HOLLADAY — Sione Heimuli-Lund has no shortage of people offering him advice.
Maybe it's his age. The Brighton High School sophomore is, after all, one of the youngest four-star football recruits in state history. And such guidance comes from many sources and in many forms — from inspiring to insensitive, from cliche to profound.
But one suggestion the 16-year-old clings to, almost more like a life preserver than a mantra, is something he's heard repeatedly in his short but impressive career.
“Never forget where you come from,” the running back and linebacker says, his voice cracking with emotion. “That’s what keeps me humble.”
And, when asked to describe what that means to him, he tries to shake the pain from his voice before describing how he walks between two worlds — one that created him and one that completed him.
“I’d say I came from a really hard (situation),” he says while wiping tears with his beefy palm. “Just a rough life. What some people couldn’t even imagine, I guess. I just keep that in mind.”
A father's request
Noah Lund and Sione were best friends before they became brothers.
They met each other when the boys were about 10 years old and were assigned to play on Chris Lund's Ute Conference football team.
"We just loved football and it brought us closer," Sione said.
On the field, they played very different roles. Sione was a lineman who was so big that he's what coaches designate an "X man," which means physically he's so much larger than the other players, he can only play that position. Noah did not have that problem. He played wide receiver and safety.
Their love of football made them friends, but their almost constant sleepovers cemented their friendship.
“Noah always cared about me as a person, not as a football player," Sione said.
Back then, Sione wasn’t Noah’s brother or Chris Lund’s son. He belonged to his biogical parents, Kaluti “Clyde” Heimuli and Halamehi “Mehi” Heimuli Fihaki, and lived most of the time with his father.
Just before the boys started seventh grade, Clyde Heimuli approached the Lunds and asked them whether Sione could live with them. The family was struggling to survive, he explained, and Sione already had a bond with the Lunds.
“We had that conversation in the driveway here at the house,” Chris Lund recalled. “We moved Sione in, and within 10 days Clyde had a massive stroke and never recovered.”
Lund's wife, Richelle, received a phone call about the stroke and immediately picked Sione up from school and took him to the hospital.
"I can remember everything about that day," she said. "The sky was blue. And that was the first time I realized how difficult the family dynamic was."
Sione says that visit was excruciating.
He remembers sitting in a chair at his father's bedside and holding his hand. He silently wondered what would happen to him. He felt like he should watch over his younger brothers, take care of them, protect them.
But he was just a boy himself. And he was also terrified that he'd have to leave the life he'd come to love with the Lunds. They felt like his family.
And then there was football. To Sione, it was more than a game. It was quickly becoming an extended family, and a lifeline of sorts.
It was also one of the last links he felt he had to his father. Without the game, he's not sure he would have survived the loss.
"I think I would have broke," he says. "I would have just given up. My dad is the one who pursued football. He's why it means so much to me."
Tears stream down his face as he recalls the heartbreak and uncertainty that followed his father's hospitalization. Clyde Heimuli eventually died on Feb. 12, 2014. But before his father's death, Sione asked the Lunds whether they would adopt him.
His three younger brothers lived with their grandparents. They opened their home to Sione as well, but he chose to stay with the Lunds. Even as he asked the Lunds to adopt him, he vacillated between feeling guilty for not joining his biological brothers and desperately wanting to become part of the Lund family in a permanent and official way.
A couple of days after the initial stroke, Richelle Lund offered to take all four of the boys to the hospital to visit their father. Sione's youngest brother, Samson, was just 1 year old at the time, and the Lunds ended up keeping him for what they thought would be one night.
"That night turned into three months," she said, referring to a situation she is reluctant to share details of publicly.
While Richelle and Chris Lund worried about how to handle the tenuous situation that had no clear or easy answers, Sione was relieved to have his youngest brother living with him.
"I loved it," Sione said. "I knew that the Lunds loved him. He was in good care; I was happy to see him. That was the best part."
Samson's first visit from his mother in months came after he'd lived with the Lunds for 90 days. Fihaki picked him up for what the Lunds expected to be an overnight visit. When the mother was arrested later that night, a sobbing Samson was returned to the family.
