language and culture class, and one student was Julie Eli.
“She took my dad’s class and can now speak it pretty good, but not better than me,” Eli said. “My dad pushes me. I passed the SAT twice last year. He wants me to take it again for a higher grade.
“With both parents in education, you really can’t hide. They push me to be better in school. Not many kids have both parents push them. I feel kind of privileged.
“They tell me to never settle for anything but the best. The next SAT is in November. I’ve got a big SAT book and study once I’m done with my homework.”
Eli’s early life was a traveling adventure. He was born in Canada, raised in Samoa since he was six months old, went to elementary school there and spent his high school freshman year back in Canada. The family moved to the Big Island in his sophomore year.
His parents met in Canada, married on the Big Island, and after stops in their respective birthplaces, settled in Kailua-Kona as their permanent home.
They have three other children: daughter Leilani, who’s working in Canada; son Manuia, a football sophomore at a junior college in Canada; and Hannah, 11, a student at the University of Nations.
Eli gets his height from both sides of the family. His maternal grandfather stood 6 feet 5. His dad’s grandpa was 6 feet 9, and the tallest in the Samoan village at the time. Eli’s paternal grandfather, his brothers and sisters were all 6 feet or taller.
Besides Eli’s height, his other obvious character trait is his respectful manner, much like Sopoaga-Kioa. It’s part of Samoan culture, basically a Polynesian umbrella custom, to respect one’s elders.
“We were always taught to respect anybody older than you and in authority,” Eli said. “I’m Christian and wear the lava lava all the time. My dad makes us wear the lava lava when we go to church.
“My dad is always pushing me to be the best I can be. In the summer, I didn’t get much free time. I was running, pushing weights or keeping active. I didn’t have school work, but I still studied two hours a day.”
Eli’s nutrition is also all about hard work. No daily stopping at a fast-food joint for a greasy burger. His dad has a plantation, and when there’s no football practice, homework or SAT studying, he’s helping out.
“There’s a lot of taro and bananas. We eat a lot of taro and green bananas,” said Eli about his Samoan food staples. “I played rugby in Samoa. I used to play basketball in Canada, volleyball, track and rugby, too. Rugby is starting to get big in Canada. I played on the varsity team and a men’s club.”
Eli’s aspiration is to major in business in college, and open a sports store back in Samoa. But before that, he has to survive his daily battles with Sopoaga-Kioa.
Papalii pointed out that the most exciting part of practice is when the heavyweights battle in one-on-one drills: Eli, Sopoaga-Kioa (6-2, 311), Travis Lualemaga (6-1, 317), and Winton Palik (5-6, 260). The first two of the bunch provide the most electricity.
“Feke and Tui are both aggressive and competitive,” Papalii said. “Tui is happy-go-lucky, real pleasant like Feke. But they don’t want to back down and when they go at it sparks fly.
“In tackling drills, they’re popping each other. They don’t back off. Put Travis and Winton in there and they compete. They’re our thumpers on the line. They make you compete when you go best against the best.”
Papalii often compares Eli and Sopoaga-Kioa not only for their talent, but also their personality. Like Sopoaga-Kioa, Eli, who is playing club rugby, has a pretty good sense of humor, too.
“We have a lot in common. I guess we both look alike,” he joked. “We’ve both got the same personality. We try to work our hardest in practice. We’ll both hit each other hard, and not take anything lightly.”
Then Eli, who’s a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and looks at Troy Polamalu as his favorite player, explained the difference between the two Waveriders, from an NFL perspective.
“He’s definitely a 49ers fan, just because he bought a bunch of 49er stuff and wants to wear them,” Eli said, laughing all the way. “I like the Steelers and Troy Polamalu. He’s not the biggest guy, but if you watch him he gives it his all.”
Sopoaga-Kioa and Eli are alike in the most Polynesian way — their reverence for family. Sopoaga-Kioa noted his best moment is when his grandfather/Kealakehe offensive line volunteer coach Paul Sopoaga congratulates him on a great effort.
Eli is the same way. His priceless moment is not winning the BIIF Division I football championship or another spot on the All-BIIF first team. It’s the warmth from family that means the most to him.
“It’s seeing my family after the game,” Eli said. “I’m just proud that my family has been there after every game, cheering me on. That’s something I’m really proud of.”