Stevie Tuikolovatu takes Rose Bowl honors, but has a bigger picture in mind
Trojan defensive lineman tackles an issue close to his heart: helping people age with dignity
This years grandaddy of them all the 103rd Rose Bowl was a fitting final bow for USCs Stevie Tuikolovatu. While quarterback Sam Darnolds heroics led the Trojans to a dramatic 52-49 victory over Penn State, Tuikolovatu quietly racked up tackle after tackle on defense.
His understated veteran experience and leadership on the defensive line marked Tuikolovatus last game in cardinal and gold and earned him the games defensive MVP award. Did the tranquil 25-year-old graduate student ever imagine that hed ever play and win in a Rose Bowl in his final season of collegiate football?
No way, man, Tuikolovatu told reporters afterward. Not in a million years.
Maybe you can credit his late grandfather.
Family patriarch Sonasi Pouha instilled in his grandson the importance of practice, whistling from the stands for more drills, more running and more repetitions than any of his coaches.
I think about him when we have hard practices or hard games and my body is sore, Tuikolovatu said earlier in the season, thinking back on how he got here. The stuff he put me through was much crazier than what we are doing now, so it helps me mentally get through anything.
The results can be seen in the tackles, blocks and pressure the 6-foot-1, 320-pound Trojan defensive tackle applies to opposing teams. Tuikolovatu earned praise all season for being a mentor and anchor for USCs defensive line.
Respect for elders
But Pouha also imparted another practice thats big in his native Tonga and remains a major part of Tuikolovatus life today: respect for elders. When Pouha was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009, family members moved in with him, sharing traditions like feasting on pigs they had roasted in the backyard. Pouha spent his final months at home, surrounded and celebrated by his loved ones.
We were able to act as his hospice nurses, and it was a time that my family and I really enjoyed, said Tuikolovatu, who adds that he actually prefers to be around an older crowd. I like to learn from them. I think they have a lot of wisdom to share.
Tuikolovatu graduated with a bachelors degree in sociology from the University of Utah in 2016. Still eligible to play football for another year, he transferred to USC. For the football, sure. But also for the opportunity to earn a masters degree from the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.
At USC Davis, hes learning about social policy and societal trends for the aging population.
Blend academics and athletics
Tuikolovatu hopes to head to the NFL after graduation and eventually wants to blend his academic and athletic experience in areas like strength training and nutrition to help people age healthfully. Down the road, he and his wife would like to open care facilities so that older adults can have a better quality of life.
His field of study was initially a source of humor from some of his younger teammates, who joked that he was studying aging because he was the oldest person on the team. But like his grandfather, Tuikolovatos chosen subject has now become a source of inspiration.
At some point in life everyone is going to reach the same struggles as they age, he said. I tell everyone, the more you know, the better off youll be.