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National Signing Day: A college man, like his dad





Sione Tu’uta was an international rugby player for his native Tonga when he entered the United States in 1991.

He arrived in Los Angeles from the small Pacific island to become the band director for his cousin’s Methodist church.

But at 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, it was not difficult for Tu’uta to be noticed by the football coach at nearby Compton Community College.

Tu’uta knew nothing about the sport, but was told he could earn a scholarship.

“I played football for one reason only—to pay for college,” Tu’uta said. “I didn’t want my church to pay for it.”

Tu’uta spoke limited English and had trouble learning football terminology. But he eventually adapted well enough to earn a scholarship to Division II Eastern New Mexico University.

Son John Tu’uta’s growth in the sport went much smoother.

John is a Fredericksburg resident and a senior at Fork Union Military Academy. The offensive lineman, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 312 pounds, will sign a national letter of intent with North Carolina State on Wednesday.

“This is a humongous deal for him to be given this opportunity,” Sione Tu’uta said. “I just pray he’s a good steward of it.”

Sione Tu’uta is now a pastor in New Orleans. He’s expected to surprise his son by showing up to his signing day ceremony at FUMA on Wednesday.

The two have remained close despite the distance, and football has been one thing they have in common.

“He was such a big guy, but he was also very quick,” John said of his father, who played defensive end. “I really gravitated toward power more than quickness, but putting the two together is where my dad helped me most.”

Sione Tu’uta said he also passed down a humble attitude to John.

Fork Union veteran coach Micky Sullivan said it’s all added up to a player with uncommon maturity and leadership skills for his age.

John plays for the undergrad varsity program at FUMA, but he was named company commander at the school, which places him in charge of the postgraduates.

“They’re a little bit older, a little bit bigger and a little more experienced,” John said. “But they cooperate for the most part.”

John’s ability to lead others may stem from his upbringing, said his mother, Renee McLaughlin.

He moved around with McLaughlin often after she and his father divorced.

John’s parents met at Eastern New Mexico.

John was born in New Mexico, but has also lived in North Carolina and Salem Va. as his mother sought a better life.

“I think it helped him grow as a person,” his mother said. “He had to adapt quickly and find ways to fit in. He always found himself in a leadership role.”

John was an eighth-grader at Andrew Lewis Middle School in Salem when he researched FUMA. He decided to go go there for the next four years. He had never played football before, but he joined the program as a freshman and has thrived since.

When he decided to head to the private school and live on its campus, his friends reminded him he would have to give up cellphones, video games and all the other indulgences most teenagers enjoy.

“He’s always been very grounded in his faith. He’s very passionate about things, and very passionate about people,” McLaughlin said. “He made the choice on his own that, ‘I’ll sacrifice all those toys now, so I can have bigger toys later.’”

McLaughlin moved to Fredericksburg four years ago so she could be closer to John. She said the drive from Salem to Fork Union’s campus in Fluvanna County was too long.

She now lives in downtown Fredericksburg and works for a car dealership in Stafford County. She’s looking forward to making the drive to Raleigh, N.C., an area where she still has family, to watch John play.

Sullivan said John is expected to play center for the Wolfpack.

No matter where he lines up, his father will be proud.

Sione Tu’uta said his family was poor in Tonga, and his first experience watching television was during the Los Angeles riots that were sparked by the Rodney King videotaped beating.

“I was fresh off the boat, so imagine my shock,” he said. “I was watching things that didn’t make sense to me.”

Sione Tu’uta often reminds his son of his own modest upbringing. That’s why when when the Wolfpack offered John a scholarship, he stood there in disbelief.

“Like every parent, you work, pray and hope your children find their passion,” Sione Tu’uta said. “He has carved his way for this privilege, and I couldn’t be any prouder of this young man.”

Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526