By J.R. De GROOTE
Stephens Media Hawaii
The offer has been on the table for months, but after signing his name on the dotted line at a signing day ceremony at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel on Wednesday, Kealakehe senior offensive lineman Tavita “Tui” Eli is officially a University of Hawaii Rainbow Warrior.
“This has been a great experience,” Eli said after signing his national letter of intent. “At the ceremony, I got to meet Maake Kemoeatu and hear his words of wisdom. He spoke to us before signing our letters and said that your child is the biggest investment you will ever make. That statement really opened my mind to how my parents have been investing in me my whole life, and now they are really starting to see me grow.”
Eli’s parents are both educators — his dad, Vaeluaga Eli, is a teacher at the University of Nations in Kona and his mom, Julie, is a preschool teacher. Their influence on the career of their son has been evident. Eli hustled his junior year to score a qualifying SAT score and put in the work away from the field to maintain a high GPA, something that was very attractive for the UH recruiters.
“The coaches told me my grades were a big part of it,” Eli said. “I’m usually always on top of my work and I think they also got some good reviews from coach (Sam) Papalii as well.”
As for what he will pursue as a major while on campus, Eli was not 100 percent yet, but he assured he’s not going to take the easy route — his parents won’t let him.
“My dad really wants me to pursue prelaw,” Eli said. “Both my parents would love to see me get into that program. They always push me to excel in school. We will see how everything works out”
Eli is the second Kealakehe offensive lineman to earn a scholarship to the Warriors, following in the footsteps of Levi Legay, a 2007 Waveriders graduate.
UH head coach Norm Chow and his staff secured commitments from 24 high school and junior college prospects and transfers. Eli is among seven Hawaii products in the Warriors’ haul.
“I thought we did a terrific job with local recruiting,” Chow said in a news release. “There are a lot of good football players in the state of Hawaii, which is why so many coaches recruit here. We were able to secure most of the ones we targeted this year and we feel we got some good ones.”
Eli is the only offensive lineman in the 2014 class, at 6 feet, 5 inches and 290 pounds, he’s also the largest.
According to his former coach, Papalii, Eli was the top offensive line prospect on UH offensive line coach Chris Naeole’s radar.
“Coach Naeole saw Tui in the spring and he passed the eye test,” Papalii said. “He watched him in practice, saw a few of our games and he knew he had the physical capabilities. Tui is the best offensive lineman we have had in the program and his academics are great too. UH is getting the total package.”
The Warriors have a young offensive line, so the door is open for Eli to make an immediate impact. However, Eli is going to let spring ball play out, see how the depth chart looks and weigh his options.
“I’m not too sure yet,” Eli said. “I’ve met a few of the guys on my recruiting trip and at the ceremony today and I think I will fit in well. From what I know, a couple spots are open on the offensive line, but I don’t think I’ll have to make a decision until after spring ball.”
A comparison Papalii drew for Eli was to UCLA offensive lineman Xavier Sua Filo, who was a four-year starter for the Bruins and figures to be a high NFL draft pick come May.
“I think Tui can be that kind of guy — dominate down low and smart,” Papalii said. “If teams have that luxury of depth, most like to redshirt incoming freshman. However, I think if they needed him to play immediately, he could. He does have to get in the weight room and develop enough strength to be able to compete with Division I athletes and push around the big guys. But mentally, he can handle it. He’s got a high ceiling and is smart enough to pick up the college game quick.”
Eli will see a familiar face his first game as a Rainbow Warrior when Washington and former Kealakehe teammate Psalm Wooching visit Aloha Stadium Aug. 30. Wooching is also Eli’s cousin.
“On the field it will be all business,” Eli said. “But away from it that guy is like my brother. I can’t wait for that.”
Reflecting on the long day, Eli was brought back to his parents, who have supported him through thick and thin and been his unwavering support system.
“Everything I’m doing right now, I owe it all to my parents. I would not be here without them,” Eli said. “I’m just really grateful for everything they have provided for me.”
Note: Former Konawaena and Kaiser quarterback Kahoalii Karratti signed with Southern Utah University. He joins Kealakehe alumni Naia Ursua on the Thunderbirds roster.