Once upon a time in 2006, Fui Vakapuna returned from an LDS mission to Southern California, walked on the football field at BYU and in his first practice forced every defensive player on the team to put his head on a swivel. He plowed over tacklers like a bowling ball.
This week, the soft-spoken Tongan and former East High star stood in front of a group of autistic young adults at a school community meeting and their faces lit up like lamps plugged into a wall socket. They smiled like a Disney character had walked to the podium.
Vakapuna spoke and they listened like everything he said was the most interesting, funny piece of conversation they'd ever heard.
"He's our pied piper," said Douglas Gale, executive director of ScenicView, a center for learning and living in Provo. "The students follow him all around."
The former seventh-round pick of the 2009 Cincinnati Bengals volunteered at ScenicView this past winter at the insistence of his wife Leonne, an employee there. Both parties liked it so much, Gale hired the football player to take advantage of his presence, both physically and spiritually.
"I love it," Vakapuna said this week during a tour of ScenicView's campus and the resident dormitory. "I've learned a lot about autism, the broad spectrum of how it affects so many in different ways. These kids are great and a lot of fun to be around."
Vakapuna, once referred to by Bronco Mendenhall as the Cougar football team's chaplain, is a kind-hearted, always-smiling, positive-minded person. Gale immediately saw the chemistry he forged with some 90 students who live with daily challenges of Asperger's, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, executive functioning deficits or learning disorders like dyslexia, dyscalculia or dysgraphia.
It's Vakapuna's job to help them communicate, develop social and organizational skills and find motivation to achieve and work toward finding employment outside the residential school.
Gale said many students with autism have been bullied, mistreated, made fun of, told they aren't intelligent. He points to a painting in the lobby of the school of Jesus on the waters, reaching his hand out to save a disciple.
"That's kind of the theme of this school, to help others, to give a hand. We give them hope."
One thing Vakapuna did in recent weeks was take a part of Mendenhall's BYU football program philosophy with players and implement it in ScenicView's student community. Vakapuna designed a way for students to take ownership of the school with organized care of the building, grounds and one another. He helped divide students into groups (Team Batman and Team X-Men) with team captains and then create awards as incentives. Those honors are voted on by peers.
Vakapuna will help with ScenicView's third annual Tres de Mayo 5K run and fundraiser on May 3 in the Riverwoods area of Provo. For more information, see www.svacademy.org, or call 801-226-2550.
Vakapuna, who has been with the Bengals to the Cardinals and back, is currently a free agent who works out every day in preparation for an invite to get another try at the NFL. He recently had a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but if the NFL doesn't work out, he's had some interest in Europe to play professional rubgy.
But for the time being, he is working full time at ScenicView.
"I try to help these students learn how to introduce themselves, not push themselves on others, how to make crucial conversations, make eye contact, overcome shyness and find comfort in talking to others in a job situation.
"My experience is they think very deep but have trouble relating. They are creative, they have great music skills and are smart. To me, they are geniuses. They just don't know how to bring out their talent. It's awesome to see them develop."
Vakapuna's college background is in sociology and his goal was to work with delinquents both adult and youth. "But this experience has opened my eyes to a whole new world with autism. There's a kid named Leon who works with copper and knows everything about copper, and Virgil, who plays the guitar. They're geniuses."
Gale said Vakapuna made a quick connection with students. "He's developed consequence programs, both positive and negative. He has the ability to connect and to confront but does it in a way he doesn't lose the relationship. He has done a nice job and he has community connections that help, but it's how he can communicate and relate with the student that's made him valuable to us. He's done much of this before he ever came here because of who he is."
One thing Gale likes about Vakapuna's pitch to students is that in his life, football is football, but that is only part of his life. Everyone needs job training and things outside football. For them, it's important to have things such as independent living schools, getting an education, learning skills, getting a job and paying taxes.
In this regard, Vakapuna definitely walks the walk.