Stephen Tsai: Warriors OL Tanuvasa masters all life throws his way

It was photo day on Monday at the Stan Sheriff Center, and Eliki Tanuvasa was the picture of contentment.
The starting center for the University of Hawaii football team earned a bachelor’s degree a year ago and is on track to complete work on a master’s.
“Crazy,” Tanuvasa has said. “Never in my life did I think I would get this opportunity.”
It certainly did not appear that way in December 2018 when he returned home for winter break following his freshman season at Eastern Illinois. Soon after arriving, Tanuvasa was taken to a rehabilitation center to visit his father.
“I knew my dad was a little bit sick,” Tanuvasa recalled, “but I didn’t know the extent of it. When I went into the room, I was so confused. Everything hit me at one time. A lot of different emotions — confusion, sadness, anger.”
Eric Tanuvasa, a police officer, was bedridden because of a muscular disorder that required 24-hour care.
“The disease ate away at his muscles,” Tanuvasa said. “He shrunk. He couldn’t turn over. That’s how bad it was. He was basically paralyzed for a while. Seeing him in that kind of state was heartbreaking. … I thought he was Superman. He was the guy who came up from rough living situations. Seeing him in the hospital, I didn’t feel like I was looking at my dad. I was like, what’s going on in life?”
Without hesitation, Tanuvasa, who was named an FCS third-team freshman All-American, decided he would relinquish his football scholarship and not return to Charleston, Ill. He learned his mother was working two jobs and his 12-year-old sister had taken on more chores.
“For me, my little sister and my mom didn’t need to be doing that by themselves,” Tanuvasa said. “I’m the next man up in the house. … It definitely was a hard decision, but at the same time it was a no-brainer decision. My family is first and foremost no matter what I do. Whether I was going to play football or not, I was going to come home to help my family. … I think if I knew the severity of the situation, I would have come home during the season. My family and dad didn’t want that from me.”
His family said Tanuvasa only could stay if he continued to pursue a degree. “And,” he was told, “you need to keep trying to play football.”
Tanuvasa reached out to the UH coaches. Nick Rolovich, who was the head coach at the time, said there was room on the roster but no available scholarship for a transfer who needed a special waiver to play in 2019.
“I was very blessed and grateful that he even considered a spot on the team for me,” said Tanuvasa, who agreed to join as a nonscholarship player. He eventually earned the waiver to play that season.
At Saint Louis School, Tanuvasa was the center for Player of the Year quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa in 2016 and Chevan Cordeiro in 2017. At UH, he was a backup to center Taaga Tuulima for two seasons. “He taught me everything,” Tanuvasa said of Tuulima. “He was one of the smartest people I ever met.”
In 2021, Kohl Levao was the Warriors’ center. Tanuvasa moved over to guard, where he started six games. That December, UH’s then coach Todd Graham awarded Tanuvasa a scholarship.
Last August, Tanuvasa was selected as one of four team captains. Tanuvasa, Stephan Bernal-Wendt, Sergio Muasau and Solo Vaipulu rotated at the interior-line positions in 2022. A knee ailment limited Tanuvasa to nine starts, eight at center. He was held out of this year’s spring ball after undergoing knee surgery. Tanuvasa is now fully healthy. Chang named Tanuvasa as one of five offseason captains.
Eric Tanuvasa also has recovered and is back on the force.
“It all worked out,” Eliki Tanuvasa said.
Reflecting on “betting on” himself when he relinquished Eastern Illinois’ scholarship and working his way into being a UH leader, Tanuvasa said, “nothing in life came easy. It was another thing to accomplish.”

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