The Lunds said they weren't sure how to handle a situation that seemed to constantly change. They were bonding with and caring for boys whom the law didn't recognize as their children. The boys had extended family members who hoped to keep the brothers together, but also couldn't offer a lasting solution that everyone felt was best for the boys.
Meanwhile their mother struggled, spending time in and out of jail, while those caring for her children tried to move forward, hoping to find a balance between their personal feelings and what was best for the boys. According to court records, Mehi Heimuli is currently in the Utah State Hospital until at least October.
Samson and Sione lived with the Lunds for a couple of years. Sione continued to ask about adoption. In the fall of 2012, Chris and Richelle Lund decided to begin proceedings to adopt both boys.
"We wanted what he wanted," Richelle Lund said. "We were simply following Sione's lead. I think it is a difficult situation for everyone. We truly care and love their whole family. We want what is best for Sam and Sione, and we want what's best for the family. Sometimes that is not always the same thing."
Finding home, faith
Just about every adult who describes Sione remarks on his maturity.
"We have certainly heard, 'You saved Sione,'" Richelle Lund said. "But Sione saved himself. He really did. He's made unbelievable, mature decisions as a child."
The Lunds said Sione chose a deliberately harder path by seeking a stricter home environment that comes with higher expectations. They understand just how rare that is for a teenager.
“We expect him to do well in school, follow rules," Richelle Lund said. "I know that those decisions will lead to a brighter future, but there aren't many 15-year-old boys who have the ability to understand that."
Chris Lund refers to him as an "old soul."
Sione just shrugs when asked for insight into why he chose the path he did.
"I've always just had a bigger picture in my head," he said. "My (adopted) mom expects me to attend and graduate from college whether I play football or not. I've always been more mature, always hung around older kids. I learned from them; I learned from their mistakes. I think I always just held a bigger perspective."
The family finalized the adoptions of Sione and Samson in November, a little more than a year after they first filed paperwork. Chris Lund said it was a "natural progression."
Sione said he didn't feel any different after the adoption. He's always felt he was a member of the Lund family.
"For us, it was, to be honest, it was a little bit of finality," his mother said.
"I wanted it," Sione said. "I already felt like I'm part of this family. Being official was cool, but I didn't feel like anything changed. We were already an official family."
The toughest part of the adoption for Sione was wrestling with his own guilt.
"I felt guilty," he said. "I would go back and visit, talk to my family members, and some of them made me feel guilty. They'd ask, 'You have family here, why aren't you with us?' I just knew it was best for me to stay here. It was both a feeling and something I knew."
He said he wanted to avoid the pull of gangs that had snared some of his relatives. He has considered more than once how different his life would be if he hadn't seen all the possibilities life offers, and he's not sure that would have happened if the Lunds hadn't opened their home to him.
Sione said that what was more difficult to reconcile for some of his relatives was his decision to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sione said he started taking the discussions from the Mormon missionaries just to understand the faith of his family and friends. And while Richelle Lund initially resisted allowing Sione to be baptized, the teen, who was 13 at the time, said he felt drawn to the doctrine of the church.
"I just read (the Book of Mormon) and I felt a strong spirit," Sione said. "It was like something I hadn't felt before. I saw my friends who were members of the church, and I was like, 'Why are you guys so happy all the time?' One night I prayed, and when I woke up the next morning, I was like, 'Yeah, I want to be baptized.'"
Sione had some concerns about how his biological family felt about the church.
"It was hard because I knew that my extended family would hate the decision I made," he said. "But I believe it is was best for me, so I thought, 'I'm just going to do it.'"
Tears streak down his cheeks again as he talks about how his decision hurt them.
"That was the hardest part," he said. "But I felt connected, like it was all part of what was supposed to happen. I felt like everything was going to be OK. Just because I put my faith in the Lord."
"The icing on the cake," as his father put it, was when the family was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple a few weeks after the legal adoption was finalized.
"That was sweet," he smiled. "I loved that."
