Tutulupeatau Mataele’s sister and brother-in-law moved him from his parents’ home in the Bay Area to their home in suburban Salt Lake City during his sophomore year of high school believing they could redirect his life.
Three weeks later, they attended parent-teacher conferences at the high school where they enrolled him.
“We found out he hadn’t even been attending classes for the first three weeks,” said Tony Fa, Mataele’s brother-in-law. “That’s when we realized how serious it was as far as our involvement with him. So we grounded him and grounded him and grounded him.”
For a year straight, Mataele was grounded. He went to school and he came home.
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And the next two school years, he was an honor student.
“I really felt like he was a great kid, and he just needed someone to point him in the right direction,” Fa said. “Once he determined he wanted to go in that direction, he was one of those kids you just dream of having.”
Mataele’s experience as a Boise State defensive tackle has followed a similar path. The Broncos and Mataele hope the story will take just as rewarding of a turn this fall.
Mataele (commonly known as “Deuce”) arrived at Boise State as a junior college transfer in January 2013. He was suspended from the university for the fall semester of 2013 and suspended from competition by the NCAA in 2014 for an academic violation he committed before enrollment.
He stayed with the program. Two coaching staffs kept him on scholarship, knowing he’d only have one season of eligibility.
“It’s time,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “It’s time for him to play. I’ve heard of Deuce. I’ve seen Deuce. I’ve watched him tear up our offense. It’s time for him to get out there and play.”
Mataele is a 27-year-old senior. He’s a strong candidate to start — just as he was during the summer of 2013, before the Broncos learned he provided false information to an online college.
The Broncos say he’s a leader, active in the community, naturally talented at any game or sport he tries and an all-around good person.
“It’s kind of a unique situation,” said linebackers coach Andy Avalos, who was the defensive line coach when Mataele was recruited, “and it takes but probably a half an hour to be around Deuce and understand there’s going to be people that jump on the table for a guy like him.”
Mataele (6-foot-3, 296 pounds) hasn’t played in a game since 2012 at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California. His name has been mentioned plenty in the past three years, though — by coaches, players, fans and media who are eager to find out what he can do.
“From the first Spring Game, I was itching to get out there on the field,” Mataele said. “... I know a lot of people have been talking and whatnot. I just let that all go behind me and let the pads talk.”
Mataele was made available to the media Friday for the first time since he joined the program 31 months ago. The night before, Harsin was asked about the mystery man Mataele had become, a man with legendary talent who hadn’t told his story to the public.
“That probably needs to change at some point,” Harsin said.
And quite a story emerged.
Mataele was born in Utah but bounced around the West during his childhood. He lived in Hawaii, Arizona, the Oakland area and the Los Angeles area.
Sports, he said, were a way to stay out of trouble. He competed in football, basketball, tennis and track and field, but that wasn’t enough to keep him straight.
He got involved with the gang crowd outside of Oakland in Hayward, Calif., Fa said.
“His parents just didn’t have the energy to deal with him,” said Fa, who has known Mataele since he was a baby.
After the rocky transition, Mataele became a football and basketball standout at Granger High in West Valley City, Utah. He played all over the gridiron, including quarterback, tight end and the defensive line.
“It was just amazing,” Fa said. “He became a leader. With the boys he went to church with, he was a leader. Basketball was his thing. In football, he was a late bloomer. He was so athletically gifted that they used him everywhere.”
Unlike most successful high school football players, college football wasn’t a thought for Mataele. He decided to go on a two-year LDS mission the March after he graduated.
He served in Oakland, the same place where his life had become untracked.
“We joked that he had to go back to repair all the damage,” Fa said. “He served honorably. When he came home, he fell into this little rut.”
Back in Utah, Mataele spent a year helping with his parents’ business — The Hawaiian Hut, a store that sells Hawaiian goods.
“After I came back,” Mataele said, “I really didn’t have any direction in my life. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Some of his friends played for Mt. San Antonio. They suggested he try out for the team, and Fa supported the idea.
Mataele initially wasn’t sure whether he’d play football or basketball. He chose football, made the team and recorded 24.5 tackles for loss in two seasons for the Mounties.
Boise State, which needed immediate help at defensive tackle in 2013, noticed.
“We were quite surprised, because it wasn’t like he was an overly recruited player,” Avalos said.
Mataele impressed coaches in the spring of 2013 and was a projected starter going into fall camp.
However, on the first day of camp the school reported an NCAA violation. The athlete wasn’t publicly identified, but the facts clearly fit Mataele’s case.
The athlete “provided false information to an online college to show a prerequisite math course was completed in order to gain access to a college-level math course through that school,” according to a report provided to the Idaho Statesman through a public-records request.
The online college rescinded Mataele’s grade, which made him academically ineligible. He was suspended from the university for the fall semester. He was reinstated in January 2014 and allowed to practice, but the NCAA suspended him for the 2014 season for violating bylaw 10.1, which covers unethical conduct.
“He made a terrible decision,” Fa said, “but he owned up to it. He didn’t run from it. ... He didn’t look to make any excuses and was willing to deal with whatever the consequences were.”
That approach, Fa said, likely led to the coaches’ willingness to support Mataele rather than let him go.
“I really didn’t know what was going to happen,” Mataele said. “I kind of just rode out the storm. ... (The Broncos) really respect the people they choose.”
Mataele stayed in Boise in the fall of 2013, working construction for an uncle who lives here. Teammates kept him involved in off-field activities, he said.
When he rejoined the team last year, he provided a stern test for the offensive linemen while working on the scout team and rallied the freshmen around him to do the same.
“There’s times you get to Week 6 and you’re on the scout team and there’s not a whole lot of energy, and you’ve got some guy throwing you around,” offensive line coach Scott Huff said. “That dude — No. 1, he’s a good player, but No. 2, he’s real emotional, a good leader, and he can get those guys fired up.”
Mataele’s upbeat attitude through trying circumstances is part of what endears him to teammates.
“I think it’s been really hard on him, but at the same time he handles it so well,” senior defensive lineman Tyler Horn said. “You would never know. He’s in there coaching guys up. He just always has a positive attitude.”
You’d also never suspect that a decade ago Mataele needed to be rescued from a destructive environment and his own bad decisions. He’s now a father to 8-month-old Tutulupeatau III and husband to Ella, and he’s about to experience major college football for the first time at an age when most guys are five years removed from the sport.
“This is the most opportunistic time that I’ve had in my life,” Mataele said. “... This team is a great team not only on the field but off the field, too. That’s the kind of life that I want to live. I want to help out my children so they can do the same things that we do. The same culture that the Broncos have, I want that instilled in my (children).”