USA Eagle Vili Toluta'u: Living a Dream
Story and Photos By: Mark Janzen
Atop the hill overlooking the southern field at the Kahului Community Center Park, two picnic tables sit adjacent to Onehee Avenue. The field that sits in the basin below is where Vili Toluta’u launched his rugby career at 10 years old, chasing after his older brother, Samuela Toluta’u, hoping to fill a few water bottles and get the odd sniff on the wing with the Kahului Rugby Warriors.
Up the embankment on the other side of the field is the Kokua Pool, where a teenaged Vili and his Kahului teammates occasionally hopped the fence for a late-night post-practice dip.
There aren’t any lights anymore at the field, and the men currently lining the field are setting up for a soccer tournament. The Warriors no longer frequent this particular park, but as Toluta’u gazes from the more elevated of the two picnic tables, the memories gush.
“This is where it all started,” he says.
It’s here, within the confines of Maui’s largest city, where Toluta’u – a Hawaiian fishermen, not a surfer – began a journey that would see him develop into a star at Central Washington University, turn into an all-star with the Seattle Seawolves (Major League Rugby), and become the first-ever Maui player to earn a cap with the USA Eagles men’s fifteens side.
A friend passing by the field interrupts Toluta’u’s reminiscing. She’s wearing USA Rugby shorts. They hug and then kibitz. Like Toluta’u has for the better part of the last six years, she lives on the US mainland, but spent her younger years just down the street from Vili. As it turns out, she plays volleyball, not rugby. The shorts – well, they used to be Toluta’u’s. He gave them to her boyfriend and she just happened to be wearing them on the day.
Spend enough time with Toluta’u, or even just a little, and the whole interaction – the happenstance meeting, the shorts and the warm embrace – seems rather normal. The man with the ever-present smile, the magnetic personality and the most recognizable afro in rugby seems to know everybody and everybody seems to know him. And love him.
On a pleasantly-warm mid-August morning, Toluta’u, 24, saunters up the inclined driveway to his parents’ house on Kaao Circle. A 10-minute walk from the field, it’s where Toluta’u lived during his formative years and where he stays when he’s back in Maui. As a rugby player, the Seawolves flanker is a ball-hawk, flying around the pitch with a distinguished physicality. Away from the field, Toluta’u is as chill as they come.
Wearing flip-flops and a pair of blue board shorts emblazoned with the Hawaiian Islands and few turtles, his gait is never in a rush.
There’s a small pig chilling in a shaded area in the front yard. It wasn’t large enough to be part of the recent festivities in honour of Toluta’u when, just a few weeks earlier, they had celebrated his graduation from CWU with a degree in construction management. So, it’ll hang out and do some growing in the yard until it’s big enough to be part of the buffet.
Just inside the tin-roofed home, Toluta’u’s sister, Akanete Afeaki, is changing her 15-month-old son.
She’s wearing a t-shirt that reads “Y’all Need Jesus” – a sentiment shared by the Toluta’u family. Her son, Vili, who is named after Toluta’u, is finding his footing and will soon be running. If his namesake has anything to do with it, the youngster will have a rugby ball in his hands soon enough.
Toluta’u calls for his dad, who’s inside the house.
Kelisimi Toluta’u steps through the door into the open-air garage where a few chairs are gathered. Kelisimi is battling cancer and recently had hip surgery. He uses a walker to make his way toward a nearby chair.
“I have six legs,” he jokes.
It’s quickly apparent where the older Vili gets many of his traits – his humour and smile included.
Kelisimi, who originally hails from Tonga, moved to Oahu in 1982. A year later, rugby brought Kelisimi and the Toluta’u family to Maui. After travelling to Kihei with his local rugby club from Laie, Kelisimi decided to make Maui his home and eventually settled into Kahului.
With little Vili sitting on Vili’s lap, Kelisimi looks on with a smile. He’s a proud father and grandfather.
In this moment, he’s happy to have his son back home.
“I like when he finishes school and (comes) back home,” Kelisimi says.
Since graduating from H.P. Baldwin High School in 2012, Toluta’u has been on the mainland every winter, returning in summer before continuing his studies in the fall. This time, Toluta’u, who returned to Maui in mid-July just after helping lead Seattle to the MLR title, will be home until the late fall. Toluta’u is hoping to be part of USA Rugby’s preparatory training camp for the November international window.
Beyond that, he hopes to play in the World Cup in 2019, and he even has an eye toward taking a shot at USA’s sevens side. But for now, he’s home, wanting to be there for his dad. Kelisimi, who is retired from his maintenance role at the Makena Golf & Beach Club, is still a casual farmer, bringing home bananas, yams, and other produce for the family. He’s content, but his health issues remain.
Yet, despite sitting in the midst of his battle with cancer, Kelisimi remains undeniably excited for his son’s possibilities with the Eagles. With his Tongan roots, Toluta’u comes by rugby honestly.
