PROVO — Like being stuck in traffic, the career of BYU tight end Joe Tukuafu has been marked by various stops, delays and detours.
In fact, he hasn’t played in a competitive football game since 2013. That's six years.
So perhaps nobody was more excited about, and more grateful for, the start of fall camp at the end of July than the 6-foot-4, 265-pound redshirt sophomore.
“It brought back a lot of memories,” Tukuafu said. “It was good to be out here, to breathe the grass again, stretch with everybody, put a helmet on. I loved it.”
Tukuafu’s return to BYU is even more crucial now than it was when camp opened because the Cougars have already lost one tight end, Hank Tuipulotu, to a season-ending injury, while another, senior Moroni Laulu-Pututau, hasn’t been practicing.
“We’ve just got to get him in shape. He’s a little rusty,” tight ends coach Steve Clark said of Tukuafu. “We love the enthusiasm he brings. We’re glad to have him back.”
The past six years, Tukuafu has been traveling a long and winding road.
The former East High star signed with Utah State and then was called to served a two-year mission to Argentina. Upon returning from his mission, he decided to enroll at BYU but he was forced to redshirt in 2017 because the Aggies refused to grant him a release from his National Letter of Intent.
Then when it appeared that Tukuafu was ready to make an impact for the Cougars, he left school in the summer of 2018 and didn’t play at all last season.
Tukuafu said his absence from BYU was a result of “personal issues.”
Many wondered if he’d ever return. But he said he never wavered in his commitment to the Cougars.
So where has Tukuafu been? And what has he been doing for the past year?
Well, his journey back to BYU included working for AAA Barricade Company — standing on local streets, carrying signs, doing traffic control during road construction.
While he was away from football, he added 30 pounds to his frame and at one point weighed as much as 300 pounds. But he worked with Utah Valley University strength and conditioning coach Dave Stroshine and he ended up dropping 30 pounds. Now he tips the scales at about 265.
As part as the readmittance process, Tukuafu remained in contact with coach Kalani Sitake and school administrators. He said he always planned to return to BYU and worked hard in order to do so.
“It’s always what I wanted to do, to finish what I started here and do my best,” he said.
Sitake said Tukuafu’s return to BYU is “huge. It’s a good example of perseverance. It’s hard to take the harder path. It’s easy to go somewhere else. Nothing against anyone who has done that. But if you look at the track record of guys that come back, they actually do really well. He’s a guy that wanted to finish what he started. I was really impressed with him and I’m thankful that he’s here. It’s not just the football playing ability, it’s so much more. He’ll do well for us. He’s in a great spot.”
Why was Tukuafu so loyal to BYU?
“They were the ones behind the scenes throughout the whole year. They were the ones giving me advice,” Tukuafu said. “They were the ones that never gave up on me. I want to pay that back. It’s my time to show that I can do hard things and I can overcome trials and I can be resilient.”
There were plenty of lessons he learned along the way.
“I’ve learned a lot of mental toughness, how to overcome adversity and how to be resilient in whatever it is in life — whether it’s missing a block or anything in life itself,” he said. “Just to pick myself up, even when no one’s around.”
Tukuafu is excited about his role this season.
“I see my role as being a physical blocker. I love to block. I love to run routes, too, but my pride and joy is in blocking,” he said. “If they send me on a route, I’ll run that route. I love to be able to contribute wherever I can.”
Tukuafu never could have imagined how the six years after high school would unfold.
“It’s humbling and at the same time it’s motivating, looking back at how far I’ve come and what I’ve overcome,” he said. “It’s motivation to keep going and never get complacent about what I’m doing in life. Playing football is more meaningful. I honestly can’t wait for the first game on Aug. 29. I just want to be out there and contribute wherever I can and bring fire. I can’t wait to play.”
What makes his first BYU game even more meaningful is that the Cougars are facing archrival Utah, his dad’s alma mater.
“There’s a lot of excitement, especially playing against Utah. That’s where my father played. He always has his biased opinions and I always have mine,” Tukuafu said. “But it’s just to get on the field and play. I’m excited to do so, especially here at BYU. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I wouldn’t have gone to another school. I wouldn’t have changed my mind. I’m just excited to strap it up on Aug. 29.”