PROVO — For decades, the Kaufusi name has been entrenched on both sides of the BYU-Utah football rivalry.
In this year’s chapter, the Cougars have four Kaufusis — count ‘em — on their roster.
It features two sets of brothers: defensive linemen Corbin and Devin, sons of former BYU defensive lineman Steve Kaufusi; and linebackers Isaiah and Jackson, sons of former Utah defensive lineman Jeff Kaufusi.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, Corbin, a 6-foot-9 senior who leads the team in tackles-for-loss and sacks, won’t be playing against the Utes Saturday (8 p.m., MST, FS1) at Rice-Eccles Stadium due to a season-ending ankle injury.
Kaufusi was sidelined for Senior Night last Saturday against New Mexico State and he’ll sit out of the rivalry game.
“To get the news was devastating. That was tough. I love that kid a ton. He’s taught me a lot,” said Isaiah Kaufusi. “He’s been a great older brother to me, you could say. His whole life, he’s worked for this — for his Senior Night, to be bowl-eligible and to play against Utah."
Corbin actually suffered the injury a while ago, but the decision was made recently that he should undergo surgery and start preparing for a potential NFL career.
“I’m glad that he’s got a future ahead of him, so it makes it a little bit easier. It was a decision for his future to make sure his opportunities will be there,” said Isaiah, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore who recorded a leaping interception against New Mexico State. “I know he’ll do great things at the next level. But I wish I had one more time suiting up with him. The Utah game means a lot to all of us, especially him. With the whole rivalry and the Kaufusi family feud, it’s going to be tough. But he’ll be on the sideline, coaching guys up. He’s still our team captain.”
We love the rivalry. It’s not that bad to us. It’s a rivalry game. We love to compete and we love the energy and the environment. My family overall, we love both teams. – BYU linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi
Corbin's younger brother, Devin, a 6-8, 270-pound freshman, is the new starter at Corbin's defensive end spot.
“It was tough knowing my brother and his personality. He’s always been the guy that plays to win," Devin said. "That’s the way he would like to go out, sacrificing everything. On the other side, it’s realizing that I’m the next guy up. It was pretty surreal. It was great to have him with me, having him pass the torch to me."
Isaiah, meanwhile, has emerged as a playmaker in recent weeks and he’s had five tackles-for-loss, one sack and two picks this season.
“Isaiah’s a great player. He has tons of athletic ability and really good instincts. He went up high for that (interception against New Mexico State),” said coach Kalani Sitake. “We’ve seen him do that so many times in practice. It was just nice to see that in the game. He’s been playing really good football lately. That’s why he’s a starter for us. I feel really good about the future at the linebacking position with Isaiah there.”
To understand the Kaufusi family's ties to the rivalry go back to 1972 when Petelo and Eveline Kaufusi arrived in the United States from Tonga. All six of their sons grew up to play college football and each of them has participated in the rivalry.
While Steve and Rich Kaufusi played for the Cougars in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, Jeff, Henry, Doug and Jason played for the Utes from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.
Steve coached at Utah from 1994-2001, until then-BYU coach Gary Crowton hired him away. Steve's move back to Provo helped influence his sons — Bronson (2012-15), Corbin and Devin — to become Cougars. Steve stepped down as an assistant coach at BYU after the 2017 season.
Petelo Kaufusi passed away in September at the age of 79.
“Steve was kind of the outlier in the family. After Bronson came to BYU, I saw the shift come,” Isaiah said. “My grandpa was a big BYU fan always. You could kind of attribute it to my grandpa, just sticking with it and everyone following.”
For Isaiah, becoming a Cougar meant playing for his dad’s rival.
“I felt like I was guided to that decision. I love Utah and I love everything about the program. My dad loves it still. He has his ties to Utah,” Isaiah said. “I felt like I was guided here and coach Kalani. He’s taught me a ton. I’m grateful for that switch that I made because I wouldn’t be the man that I am today without Kalani and the program and the school and all the things that come with BYU.”
Jeff Kaufusi is at peace with his sons’ choice to play in Provo, according to Isaiah.
“At first, it was tough. When he played at Utah, he played under coach (Ron McBride). The program now at BYU kind of has the same feel that Mac had up at the U.,” Isaiah said. “We have Kalani and the Polynesian connection. It reminds him of when he was playing at Utah. He loves it. He knows it’s the best thing for us, his boys, to be in a program like that. He’s got his BYU stuff and his Utah stuff. He’s always wearing them.”
Isaiah has enjoyed playing with his brother and his cousins at BYU this season.
“It’s awesome. I’ve been super fortunate to play with them. We all room together. My brother and I have a room and we have the connecting door to Corbin’s and Devin’s room,” he said. “That door is never shut. It’s always open, we’re always going back and forth, hanging out."
Another Kaufusi cousin, reserve offensive lineman Paul Maile, the stepson of Henry Kaufusi, plays for the Utes.
"There’s always been family involved with both programs," Devin said. "It's a week we look forward to. Everyone’s wearing red or blue or both.”
For the Kaufusi clan, the heated BYU-Utah rivalry is serious business. But there’s also love and respect for both programs.
“I’ve got a split family. I grew up a big Utah fan. I loved Utah and loved the program. Bronson and his family kind of started this trend of the Kaufusis here,” Isaiah said. “We love the rivalry. It’s not that bad to us. It’s a rivalry game. We love to compete and we love the energy and the environment. My family overall, we love both teams. I’ve had cousins play at the U. and cousins play here at the Y. Regardless of the outcome, we’re still family. So it’s been a good bonding game for my family.”