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Retired NFL player, wife help ailing LDS missionary in St. George

SHARE Retired NFL player, wife help ailing LDS missionary in St. George

When Lauvale and Sarah Sape finally met Toni Kaonohi upon her return from an LDS mission, it wasn't at an airport, a chapel or even at her home.

It was instead at Dixie Regional Hospital.

Lauvale, a retired professional football player, and his wife, Sarah, befriended the Kaonohi family after moving to St. George, Utah, last year. They soon learned about a young woman with a beautiful singing voice and generous heart who was serving in the Wisconsin Milwaukee Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She came home, however, unable to sing, walk or even speak — the result of a brain tumor operation and subsequent stroke suffered in the final months of her mission.

By that time, the former University of Utah defensive lineman and his wife were already engaged in an effort to assist the Kaonohi family in Toni's rehabilitation.

"This girl has a heart of helping people," Lauvale said. "She's always smiling and helping others. That's why we took it upon ourselves, because she's always out there helping others."

Tonight, the Sape family will join with the St. George community for a "Gray Tie Gala" dinner and auction at Dixie State College to benefit Toni, who left for full-time missionary service in May 2007. Two months before her return, she underwent 10-hour emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor, which was followed by a stroke and four weeks spent in a coma.

After months of hospitalization in Wisconsin and Utah, Toni is home in St. George, where she spent Thanksgiving with her family. The returned missionary can now walk and is undergoing daily physical and speech therapy.

According to sister-in-law Anja Kaonohi, Toni is known in both Hawaii and Utah as a gifted singer who prior to leaving on a mission shared her talents at firesides in both St. George and Salt Lake City. She was always willing to serve, Anja says.

"She has an amazing heart," Anja said. "She has given so much and has no expectations of anything in return."

President William A. Barrett of the Wisconsin Milwaukee Mission describes Toni as outgoing, friendly and beloved by those she associates with. He remembers a missionary who would go out of her way to contact individuals during a snowstorm and who was inviting others to hear the gospel even when in the hospital the night before her surgery.

"She has a unique core goodness to her," President Barrett said. "She was still inviting people right and left. ... That's the kind of sister that we had."

According to Sarah, the Kaonohi family has a mindset of service. They would often spend family home evenings volunteering at a senior citizen home, and Leighton Sr., Toni's father, is a retired police officer who is active in the community's drug prevention program.

"They are such a giving family," Sarah said.

The couple met the Kaonohis after moving to St. George when Lauvale's five-year career in the National Football League, which included four years in Buffalo and a half-season in Tennessee, came to an end because of injury. Sarah, who grew up Mormon, and Lauvale, who was baptized into the LDS Church in 2001, met at the University of Utah and were married in 2002. When Lauvale retired from the NFL, the couple relocated to St. George, where they befriended Leighton Kaonohi Jr., a defensive line coach at Dixie State and Toni's brother.

Toni's health crisis struck unexpectedly in August, when she began experiencing migraine headaches.

After the tumor was diagnosed, Lauvale and Sarah helped arrange airfare for Toni's parents to travel to Wisconsin for the treatment, but while they were at the airport in Las Vegas, their daughter was rushed into emergency surgery. They arrived before the surgery was completed.

Sarah says her husband's football career has afforded them opportunities to become involved with various foundations and charities. When the couple became aware of Toni's ordeal, they were concerned about the medical costs that her parents, who are both retired, would incur. Toni will have to be outfitted with a prosthetic piece on her skull, and chemotherapy may be in her future.

"We saw that the family was going to struggle," said Sarah, who added that the estimated recovery time is two years. "It's going to be a tough road. … I know that the bills are going to be piling up, so we decided that we would take that on."

Tonight's benefit in St. George will feature a live and silent auction with football memorabilia donated by Lauvale's former teammates.

There will be items from former Utes and current Carolina Panthers Jordan Gross, Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Steve Smith, who gave up his personal game ball from the 2007 Pro Bowl. Former Cougar Ryan Denney, who played with Lauvale in Buffalo, came through with an autographed football from the Bills.

"This response from all my friends in the league, it was tremendous," Lauvale said.

The Sape family is including an autographed jersey from Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly in the auction.

Local businesses have also donated gift certificates, and Sarah has appreciated the community response, even in a shaky economy.

"A lot of people are struggling right now where they can't donate, but at the same time we've had a lot of people who do donate," she said. "People still do need help."

Sarah says she's impressed with Toni's willingness to serve and her positive outlook in the face of adversity.

"She is such a sweet person, and just to make that decision to go on a mission is a thing that we respect," she said. "We see what kind of a fighter she is."

Toni currently is able to walk, though she has a significant limp. Because the right side of her body was affected by the stroke, she has to use her left arm to support her right. Her communication abilities are severely limited, but she is able to hum and recently shared her voice with her former mission president.

"She actually sang a song to me over the phone … which is a remarkable thing," President Barrett said. "It was really quite amazing."

E-mail: ashill@desnews.com