A&M, Utah football players among 3 from Euless killed in crash

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by MARJORIE OWENS and TODD UNGER

WFAA

Posted on July 31, 2013 at 12:08 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 31 at 12:15 AM

EULESS — Two recent Trinity High School graduates and a Euless Junior High School student were killed in a rollover crash Monday night on U.S. Highway 550 in northern New Mexico.

Among those who died in the single-vehicle crash were 19-year-old Polo Manukainiu, 13-year-old Andrew "Lolo" Uhatafe and 18-year-old Gaius Vaenuku. Salesi Uhatafe Jr., an 18-year-old incoming freshman football player for Utah, and his father, Salesi Uhatafe Sr., both suffered minor injuries in the crash.

They are both related to Manukainiu and "Lolo" Uhatafe.

Late Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of students held an emotional vigil for the dead students at the Trinity High indoor practice field.

"They had huge futures ahead of them," said Mike Harris, Trinity High's principal. "They were just bright and bubbly personalities, and so they were the students that we love to send out and call them Trinity graduates."

According to New Mexico State Police, Uhatafe Jr. was driving at the time of the accident. Police said the crash occurred as the vehicle drifted off the road and Uhatafe Jr. over-corrected, sending the vehicle rolling several times.

The news stunned staff and students at Trinity High School, where they all played football.

Harris said the deaths have affected a majority of the Euless community, where there is a tight-knit Polynesian community. "They were students with bright smiles that everybody knew and everybody loved," the principal said.

In a message posted on his Twitter page Sunday morning, Manukainiu wrote, "22 hour drive back to Texas on no sleep. Oh my."

The group was traveling to Texas after a weekend trip in Utah, according to his Twitter account.

A family uncle told News 8 they were stunned were getting by with a huge outpouring of support from the local Tongan community.

"It's just a shock," said David Eteaki

Manukainiu was a defensive lineman for Texas A&M and graduated from Trinity High School in 2012. Defensive tackle Vaenuku signed with the University of Utah in January. He recently started football camp at the university, according to Judy Everett Ramos, a spokeswoman with the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District.

Manukainiu was a recreation, parks and tourism science major, the school said, and is survived by his mother, Lima Uhatafe of Euless.

"We lost a terrific young man," said Texas A&M head football coach Kevin Sumlin in a statement released by the college Tuesday. "Polo was loved by his teammates and coaches. Anyone who came in contact with him was struck by his sense of humor and smile. My heart aches for his mom and family members."

According to the A&M statement, Manukainiu and Uhatafe were ejected from the vehicle and pronounced dead at the scene. Vaenuku died while he was transported from the scene in an ambulance.

"Alcohol was not involved and it appears the driver was the only one wearing a seat belt," the statement said.

Trinity High School set up a section on its site for people to share memories of Manukainiu, Uhatafe and Vaenuku.

"So saddened by this tragedy," wrote Stacy Vernon, an employee with North Euless Elementary. "Lolo - you were such a wonderful young man! I so enjoyed watching you grow! You were always so excited about being a Trojan one day! So glad I got to watch you play at EJH. You will be missed. Prayers go out to your family!"

The youngest victim, Uhatafe, was a quarterback at Euless Junior High School.

Vaenuku planned to play one year at Utah before going on a two-year Mormon mission, the Deseret News of Salt Lake City reported in January when he committed.

"Everyone who knew Gaius is heartbroken today," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He was the kind of young man who lit up a room and his future in football and life had no boundaries. Words cannot express our devastation over the loss of Gaius."

Vaenuku was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and considered playing at church-owned Brigham Young, but he said he felt more at home in Salt Lake City playing for the Utes.  His bio on the Utah website says Vaenuku he had three brothers and three sisters and enjoyed acting and singing.

FULL MESSAGE FROM TRINITY HIGH SCHOOL:

As we mourn the loss of three members of our Trinity family, we invite you to use this page as a place to share thoughts about Gaius Vaenuku (THS Class of 2013), Polo Manukainiu (THS Class of 2012), and Lolo Uhatafe (Euless Junior High student), along with support for Salesi Uhatafe (THS Class of 2013). All messages must be approved before they will appear, but we look forward to posting as many comments as possible.

The Associated Press and News 8's Janet St. James contributed to this report.

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