Heading into the University of Utah’s Oct. 14 matchup with California, the Utes were thin at the running back position due to injuries.
The coaching staff knew safety Sione Vaki had offensive skills, having watched him play high school football, and turned to the speedy sophomore for help.
The Latter-day Saint returned missionary responded by running for 158 yards and two touchdowns — while also playing a full game on defense — to help lift the Utes to a 34-14 win over the Golden Bears.
Since then — as needed — Vaki has continued to play both offense and defense in several games. He was a hero in Utah’s thrilling 34-32 victory over University of Southern CaliforniaC and boosted the Utes’ offense in a close loss to No. 4 Washington. The two-way player from Antioch, California, has been so dynamic that he was named a finalist for the 2023 Paul Hornung Award, given annually to the most versatile player in major college football.
In his heart, what has motivated Vaki to success this season has been his faith, his love of team and a deep desire to honor his late mother, Oto’ota Vaki.
“I think of her every day, to be honest,” he said. “I want to be able to see her again, so it’s about giving my all while I’m here, that’s mentally, physically and spiritually. So I think about her very often.”
Two dying wishes
Vaki grew up as the youngest of 11 children of Piuleini Vaki and Oto’ota Vaki. One thing he said he appreciated about being the youngest was learning to be observant.
“All the mistakes you wish you could make, your older siblings made them already,” he said with a laugh.
His mother was “a woman of no complaints.” He said she worked six and sometimes seven days a week as a caregiver at an assisted living facility. Sometimes the children only saw their mother if they visited her at work.
“She always had a smile on her face, but I knew she was hurting. She was tired, but she never showed it,” he said. “Hopefully I am doing a good job so that she is smiling down on me as I try to endure through my battles.”
Oto’ota Vaki died of cancer in 2016.
Sione said his mother had two final wishes for him — to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and go to college.
Learning to ‘Be a light’
Vaki fulfilled both of his mother’s requests.
He committed to play football for Utah in February 2019 before starting his mission.
Like many missionaries during the COVID-19 pandemic, Vaki served in two areas of the world. He spent his first five months in the Tonga Nuku’alofa Mission before being reassigned to the Utah Salt Lake City West Mission.
With plans to play football and a brother living in the Beehive State, Utah felt like a second home. He spent part of his mission in West Valley City.
“I think it was Heavenly Father telling me this is where I needed to be,” Vaki said.
Missionary service helped Vaki to develop a more outgoing personality, he said.
“The mission opened me up to be able to communicate and talk to everyone and just try to be a light to those around me, try to be an example,” Vaki said. “I’m not the greatest at doing that. But the mission definitely helped me in trying to just uplift everyone’s day, in any way I can.”
Following his mission, Vaki transitioned back into football without any trouble. During his freshman year, he played in all 14 games, including five starts, in various positions of the defensive secondary.
This year, as he has played both sides of the ball, Vaki has learned to rely on another characteristic developed in the mission field — mental toughness.
“Man, it’s a lot of mental toughness to have the energy and stamina to play both ways,” he said. “You are going to be tired regardless. ... It’s just a mental battle and you need to find a bigger reason than yourself.”
In addition to getting adequate rest and recovery, Vaki feels blessed for consistently reading his scriptures.
“I always need the good word before we play a game,” he said. “I am currently reading the four gospels. Christ’s life and ministry has helped me tremendously in understanding everything He was able to endure. Reading and pondering upon Christ’s ministry has helped me to say that ‘I can get through this.’”
‘Always about the team’
Reflecting on his experience at Utah, Vaki said he has gained a greater understanding of humility and teamwork.
“It’s always about the team. You are never going to be able to do it by yourself in life. You learn that in the gospel as well as in football,” he said. “It’s never just about you, and I think that is the greatest thing because there are going to be times when you feel like you aren’t good enough, or this is not the right fit for you, but the team and Christ are always going to be there to uplift you and tell you that you are not alone.”