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Stanford transfer Houston Heimuli finally gets his chance to follow in his father’s footsteps

What former BYU running back Lakei Heimuli has to say about his son walking on at BYU, the state of the Cougars’ program and rise of fellow Tongan Kalani Sitake

SHARE Stanford transfer Houston Heimuli finally gets his chance to follow in his father’s footsteps
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BYU fullback Houston Heimuli poses for a portrait at Student Athlete Building in Provo on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. His father, Lakei Heimuli, was a star running back for the Cougars in the 1980s.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

A short time after he entered the NCAA’s transfer portal last December, Stanford fullback Houston Heimuli shot off a text to BYU coach Kalani Sitake, asking if there were any opportunities available to play his final season of eligibility for the Cougars.

“As soon as I sent that text, Kalani called me,” Heimuli said. “Yeah, this all happened really quickly. Really fast.”

A couple weeks later, Houston Heimuli was the newest member of the BYU football team.

“I have been watching them, and they have been dominant. Their offensive scheme, their offensive players, personnel, everything was fantastic. And it is BYU. It has a special place in our family’s heart. So for me it was a no-brainer.” — Stanford fullback Houston Heimuli on transferring to BYU

For Lakei Heimuli, Houston’s father and one of the greatest running backs in BYU football history, it was a long time coming. Lakei carried out the alumni flags with other BYU rushing greats at a 2016 game against Mississippi State at LaVell Edwards Stadium, all while visualizing his second-youngest son playing for the Cougars, but never telling him that.

“I never thought I would see the day,” Lakei said last week from his home in Mesa, Arizona. “I had kinda given up on the idea.”

But that day is coming — perhaps on Sept. 3 when BYU opens the 2022 season in Tampa, Florida, against the South Florida Bulls. A graduate transfer who played in 42 games for Stanford over the course of five seasons in Palo Alto, California, Houston Heimuli enrolled at BYU in January as a walk-on and will participate in spring practices, which begin on Feb. 28.

“I loved my experience at Stanford, but I really wanted to go to a school in Utah,” said Heimuli, who graduated from the most prestigious school in the West with a degree in human biology and will pursue a postgraduate degree at BYU with designs on going to medical school if his dreams of a pro football career don’t work out.

“Utah is home. I’ve always wanted to come back here, and play in a system where I felt like I could succeed and where they set up their players for success,” he said.

After growing up in Woods Cross and graduating from Bountiful High in 2015, Houston served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Indianapolis, where former BYU basketball coach Steve Cleveland was the mission president. Houston redshirted at Stanford in 2017 and then primarily blocked for the likes of Bryce Love, Austin Jones and Cameron Scarlett for the Cardinal the next four years.

The 5-foot-11, 265-pound team captain was an all-Pac-12 honorable mention recipient in 2020, playing in all six games of the COVID-shortened season. But in 2021 his playing time decreased as Stanford moved away from using fullbacks as much as it did in previous years. Still, he was voted a team captain and played in all 12 games, finishing with one catch for 11 yards and helping the Cardinal rush for 1,301 yards.

Eye on the Beehive State

Houston said he and his other Stanford teammates with Utah ties — guys like quarterback and fellow returned missionary Tanner McKee and linebackers Levani Damuni, Tangaloa Kaufusi, Gabe Reid (also in transfer portal) and Spencer Jorgensen — have kept close tabs on BYU, Utah and Utah State, and he was especially intrigued by BYU’s use of hybrid fullback Masen Wakethe past two years when the Cougars went 21-4 and defeated six Power Five programs in 2021.

“I have been watching them, and they have been dominant,” he said. “Their offensive scheme, their offensive players, personnel, everything was fantastic. And it is BYU. It has a special place in our family’s heart. So for me it was a no-brainer.”

Low on scholarships for the class of 2022, BYU coaches asked him to walk on. Play without a scholarship? No problem, Houston said.

“Even if it meant walking on at BYU, I was willing to make that sacrifice, because I wanted to do it. I wanted to be here,” he said.

Lakei Heimuli said Houston had some other options when he decided to play another year instead of entering the 2022 NFL draft. His oldest son, Hema Heiumuli Jr., is a sports producer for BYU Broadcasting, and was apparently in Houston’s ear about considering the Cougars.

“For him to end up at BYU for his last year is something else, and I am proud of him,” Lakei said. “He graduated from Stanford, and he is using that last eligibility to fulfill a dream. He wanted an offer from BYU at the beginning, but it never came. I am looking forward to next season and seeing what he can do there.”

Houston confirmed that then-BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall didn’t offer him a scholarship out of high school, despite being a legacy player, a two-time all-stater and the 2014 Region 6 MVP.

“Every Utah kid dreams of going to BYU or Utah,” he said. “But, for me, when Stanford knocked on my door, and a couple other schools knocked on my door, I kinda listened. … We had some communication with (BYU coaches), but they didn’t offer or even give me a preferred (walk-on) or anything like that.”

A second chance for glory

Houston said he was still a bit undecided about his future when Sitake called in December, but something the first coach of Tongan descent to guide a Division I college football program said resonated with him.

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Stanford fullback Houston Heimuli prepares to block during against Washington State, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. Heimuli is now a walk-on at BYU.

Young Kwak, Associated Press

“Kalani said, ‘All players wish they had another chance at college football,’” Houston said. “When he said that, I knew he was right. I love the environment of college football. … So as soon as I got that green light, and got as much of the administrative stuff out of the way, I got myself here.”

