Personal #STATEment John tu'uta: Football

I was once a lone wolf.

I was born in Clovis, New Mexico. My mother and father met in school when my dad was fresh off the boat from Tonga. Not long after they got married, I was here.

Tongans are pretty old school in some of their views and the fact that my dad had married a white woman wasn’t smiled on in the community. They loved my dad but they were disappointed in some of the choices he made.

They’re really traditional. When my aunt got married, by tradition I was supposed to do some of the ceremonial stuff because I was her oldest brother’s son, but the church didn’t want me do it because I was a PALANGI – a white person.

When I was with my dad’s family, since they were all talking in Tongan, I felt very isolated. In a sense, they were strangers even though they were my family. I couldn’t talk to them and there was a completely different cultural dynamic that I didn’t understand. It was intimidating.

I was a Palangi. I was a Tongan. Sometimes I felt like I was in no man's land.

When I was three years old my mom and my dad had to split up. I stayed with my mom. There are a very few memories of all three of us being together.

When I was in middle school, people started asking me what I was. And since my dad wasn’t around, I couldn’t explain it all the way. Someone pointed out that I didn’t even know what I was.

It was tough sometimes, trying to figure out who I really was.

I once had no place to live. \

My mom and I left New Mexico and went to Virginia, then we moved to North Carolina. My mom was having really bad back problems. She had a new kind of experimental surgery – a spinal transfusion – and she had to be off work for a long time. The transfusion didn’t take, so she had to go back into surgery. Then she got laid off so we didn’t have any source of income. Then all those medical bills hit.

For a while we lived in a little space above my grandmother’s garage. Then we got a van and drove all the way to New Mexico but when we got there we had some more problems and went through a really tough time.

We came back to Virginia so I would be in a good public school system. We didn’t have anywhere to stay at first and were living in and out of the van and bouncing around to people we kinda knew.

It was a very hard year when we got to Virginia. My mom took on two or three jobs. I would walk several miles each way back and forth to school every day. When I got home, my mom would still be at work. By the time I finished eating dinner and put everything up, my mom was so tired from working so hard to provide for us. So it was just me a lot of the time. I didn’t have a lot of friends at school. Middle school is already kinda cruddy and then I had my issues.

We had to leave our apartment. At one point we had to stay in the van for like three weeks.

When I started high school, we found a place to live. It was a very small place - only two rooms. But it was OUR place. Some of my classmates were rich and had giant houses, but I had a house now! I was so pumped! I was so pumped up to say ‘you want to come to my house?’ It was really cool. I don’t know if confidence was the right word, but I know I went to school a lot happier. Maybe that was security?

After a year, my mother’s back started to severely affect her. She was losing feeling through her hips and legs. She couldn’t afford another big surgery and because she kept having to ask for time off she ended up not having that opportunity any longer and the bank came and took the car one night. Then we weren’t going to be able to stay in the house any longer.

I've been at NC State for five years and I still can't believe how big my apartment is here. It's the biggest place I've ever lived. My mom made it possible for me to be here ... to have that.

I once had one pair of jeans and one sweatshirt.

When I started at Andrew Lewis Middle School, for the first month I had to wear the same jeans and sweatshirt every day to school because we didn’t have anything yet. It was bad. I knew what the deal was and I didn’t think I had to explain it to everybody.

I was embarrassed, but I never felt ashamed.

Now I get clothes all of the time - shorts, t-shirts, sweats, shoes, cleats. I bet you can’t tell me when you’ve ever seen me wearing something we didn’t get. I try to keep everything new. It’s because I don’t know when I might need new stuff. I never want to be wearing the same thing every day again because it’s all I have. I have a bag full of cleats that I can’t wear any more, but I keep them all ... just in case.

I once was hungry.

I remember being cold when we had to stay in the van – so cold I could see my breath. And hungry. I ate a lot of canned food. I really liked Chunky soup.

I was never starving but I couldn’t afford the 40 cent school lunch so I had an empty stomach a lot of the time.

When I got here, I had access to food that I’d never had access to. I could eat. Eat. Eat.

I never wanted to feel hungry again so I ate. I got up to 353 pounds.

One of the things I am most proud of in my life is my transformation I've undergone physically these past couple years. I was still hungry, but my hunger wasn't for food, it was for weights. I'm down to 241 pounds now.

I once had to walk six miles to find my future.

One day we heard about an open house in Roanoke for people wanting to go to Fork Union Military Academy. My mom had known some people from her childhood who went there and thought it would be great opportunity for me. We no longer had a car, and Roanoke was a long way away.

So we walked. We walked about six miles until somebody was able to give us a ride.

It costs $32,000 a year to go to Fork Union. The guy who runs admissions told me if I could get up there, we’d have an acceptance meeting to see if I could be accepted without the money. I had never played a snap of football and they told me I would play football if I went there.

Me and my mom prayed and my grandmother helped us get up there. When I talked to the finance guy he was kinda hard-nosed and strict. But lo and behold, that man had lived in the same exact house as the one I had been so proud to be in! He described the paint, the oil heater in the background. He started pulling strings to try to help me out. It was crazy.

I was there for four years. For the first time in my life I had 100% stability. I had three meals a day. I went back to the same spot every night. I saw the same people every day. Everybody there? Their first name was cadet. It didn't matter what their background was. There was no difference. Everybody wore the same thing every day.

I loved every second of it. And I give all the credit to my mom for that. She was willing to sacrifice parenting me in that part of my life in order for me to have that stability and structure.

I once had no male role models.

My mom did everything she could for me, but I do believe that I needed a male figure in my life. My dad wasn’t there, not because of anything he did wrong, it was just the situation. My mom also understood that I needed some strong male figures in my life, so she did everything in her power to get me to Fork Union.

It was originally hard for me to get close to people. I’d always been of the mindset that I would only need me (and my mom) to be able to succeed. Fork Union continually preached to us that Fork Union men were different. So when I got here to NC State, I WAS different.

I was very alone when I got here. My first year here was dark. Then I had to meet another staff when the old staff got let go, but that was all too familiar. It was somebody who was there and then they’re not. It takes forever for me, but now I trust people here.

I trust Coach Tim Rabas and Coach Dantonio [Burnette]. I’d do anything for those people. Through the times that were tough I knew they would’ve done anything for me. I trust Coach Doeren. He preaches everything that I’ve always thought – work and work and work and if you don’t like it keep working and something will break.

This week I will take another walk to find my future.

On Friday, I will be a college graduate. My parents are very proud. My grandparents are very proud.

I will be a graduate because my mom was stronger than any amount of adversity that ever has faced us. She was always willing to fight ANYTHING in order to provide the best possible life she could for me, even when it meant she would have to put her life on hold, which she did ... over and over again

I love my dad. He wasn't there in our worst times because he didn't know. He wasn't close enough to help, or he was out of the country. He has always been willing to help when possible, when he knew, but it was by my mother's direction largely I am where I am. I am thankful for both of them, immensely, and love them both.

This is home to me. 100 percent. I’ve had three homes in my life: that little house we lived in for a year, Fork Union and here. Those are the three places I went home to every day with the people I consider my family: my mom, the people at Fork Union and my teammates here.

I am no longer a lone wolf.

The jersey I wore for four years said “Tu’uta” on the back. But on the front, it said “NC State.” I am a member of a Pack. THIS pack.

I’m John Tu’uta and this is my personal #STATEMENT.

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