The only word big, strong BYU defensive tackle Atunaisa Mahe could say on that scary day last summer was “help.”

Fortunately, that one word was enough.

What happened next kept Mahe, the Cougars’ 6-foot-1, 302-pound sophomore from West Jordan, from playing football the entire 2020 season, but it probably saved his life.

“I just thank the Lord that I am still here, still playing football,” he said via a video conference as BYU’s spring football camp was winding down last month.

“I was really devastated. The first thing that came into my mind was, man, I won’t be able to play football.” — BYU defensive lineman Atunaisa Mahe

Now Mahe is fighting for a starting spot on BYU’s defensive line as defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki looks to replace graduated stars Khyiris Tonga, Bracken El-Bakri and Zac Dawe with a group that has faced a significant number of injuries and setbacks in previous years, guys such as Mahe, Lorenzo Fauatea, Uriah Leiataua, Alden Tofa and Earl Tuioti-Mariner.

Mahe’s was definitely the most career-threatening.

Last summer, after the Cougars had returned from a school-imposed quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mahe noticed that when he was running the left side of his body started to get numb.

“I thought I was just dehydrated,” he said.

It was much worse.

When Mahe got back to his apartment, the whole left side of his body shut down. Fortunately, a roommate heard his cries for help and took him to the emergency room of a nearby hospital.

He was diagnosed with venous thrombosis.

“Essentially, I had a blood clot in my brain,’ he said. ‘But instead of it being in my artery, which would be a stroke, it was in my vein.”

“It was triggered by overworking,” said Mahe, known as one of the strongest players on the team. He was a state weightlifting champion in high school.

“I was really devastated,” he said. “The first thing that came into my mind was, man, I won’t be able to play football.”

The ailment didn’t require surgery, just a daily routine of taking blood thinners for about seven months. Mahe was forced to sit out the entire 2020 season and watch his aforementioned friends lead the Cougars to an 11-1 season. 

Tuiaki’s defense finished the year ranked No. 10 in total defense (317.4 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring defense (15.3 points per game). And all he could do was watch.

A few months ago, after a series of regular appointments, tests and scans, Mahe was cleared to return to football. Now he’s ready to make up for lost time.

“It has been a blessing, putting my life into the hands of the Lord,” he said. “Whatever He wants from me is what I am going to do. I have this opportunity to come back and play. I feel good. I am not 100 percent, but I am slowly, gradually getting back into everything. It has been a blessing, for sure.”

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Tuiaki said Mahe, who is related to former BYU great Reno Mahe, is a natural born leader and adds joyfulness to the team, even when he’s not suiting up.

“He’s not as tall or as big as some of these other linemen, so he’s got to play with good hands and technique,” Tuiaki told the Deseret News in 2019 when Mahe emerged as one of the better defensive linemen on the team. “He could be a special player in the future. He’s earned it.”

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After graduating from WJHS in 2016, ‘Naisa,’ as his teammates call him, served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Samoa. He sustained a knee injury in 2018, which caused him to take a redshirt year that season.

In 2019, he made 22 tackles and had two sacks.

“We are just working on executing our plays and our footwork and technique,” Mahe said after three weeks of camp. “And for me personally, it is just a blessing to be able to come back and be able to get out there on the field. We are not taking anything for granted.”

Especially after what happened on that unforgettable summer day in 2020.

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