Ironically, on the day that Houston Heimuli announced he was transferring to BYU, Cal running back Christopher Brooks also said he will become a Cougar. 

“Yeah, Brooks is really good,” said Lakei, who now appreciates the fact that he doesn’t have to switch channels between the BYU and Stanford games when both teams are playing at the same time on Saturdays, usually late. “He was running all over Stanford last year. Houston just wants to be out there and hit people and mix it up with the boys. He is going to be a good blocker for whomever is running the ball.”

Houston and Brooks now share a home in Provo with four other BYU players. 

“His room is right next to mine,” Houston said. “I like to pop in there real quick, talk some trash to the Cal guy about the Cal team, and then go back to my room.”

Houston knows Wake is returning and “is a fantastic fullback,” so his reps could be limited.

“I enjoyed watching (Wake) when I was at Stanford,” Houston said. “They ran over Navy that year when he was in there. For me, my role is whatever (offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick) wants to mold me into. He has me bouncing between two rooms right now, wearing a couple hats.

So my goal, really, right now is to earn the respect of the team, earn a spot, show them I am serious about this. … I will be open to whatever they want me to be, and I just gotta be ready.”

Re-living the legacy

Houston said Lakei is a “humble, softspoken man” who doesn’t say much about his BYU career or his brief stint in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. Growing up, Houston would have to sneak off to the basement and watch old VHS tapes and then DVDs featuring highlights of his father’s BYU career because Lakei hardly ever spoke of it.

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BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco hands off to running back Lakei Heimuli in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 21, 1984.

Mark Philbrick, BYU Photo

Lakei was a sophomore on the 1984 BYU team that won the national championship. Having moved from the village of Mataika, in Vava’u, Tonga, to Hawaii as a youngster, Lakei played high school football at Kahuku before joining BYU’s team.

Some time during his BYU career — Lakei can’t remember the exact year — he was asked by BYU’s sports information department to put on a colorful lavala — a skirt-like article of clothing worn around the waist in many parts of Polynesia — and pose in his No. 35 jersey top in front of a jacked-up monster truck for a promotional photo.

The photo ran as the centerfold in a BYU football game program with the words “Turbo Tongan” in white letters at the bottom.

“It wasn’t my truck,” he said. “They just picked me up after school, and before football practice, and drove me to this vacant lot and did the photo shoot, all in about 15 minutes. It was a great project and a lot of fun.”

More than 35 years later, the Heimuli brothers were going through some of their dad’s memorabilia when Lakei and his wife, Pania, moved to Colorado in 2019 for her job and they discovered the poster. Pania is of Maori, Hawaiian and Japanese descent.

Getting posterized again

When Houston committed to transfer to BYU, Hema Heimuli came up with the idea to recreate the poster. They tried to take a photo of a lavala-wearing Houston in front of another monster truck — nobody knows where the original truck is, or to whom it belonged — in January at the headquarters of Rockwell Time in Woods Cross, but there were complications in getting the right truck. 

The will try again later in February, Hema said.

Houston said a new poster will be created out of the photo shoot, facilitated by the company that makes watches, and proceeds from sales will go to benefit the people of Tonga who have been impacted by the recent tsunami that caused millions of dollars of damage.

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Former running back Lakei Heimuli, father of Stanford transfer running back Houston Heimuli, poses for a promotional poster put together by the BYU sports information department during his playing days in the 1980s.

BYU Photo, Mark Philbrick

“I want to help, not just because it is my ethnicity and nationality, but just any way you can give back is great,” he said. “I have had many opportunities to give back, and this is one. As soon as I was given the idea, I was like, ‘Great, we can use this opportunity. We can make a dent, or a difference with what is going on over there with the earthquake, and the volcano that just happened.’”

Lakei has been on board with the project since he first heard about it. Looking at the photo (taken by now-retired BYU photographer Mark Philbrick) again “brought back a lot of good feelings and memories of when I was at BYU,” he said.

Lakei showing BYU some love

Last weekend also found Lakei Heimuli, 56, doing his part to help the people of his native land. Having moved to Arizona in August 2021 (he retired from a career with Delta Airlines in 2019), Lakei was organizing some relief packages to be shipped to Tonga while giving this interview to the Deseret News.

“It isn’t easy to get things shipped from Arizona to Tonga,” he chuckled.

True to his low-key nature, and even though he lived in south Davis County, Lakei hasn’t been visible at a lot of BYU events through the years. The 2016 flag-carrier deal was his first visit to LES in decades, he said.

But he still follows the program religiously, and was “absolutely thrilled” when Sitake was named the head coach in December 2015. He grew up with Sitake’s father and uncles in Tonga, attended the same Latter-day Saint ward, and was also reunited with Kalani and Tom Sitake’s family in Laie, Hawaii.

“BYU hiring Kalani meant a lot to us,” said the grandfather of 10. “It brings the (Polynesian) community together and gives us a sense of pride. We are behind him 100%. His success is our success, in a way.”

Lakei is currently No. 7 on BYU’s career rushing yardage list, with 2,710 yards. He was the all-time leader after playing from 1983-86, but was passed the next 30 years by No. 6 Taysom Hill, No. 5 Tyler Allgeier, No. 4 Jamal Willis, No. 3 Curtis Brown, No. 2 Harvey Unga and No. 1 Jamaal Williams.

“I like it,” he said of seeing his records broken. “And then, you look at the quality of the players that break my records, and it makes me happy. It is very legit. These guys are studs. Like Tyler Allgeier, oh my goodness, he’s good. I am excited for him. These records are meant to be broken, and it is fun watching them do it.”