History as motivation
Not many teens have a future brighter than Sione Heimuli-Lund.
He’s one of just three Utah freshmen to earn the highest rating from recruiting services — four stars. He was only the second freshman to start for Brighton head coach Ryan Bullet.
“He had a lot of natural ability, a lot of raw talent,” Bullet said of his first impressions of Sione. “He hadn’t done a lot of reading concepts, zone concepts, so he didn’t have a great understanding of that. But he’d make the wrong read and still make the play. A lot of stuff he was able to cover up, just because of his abilities.”
A year in the Bengal program and several summer camps, including BYU, UCLA and the All-Poly camp, and Sione has proven to be a quick study.
“Offensively, he just took off,” Bullet said. “And that’s all natural. The linebacker (improvements) come with coaching and teaching. But the offense, it’s really natural for him.”
Bullet said he’s been contacted — and visited — by coaches from throughout the West, and he has official offers from Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Washington, Utah and BYU. Coaches aren’t allowed to contact sophomore athletes directly, so their compliments, questions and offers have to go through Bullet and his staff.
Sione said the process is both exciting and overwhelming.
“I’m truly grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given so far,” he said after hearing of some of the schools that are interested I him. “I am humbled by this, and it only makes me want to work even harder.”
Doug Kimmel, the mountain region and Hawaii recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said Sione has the potential to be one of the most successful student-athletes ever recruited from Utah.
“He is powerful, fearless and deceptively fast,” Kimmel said. “He is a great linebacker and great running back. He has the work ethic of a college football player. He’s very humble and smart. He could be one of the all-time greats (from a high school perspective) in Utah history.”
Bullet said his sit-down with Sione after his freshman season gave the teen a road map of how to achieve his dreams.
He’s a high academic kid, pretty serious about school and his grades,” Bullet said. “He’s looking at top tier programs academically.”
Bullet noticed something else after making the decision to start Sione as a freshman.
“A lot of times, even if you have a sophomore playing, you get a lot of jealousy because they’re taking time from a senior,” Bullet said. “I have not seen that with him. He is better than everybody else. They saw the gift he has. … And he is as nice and polite and humble a kid as there is. He is a very hard worker. He wants to be the best.”
Sione said he’s been fortunate to have mentors, including another highly sought linebacker/running back in senior Osa Masina.
“One thing Osa always mentions to me is be humble and work hard,” Sione said. “Whenever I’m around him, he’s always working hard, and he’s just a nice, humble guy. There is a lot of attention that comes with this, and you could be full of yourself and be a jerk. But he just says, ‘Relax, enjoy the ride, and try not to get too caught up in it.’”
Masina, who will sign with USC on Wednesday’s National Letter of Intent day, has been key in Sione’s development, his mother said.
“I think Osa has taught him how to behave with it,” she said. “He’s not only been a great mentor, but he’s also opened a lot of doors for him. I think how he treats people, for one thing, he makes everybody feel like they’re special, like he’s lucky to be around you, when a lot of athletes are not like that.”
Sione said he’s had a number of great role models, but one stands out among the others.
“Chandler Gee,” he said. “He was a senior when I was a freshman. We always talked football, and he kept up on how I was doing. He’d say, ‘Football is not always going to be there. Treat others how you want to be treated, and when your time is up in football, be remembered for who you were, not the player you were.′”
Sione becomes emotional as he recalls the advice of his friend, who is now serving an LDS mission.
“I love Chandler,” he said. “He was a good person. He told me not to forget where I came from.”
He admits that sometimes his past is painful, and there are days he believes looking back is counterproductive. One of his favorite sayings is: “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep rereading the last one.”
But he finally feels like he’s figuring out how to balance his two worlds — his two families. He said the hardships he endured have made him more grateful. He said the uncertainty he faced made him appreciate what others might see as mundane or confining. He is the first to admit that he doesn’t know what his future will hold, but he is unafraid to embrace it.
He will work to become a better player.
He will strive to be a better man.
And if there is one thing Sione is certain of, it’s that he will always find a place in his heart for those who love him, for those who want to call him family — regardless of their last name.