In his high school days, Toluta’u dabbled with football and he was good. In his senior year, he was a standout defensive end, helping Baldwin to a Maui Interscholastic League title. One particular newspaper clipping tells the story of a certain game against Maui High, when he recorded four sacks, forced and recovered two fumbles, and blocked a field goal.
Nevertheless, rugby was in his DNA.
While he spent many days hanging around the Warriors, it was in his sophomore and junior years of high school when he started to find his way into the Kahului lineup and started to make a name for himself across the state. His success with both the Warriors and the Hilo Reign, who he joined on occasion to get in a few extra games, spawned his first opportunity with USA Rugby. In consecutive years, he earned a spot on USA Rugby’s High School All-American team, allowing him the chance to play in the 2013 Junior World Championship in France.
That experience set the table for Toluta’u to join CWU in the fall of 2013.
Five years later, Toluta’u finished his university career as a six-time All-American and left an indelible mark, both on and off the field, within the Wildcats program.
“He’s just so selfless,” says CWU coach Todd Thornley. “He really does put other people ahead of himself. He could be the most dominant player on the field that day, but you wouldn’t even know it after that game. He’s just about the team and he just led by example.”
While he was ineligible for his fifth year at CWU – he was ruled to have used a year of eligibility prior to joining the Wildcats after spending a gap year with Spearhead Rugby Academy in Minnesota – he remained around the program, practicing when he could, and acting as a mentor.
However, perhaps it was all part of the plan, as his ineligibility allowed him to take a shot with Seattle.
While still finishing his degree at CWU, Toluta’u began his professional career, travelling alongside CWU and Seawolves teammate John Hayden between Ellensburg, Wash. and Seattle three to four times per week to practice and play within the up-and-coming MLR.
Along the way, he went from a relative no-name, at least amongst most preseason MLR pundits, to being named to the All-MLR First XV Team, to being the MVP of the Championship Series.
“He was so physically dominant at our level and I thought he might not be as dominant at the (MLR) level,” Thornley says. “But turns out he was just as dominant – if not more dominant.”
At the start of his time with the Seawolves, he was slotted in as a second-or-third string hooker. Soon enough, he built a reputation, and after an early-season injury to Riekert Hattingh opened a spot at the flanker position, Toluta’u seized the opportunity.
“After watching him move and train, and seeing how talented he is, we needed to find a spot for him on the field,” says Phil Mack, who was both the Seawolves scrumhalf and acting head coach. “In that first game (against San Diego), he came off the bench and put a marker down and basically made himself indispensable for us.”
Beyond his on-field showing, his off-field antics made him a key piece in the Seawolves championship season.
“He’s super light-hearted and he’s a great team guy,” Mack says. “He’s a bit of jokester and is pranking people on planes. All those things are crucial for building a team, and that’s exactly what we had to do in a very short amount of time. Those characteristics were invaluable.”
In a few short months, he went from a local fan favourite in Kahului to a much-beloved character across Maui, the state of Hawaii and the United States at large – with a pocket of particularly ardent supporters in Ellensburg.
Not far from his Kahului home is a house his church (Siasi Uesiliana Tau’ataina ‘o Tonga or, the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga) purchased to act as a gathering place for anything from birthdays to graduation celebrations, to watching rugby.
Sitting on the southeast corner of S Puunene Avenue and E Papa Avenue, the house is starting to buzz.
In two days, family and friends from all over Hawaii – and some from the mainland – will fill the place to celebrate the 70th birthday of one Toluta’u’s aunts. Beside the church house is a family member’s backyard that will serve as the food-making hub. In one corner, an imu will cook the meat, while tables already set-up will give way to further preparations. Most of the yard is covered in rugs, which, according to Toluta’u, is a stereotypical sign of a Tongan family. Outdoor carpeting eliminates the irritant of dirt and dust.
In the front yard is a coconut tree. Toluta’u grabs a nearby metal pole off the roof of the house and knocks down a coconut for a guest. He stabs the green coconut on a post sticking out of the ground and husks it in short order. He’s robotic in his efficiency. It’s easy to forget he’s professional rugby player and a capped Eagle.
But it’s here, in the church house, where his friends and family watched Toluta’u win the MLR Championship.
It was also here where they saw Toluta’u err in a flailing attempt to kick a loose ball clear in the title match against Glendale. Toluta’u’s mistake turned into a 56th-minute try for the Raptors and put the Colorado-based side ahead 19-8. No doubt, in that moment the house hushed.
“That really brought me down,” he recalls. “I’m thinking the game is over because of what I did. All I needed to do was fall on it and play on from there.
“But I didn’t get any bad comments from my teammates. They just said that there’s time on the clock and to keep pushing forward. That filled up my gas tank to keep pushing forward, (and) from then on, I forgot about what I did and just tried to do what I could do impact the game.”
Less than two minutes later, a hard-charging run from Toluta’u was the foundation for a momentum-shifting try that ultimately sparked a 23-19 comeback victory.
In the church house, Toluta’u’s biggest supporters erupted in celebration – first when Seattle won, and then when their boy earned MVP honours.
