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Polynesian culture connects Tooele football teammates, families

TOOELE — When Kulani Iongi and his family moved here a little over a decade ago, the family joined the 0.6 percent of Pacific Islanders in a predominantly white community.

Despite 83 percent of the county being recorded as white in the 2017 census, the Iongi family found a rare familiar culture while attending church. During their visit to the church, the Iongi’s met the Leakehes, a family of 10 who shares the Polynesian culture.

“We met the Leakehe’s about two months after moving here,” Iongi said. “Their dad was the first bishop and my mom and dad said it was the first Polynesian bishop they had seen in a mostly white ward.”

Out of the seven boys, the youngest of the bunch, Jordan Leakehe, was the closest in age to Kulani as he is currently a senior at Tooele High School while Kulani is a junior.

The two instantly connected after meeting each other for the first time and have been friends since the first encounter. Both Iongi and Leakehe are bonded by not only their shared religion but the Tongan culture implemented by both of their fathers.

“We’ve known each other for a long time and have strong bonds with his family,” Leakehe said. “If we weren’t a part of the same culture I don’t think we would be as close as we are. Because of our culture, we have similar personalities and standards and we relate to each other easily.”

The Iongi’s and Leakehe’s family history and culture have had a significant impact on both of their upbringings and how the two football players carry themselves today. For Iongi, it is his father’s history that helps him appreciate and honor his heritage.

Iongi’s father grew up in Tonga and moved to America when he was 16-years-old while his father stayed behind waiting for his visa to be completed. After graduating from Rancho Cucamonga High in California, Iongi’s father served an LDS Church mission in Georgia and soon after met his wife-to-be.

The junior quarterback stays in touch with his heritage with trips to Tonga. These trips help Iongi gain a deeper appreciation to what it means to be Tongan and everything that goes into how their culture treats others.

“It helps me understand how important it is and how meaningful it is to be Tongan,” Iongi said. “All the things that go with it, all the respect and how we are towards our religion, how we act around others. It is really important to know where we come from.”

While these visits help Iongi gain a deeper appreciation for his culture, he admits there are some traditional practices that those in America do find odd. Some of these include what the family eats while they are visiting Tonga and taking part in traditions.

For Leakehe, it is a combination of appreciating his family history while also facing the pressures of those who came before him.

Being the seventh and final son to play for Tooele, there’s an expectation for which the senior is expected to perform.

“It’s been a really cool experience to play on the same field that all of my older brothers have played on,” Leakehe said. “The legacy they made for me is the biggest thing that motivates me on the field. Because of them, coaches and teammates keep high expectations for me, and it pushes me to meet those expectations.”

Because of those who came before him, Leakehe faces pressure to live up to his family’s name.

While Leakehe describes his family as a normal Utah family comparable to those in his local community, he practices the Polynesian standards of putting God first, respecting his elders, loving his family, and honoring his parents every day.

“When people think of the Leakehes, I want to be known as humble, respectful, faithful, and hardworking people,” Leakehe said. “My family’s history and culture are very valuable to me. I think it’s important where you come from. Knowing about the sacrifices made by my relatives motivates me to work hard and live up to my name.”

Kulani and Jordan were not the only two to connect after meeting as both of their older brothers, Si'i Iongi and Josh Leakehe, also connected throughout their childhood. As a group of four, they did everything together including participating on a travel rugby team that took the group everywhere from Las Vegas to Canada.

During the last decade, the four eventual Tooele high school football and rugby players spent every moment together.

The longest break from seeing each other?

A two-week span where the Iongi’s spent a week in Hawaii and came back right as the Leakehes traveled to Tonga.

“The bond between us four is unbreakable, and that’s really between the two families as a whole,” Si’i Iongi said. “Us boys have literally done everything together since we met, from backyard football and Friday night lights to playing rugby together as little kids, to traveling and playing in different states and countries.”

The once foursome has recently been taken down to three as Josh is currently serving for the Church of Latter-Day Saints in the Nukualofa, Tonga Mission.

The group will once again be cut down one more member as Si'i prepares to serve his two-year mission in Veracruz, Mexico. Despite the group’s losses, the bond that has grown them together throughout the last decade has made them inseparable through their shared culture.

“Me, Jordan, Josh and Si'i have always been close,” K. Iongi said. “Knowing where we all stand since we all know our culture makes it easy for us to stand as brothers. We always have the inside jokes from our culture knowing things are different over here from over there.