SALT LAKE CITY — Salesi “Leka” Uhatafe is the last guy to seek the spotlight.
If Utah’s 2017 football season was “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and quarterback Troy Williams was Frodo Baggins, then Uhatafe would be Samwise Gamgee.
That is to say the Texas native isn’t just content to play a supporting role. It’s where he thrives; it’s what defines him.
“He’s the nicest person I know, hands down,” said fellow offensive lineman Jackson Barton during spring camp. “He’s got the most loving heart of anybody.”
Despite playing a key role on the offensive line for the last two years and overcoming tremendous personal tragedy, the senior guard has always quietly done everything he can to help Utah win football games. But the reality of the 2017 campaign is that if Utah hopes to have or exceed last year’s success, Uhatafe will have to lead in new ways, as he is the Utes' only returning starter on the offensive line.
“Leka, without a doubt, is a leader,” said assistant head coach and offensive line coach Jim Harding. “We have a couple of guys that have game experience in Lo (Falemaka) and Jackson Barton, so there is some experience there.”
Harding said Uhatafe isn’t the loudest guy in the locker room, but he inspires his teammates because of who he is.
“(He’s) quiet,” Harding said. “He’s not really the out-in-front guy in front of the coaching staff, but he’s a very good leader behind the scenes. I think the kids respect him. He lets his play do the talking. He doesn’t have to be the rah-rah guy because the guys know he’s going to do his job to the best of his abilities, and he’s going to do the right things on and off the field. And because of that, a lot of kids listen to him.”
Barton said it isn’t just how hard Uhatafe works or how skilled he is on the field. It’s who he is as a person. “He’s very outgoing when you get to know him,” Barton said. “He’s very well-spoken and just a really outstanding dude, as a leader and a person.”
Uhatafe shrugs when asked about how he plans to shoulder the increased responsibility that comes with being the only returning offensive lineman for a team running a new offense with a new offensive coordinator.
“Just be a leader through example,” he said. “I let my actions speak for me instead of having to make speeches. … I haven’t thought about it in the way that it puts pressure on me. I just think about it more in how can I help bring everyone up? How can I help close the gap of experience?”
Uhatafe redshirted in 2013 after being involved in a car accident on July 30 that killed his younger brother Andrew “Lolo” Uhatafe, step-brother Polo Manukainiu, and close friend Gaius “Keio” Vaenuku, who was an incoming freshman at Utah. Uhatafe and his father were the only survivors of the crash.
In the summer of 2015, his mother, Paea Latu, passed away at age 54 after having a stroke. Uhatafe admitted that the losses he’s suffered have made him acutely aware of how tenuous each day is.
“Every day,” Uhatafe told the Deseret News after his mother’s death. “I still think about (the accident) every day. It affects a lot of my decisions like life and knowing every day isn’t guaranteed. I always try to attack the day like every day is my last.”
Through it all, he said football has been his refuge, the team his support system. When former Ute and now NFL lineman Isaac Asiata described how difficult it was being a student-athlete and that he wouldn’t have succeeded without the help and support of his teammates, Uhatafe said that is especially true for him.
“Even now the guys that are on this team, they kind of pull you through those tough days when it’s a little harder than usual,” he said.
Uhatafe has embraced every opportunity, including earning his degree early. He graduated with a sociology degree in May and hopes to someday work in law enforcement.
He said right now he’s focused on improving his game.
“I’m just trying to stay healthy and get a better understanding of the whole offense, not just my position,” he said. “I think we’re all coming together, and by the time fall camp comes, there will just be more tightening.”
Uhatafe said the players try to spend time together outside of workouts and practices because if there is one unit that has to be in sync it’s the offensive line. He said Harding’s style helps them in forming and remaining a cohesive unit.
“(His style) is actually really good for our group,” he said. “We’re a close-knit group already, I mean, we all five have to work together. He’s good at holding us all accountable all the time. He’s a father figure in a way.”
He said the environment is much different with so many new faces in the unit.
“The environment is a little different,” he said. “A lot of those guys from the classes before were here before Harding, so it was easier to joke with our coach. Everyone is a little bit more scared of Harding now, so I have to tone down my jokes.”
Asked about Uhatafe’s jokes, Harding said there is a "definite comfort" between the two men.
“But I mean, he’s a kid,” Harding said. “He’s a fun-loving kid, very good-natured. It’s never anything that’s out of line, but he enjoys having a good time.” When asked if Uhatafe’s is funny, Harding doesn’t hesitate.
“I don’t think he is, but they don’t think I am either,” he said. “I’ll just leave it like that.”
Uhatafe grins as he talks about ribbing his coach, and Barton admits the senior is the only one who dares tease the coach.
“Leka is the only guy who can make a joke about Harding,” Barton said. “I think it’s because he just has a way about him; the vibes he brings, he’s just very positive.”
Barton said he has no doubts about Uhatafe’s leadership abilities, even as they face the challenges of replacing four linemen who were drafted into the NFL.
“I know he’s up to the task,” Barton said. “He’s a lead-by-example guy, and I can’t think of a better example to follow than Leka.”