Toluta’u’s phone blew up. He got to all those messages the next day. In a not-so-quiet corner of a boisterous locker room, his priority was calling his mom, Helena, and his dad.
“They were happy and just thanking the Lord,” Toluta’u says. “And they thanked me for representing the last name.”
Years earlier, a young kid, who was far too small to be playing with the senior Warriors, but just wanted to be part it all, took his spot on the wing, hoping to get a touch – even for a moment. Every once in a while he did. The team recognized the need to involve the youngsters if the game was going to grow in Maui.
Within that training group were three players who Toluta’u watched just a little bit closer. There was the speedy Pila Taufa, who spent time playing in Europe as well as with the USA Rugby sevens program. There was the hard-running Andrew Malafu, who also played rugby in Europe and was built with a Paul Lasike-type frame. And, there was Samuela.
Toluta’u is a concoction of all three. He has impressive speed, a hard-charging and ever-firing motor (a YouTube video labeled “Vili Toluta’u is a Monster” from the 2017 West Coast Sevens provides undeniable evidence), and a love for the game. And with a tenacity that belies his off-field persona, he has the framework to develop into something special.
On June 3, 2018 USA Rugby made an announcement that reverberated around both Seattle and the Hawaiian Islands.
Toluta’u had been called up to the Eagles for the summer test series to replace Tony Lamborn within USA’s 31-man roster. It was also significant for the MLR, as it marked the first time a player had been selected for the Eagles based solely on his MLR form.
Just over two weeks later, Toluta’u sat in a room with his USA teammates awaiting word on the 23-man roster that would be selected to take on Canada in the summer finale in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Then, on the screen at the front of the room, Toluta’u’s name appeared. Knowing as many as eight others in the room didn’t make the roster, Toluta’u bridled his outward emotions.
“In my head, I was like ‘This is it. It’s really going to happen,’ Toluta’u says. “(But) it was hard to keep it in. Back to my hotel room, I’m just thinking, ‘this is my time to show the world, and USA especially, what I can do.’ And (I) also reflected back on what I’ve gone through.
“If I can make it, than anyone on the Islands can make it too.”
Then, on June 23rd, in the 62nd minute of an eventual 42-17 win over Canada, Toluta’u made Mauian rugby history, becoming the first player from his home Island to earn a senior cap with the Eagles.
“All the fire came into me and I was just ready,” he remembers.
Stepping on the field, he made eye contact with Mack. For the Canadian scrumhalf, that was as close as he wanted to get to his teammate-turned-foe.
“I was just trying to avoid that guy,” Mack says in a most complimentary fashion. “He’s one of the biggest nuisances out there. He has a great work ethic and all he wants to do is go and get the ball. Unfortunately, I’m probably going to have to see him on the field again when Canada plays USA, but we’ll deal with that later.”
Upon returning to Seattle, Toluta’u just kept on running, helping the Seawolves to a 38-24 win over San Diego in the semifinals to set up that first-ever MLR championship tilt with Glendale.
Eight days after winning the league title and 22 days after earning his first cap, Toluta’u made his way through baggage claim at the Kahului Airport. Amidst the regular crush of tourists just steps from their beach vacation, Toluta’u walked out to a hero’s welcome of friends and family. Everybody loves Vili. And, it can be said, Vili loves everybody.
“I think about doing it all for the people back here,” Toluta’u says. “All I want to do now, see the future of rugby, not only for our island but also for America. It’s going good so far.”
Toluta’u has been home for a month when he walks into Maui’s only Zippy’s location. It’s a legendary Hawaiian fast food joint that has been around since 1966 and has 22 locations on Oahu, but just the one in Kahului. The cashier comments on his hair.
“It’s so cool,” she says, admiring the afro, but with little knowledge of the person and player who it belongs to.
A few days before, he was in Safeway and met an even bolder cashier.
“Can I touch it?” she asks.
“Sure,” Toluta’u allows.
“It’s so fluffy.” She turns to her co-worker with delight. “I touched his hair.”
Neither cashier knew the significance of Toluta’u still rocking the head-turning afro. This summer, he doesn’t have to cut it. In previous years when he would return from CWU for the summer months, his dad told him to cut it.
This year, Kelisimi said he could keep it. “You’ve made a name for yourself,” a very proud father told Vili.
Knowing what Toluta’u has done to put his name on the rugby map, Kelisimi also understood his son’s hair had become part of his burgeoning popularity.
Making his way through Kahului – from his old rugby pitch, to his house church to the Baldwin football where he still occasionally runs the stairs – Toluta’u is known. But it’s his personality as much as his rugby pedigree that draws people to Vili.
In an “everyone knows everyone” kind of town, he’s a son, a brother, an uncle, a neighbour, a friend, an acquaintance, and an inspiration. Oh, and, as a side note, he’s also the most prolific rugby player Maui has ever produced.
Toluta’u drives back to the construction site where he’s working as a project engineer with Goodfellow Bros., Inc. He looks back one more time at a recently met onlooker.
He gives one more wave and one more smile.