Deadly Samoa tsunami hits home for Cal Poly assistant football coach

A football game against South Dakota State University last weekend was Cal Poly assistant coach Saga Tuitele’s only escape from a harsh reality.

The fatal tsunami that roared through the South Pacific last Tuesday hit home for the first-year co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Tuitele has aunts, uncles and cousins living on the southwestern coast of American Samoa.

An 8.3-magnitude earthquake sent waves up to 20 feet high crashing up to a mile inland, and estimates had fatalities numbering more than 177 in the region. Much of the island’s infrastructure has been devastated. Homes and cars have been destroyed, lines of safe drinking water severed. News of the tragedy was slow in getting out, as communications with the island were cut off, leaving Tuitele, 29, mostly to his own thoughts.

“Football was kind of my way out of that,” said Tuitele, who wore a puka shell necklace as a show of support for his heritage at Saturday’s 21-14 Cal Poly win at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. “Every time I had a free moment, it was hard for me, and actually when I got to practice and we started doing drills, that’s when I kind of forgot about it.”

Born in San Bernardino, Tuitele lived in American Samoa — a U.S. territory populated by more than 63,000 — as a toddler and through his first few years of elementary school.

Tuitele got first word of the tragedy from Mustangs assistant sports information director Eric Burdick just as the team had wrapped up a session Tuesday afternoon. He checked and had two missed cell phone calls from his mother.

Though his immediate family is living off the island, Tuitele said each of his parents have 12 brothers and sisters, most of whom are still in American Samoa.

Associated Press estimates had 32 dead in American Samoa on Monday. One hundred thirty-six people were killed in Samoa and an additional nine in nearby Tonga.

Tuitele said some of his loved ones were among those who died, but he declined to go into specifics.

“It was tough getting a hold of people and our big family,” Tuitele said. “Both on my mom and dad’s side just basically taking a roll, who’s around and who’s not. We lost a couple, and then we found a couple. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise when you think you’re going to lose a lot and you find some family members.”

Little was said about the tsunami in the Cal Poly coaching offices and in the locker room.

Fellow coaches knew enough to pick up on Tuitele’s preference for dealing with the situation privately, and Tuitele tried to avoid bringing up the matter in front of the team.

A former All-American offensive lineman under Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh when Walsh was at Portland State in 2000, Tuitele has an offensive lineman’s mind-set: He’s more comfortable going about his business outside of the limelight.

“We just kind of gave him his space, and he did a tremendous job dealing with these things in a very difficult time,” said Walsh, who openly addressed the team about the tsunami for the first time Friday.

Tuitele said he’s hoping to take his wife, Rachel, and 2-year-old son, To’omalatai, back to the island sometime soon. It’s unclear how much of his familiar territory will still be familiar.