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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Gentle Giant

 
 

The people who had the opportunity to meet Texas A&M student and football player Polo Manukainiu before his death described him as genuine, friendly, an ambassador and a gentle giant.
While on a return road-trip from Utah to Texas Monday night, Manukainiu was one of five occupants in a 2002 Toyota Seqoia. The driver of the vehicle drifted off a New Mexico roadway and overcorrected, rolling the vehicle several times, according to police reports.
Manukainiu was ejected from the vehicle and died on the scene. None of the four passengers were wearing seatbelts at the time of the incident.
“We lost a terrific young man,” Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said in a statement released by the A&M athletic department. “Polo was loved by his teammates and coaches. Anyone who came in contact with him was struck by his sense of humor and smile. My heart aches for his mom and family members.”
At A&M Manukainiu struck many people as a virtual giant. Upon meeting him for the first time, former Texas A&M football player Damontre Moore said he was caught off guard by the 6-foot-5, 275 pound Manukainiu.
“He was this huge kid,” Moore told The Associated Press. “I’d been in college already for like two years and he was this huge monster who had at least two inches over me and he was so intimidating. And when he talked he was the kindest person in the world. He was like the gentle giant.”
Moore told The Associated Press that Manukainiu “never complained” as a redshirt freshman and was like a brother to everyone on the team.
Manukainiu came from a tight-knit Tongan community in Euless, Texas. Tonga, a set of Polynesian islands, is known as the “Friendly Island” with a heritage that brought Manukainiu and Texas A&M swimmer and Olympian Amini Fonua together
as the only Tongan athletes at A&M.
“The likelihood of two guys going to A&M, both being athletes and – being Polynesian is rare, but being Tongan is rarer – so both being Tongan, we connected on that,” Fonua said. “We would walk past each other at (Netum) Steed and we would joke with each other or speak Tongan to each other. There was a commonality between us because of our background.”
Fonua said he received text messages early Tuesday informing him of Manukainiu’s accident, which eventually drove him to an early departure from work.
“It hit me on so many different levels,” Fonua said. “There are so few Polynesian sports stars out there. He was someone who I think could have been a really great role model not just as a Tongan but as an Aggie. Everyone that knew him on the football team loved him.”
Fonua told stories of walking through the Bright Football Complex with Manukainiu only to be stopped countless times by teammates or friends, guys and girls, yelling his name.
Manukainiu was described by Fonua as humble, family-oriented and the opposite of the untouchable celebrity athlete, talking to anyone and everyone in his path.
“He was one of those guys that when you go to study hall there are people you hope to see and I know he was one of those guys,” Fonua said.
Senior agricultural leadership & development major Jerron Reese spent last year working as an intern for Student Athlete Services and Career Coordinator Zerick Rollins. During his time at the Bright Football Complex he would sign Manukainiu into study hall, making casual conversation.
“It wasn’t just a ‘hello’ and ‘thanks’ when he would stop,” Reese said. “I would sign him in for study hall and he’d hang around the desk talking to me and whoever was sitting up there with me at the time. He would ask about classes, how the year was going, or would talk about football, or any games that had gone on in the past week. He would also ask the lady who I shared the front desk with, Mrs. Janice, about her children and how her day was going as well.”
For Reese, Manukainiu’s interest in other people’s everyday lives showed how much he cared for everyone.
“It says a lot about his character for him to stop and talk to me without necessarily knowing me,” Reese said. “He genuinely seemed to care about how I was doing. He was a great Aggie, outstanding football player, and an overall phenomenal human being.”
A member of A&M’s 2012 recruiting class, Manukainiu was traveling with friends from Euless Trinity High School when the accident happened. Also killed in the wreck was incoming freshman for the Utah football team, Gaius “Keio” Vaenuku.
Manukainiu helped Trinity High School to an undefeated regular season and the state playoffs in 2011 as an all-district defensive end and was a four-star recruit according to ESPN.
“Not only were they physically bigger than life, but so were their personalities,” Trinity principal Mike Harris said in a statement. “They were loved and adored. They were kids you loved to send out as ambassadors for Trinity High School. We took as much pride in their being Trinity graduates as they did from being Trinity grads.”
On Tuesday, around 2,000 people gathered at the indoor facility of Trinity High School to honor Manukainiu and the others killed in the wreck. The school set up a “Memories & Messages” page on its website on which more than 80 comments have been posted remembering the young men.
Economics teachers, lunch ladies, classmates, parents of friends, Macy’s employees, coaches and nurses all have written personal accounts of interactions with Manukainiu on the page.
With only a year of school under his belt at A&M, Manukainiu was already beginning to make a similar impact at the university, most apparent in encounters experienced by individuals like Reese.
On Tuesday, many Aggie football players took to Twitter to express their condolences in addition to former coaches Kliff Kingsbury and Tim DeRuyter. Texas head coach Mack Brown tweeted his thoughts and prayers along with former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel tweeted his sorrow Tuesday morning saying, “Heart hurts waking up to news about Polo.. I think I speak for everyone on our team when I say we love you brother you will be missed.”
Manukainiu, 19, was a recreation, parks and tourism sciences major and he is survived by his mother, Lima Uhatafe of Euless.
Manukainiu is the second Aggie football player killed in an auto accident in less than two years as senior offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio, 22, was killed in a December 2011 car accident. Manziel mentioned Villavisencio during the Heisman Trophy ceremony last year.
While Texas A&M has not yet decided on wearing patches with Manukainiu’s No. 90 for games, his legacy will continue to live on as more and more accounts like Reese’s come up.
“It seems he really made an impact on a large number of people’s lives during his short time on campus,” Reese said. “We were lucky to have had Polo.”
Fonua too hopes that the legacy of Manukainiu can live on and “galvanize” the football team. But things will certainly be different around the A&M football team without their gentle giant around, Fonua said.
“There’s definitely going to be a little less sunshine around the Bright Football Complex,” Fonua said.

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