About one mile from the campus where they now coach, Kapi Sikahema and Deuce Lutui squeeze their bodies onto a worn love seat.
The cushions sag as Lutui, the former Cardinals offensive lineman, settles in and then wipes his brow with a white towel. Beside him, Sikahema, dressed in gray sweats, is still looking at the fly that got in the house and avoided his multiple thrusts with the fly swatter.
Mesa High’s season would end in a few days with a 49-34 loss to Mesa Mountain View. Kapi’s older brother, Vai Sikahema, the former Pro Bowl kick returner for the Cardinals, flew in from Philadelphia for the game and spoke to Mesa’s players. He talked about family and faith and what Mesa High has meant to the Sikahema and Lutui families.
“My father worked as a security guard at Mesa High,” Vai Sikahema said earlier in the week. “When you think about it, Mesa High fed our family. It was the bread winner. It put a roof over our head, clothes on our back and provided the means for Deuce and I to go to two of the top private schools (Lutui at USC, Sikahema at BYU) in the country.”
That loyalty to Mesa High – “we’re beholden,” Vai said – is why Kapi is the Jackrabbits’ head coach. It’s why Lutui left a job as a recruiting assistant at the University of Utah to join him. They are far removed from their playing days at Mesa, but the roots are still strong.
But there is another reason why they are here. The Tongan word for it is famili:
After emigrating from Tonga – the Sikahemas came first, followed by the Lutuis – the families settled within two blocks of each other near Mesa High. They were bonded by blood, proximity, their culture and their faith, as members of the same ward in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rarely did a day go by when a Sikahema kid wasn’t at the Lutui household or a Lutui kid wasn’t hanging out with the Sikahemas.
“The immigrant community is real close, especially when you come from a place as remote as Tonga,” Vai said.
That bond became precious to Lutui long before he could fully understand its importance. When he was 7 years old, his family was involved in a car accident driving back from Los Angeles. His younger sister, Diana, was killed and his father, Inoke, was permanently disabled, unable to work.
Lutui already had a second home with the Sikahema family. But in the days, weeks, months and even years after the accident, the connective tissue became even stronger.
“I was basically their child, really,” Lutui said. “I’d go around and call (Kapi’s dad) ‘Old man,’ and basically get him to chase me down the block. He’d be working on his garden or brick wall and I’m going around on my bicycle bothering him.”
When Lutui wasn’t bugging Loni Sikahema, he was devouring the baked goods of Loni’s wife, Ruby.
“She made this custard thing,” Lutui said, his voice trailing off and his eyes sparkling, as he if could still taste the dessert.
By the time he was a junior offensive lineman at Mesa High, it was clear Lutui had the opportunity to follow Vai into college football and the NFL. What he didn’t have was the money to travel to football camps where he would be seen by college recruiters.
Once again, the Sikahemas stepped in.
“They’d save money for me specifically to go to a football camp at BYU,” Lutui said. “That was the first football camp I’d ever been to. They personally drove me up there to get my name exposed. I had no other means. And they did. They planted the seeds.”
Fifteen years later, it was his turn to do something for a Sikahema.
Kapi is 49 years old, 16 years Lutui’s senior. He was out of the house when his family helped raise Lutui after the car accident and the two men didn’t keep up with each other.
But they are “famili,” and this past February, Sikahema, living in Utah, found out that Lutui had been hired as a recruiting assistant for the Utes. One phone call later, they began hanging out every day.
“I don’t know if we were sharing memories, but we were sharing every meal and menu that’s in Salt Lake,” Kapi said.
In the spring, Kapi drove down to Mesa to attend a cousin’s wedding. He applied for the Mesa High job – he was a running back for the Jackrabbits in the early 1980s – but didn’t get an interview. When he returned to Utah and told Lutui what had happened, Lutui began a social media push to get Kapi hired.
“It was more of a rant than anything,” Lutui said. “I was just voicing my opinion for change.”
Kapi was hired in May. But there was one condition: Lutui had to come with him.
“I think it was more like I just kidnapped him and said, ‘Get in the car, we’re going to Arizona,’ ” Kapi said. “So he had no choice.”
“That’s exactly what happened,” Lutui said.
In truth, Lutui didn’t need much convincing. He figured if he was pushing Kapi to be the head coach, he couldn’t just leave him at Mesa on his own.
“It just seemed,” he said, “like we were doing this together without even saying we were going to do this together.”
Mesa has had its ups and downs. It traveled to Reno, Nev., and beat Galena High but lost to Tolleson. It lost by only five points to Chandler Basha but was trounced by Mesa Red Mountain. “A roller-coaster,” as Kapi described it.
Their hope, beyond the static lines of a win-loss record, is to give the kids at Mesa High what Mesa High gave to them all those years back.
“We’re from Mesa. This is our town,” Kapi said. “We just want to give back and help these kids try to reach the goals we’ve reached in our lives. That’s really what it is.”
“When you look at it,” Lutui added, “it’s kind of the vision our fathers once had together. Reaching the American dream.”