Returning from a mission and getting back into shape can be difficult for many BYU athletes that choose to serve for 1.5-2 years. One BYU men’s volleyball player was almost cut from the team after not performing well following his mission.
Standing at 6-foot-8, middle blocker Futi Tavana grew up in Pesega, Samoa, later attending high school on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in Kalaheo.
The sixth of seven with four sisters and two brothers, Tavana grew up in Samoa and didn’t have many worries. They had no TV, so the natural thing was to play outside.
“I think that’s why Samoan kids are so athletic, because that’s all they do,” he said. “Every day after school we were playing rugby or basketball.”
“He was very much involved in athletics, even since he was very young,” Tavana’s father said. “He was very active in soccer, basketball and flag football. It didn’t matter what sport, he’d fit right in with his brothers.”
He loved growing up in Samoa, especially because it was like a big family.
“The culture of Samoa teaches you that respect and family are most important,” said Tavana. “Living in Samoa taught me to have respect for others and to be there for your family first, before anyone else. I am so grateful for that strong foundation.”
Moving from Samoa to Kalaheo, Hawaii for high school, Tavana joined the Asics Rainbows club team on Oahu. He would fly out Friday after school, practice that night, twice on Saturday and then fly home before church on Sunday.
“All my friends were on Oahu, it was a lot of fun,” said Tavana. “I stayed with the Ishii’s – they became my second family.”
Out of high school Tavana was being recruited by many schools, not including BYU. Hawaii recruited him to play basketball and UCLA recruited him to play volleyball, but his father encouraged him to look into playing volleyball for BYU.
“My dad really wanted me to come here,” he said. “We talked to a few friends that knew the coaches, and they told me to walk on. I think they assumed I would come and walk on since I was a member of the church.”
Toward the end of his senior year, Tavana still hadn’t decided where he wanted to go, or whether he wanted to play basketball or volleyball. Then he received a call from then BYU head coach Tom Peterson that changed everything.
“Tom Peterson called me and said he had a scholarship for me,” Tavana said. “They were at Junior Olympics that summer and watched me play. He said they were coming down for a tournament and wanted to talk to me. I have always loved BYU. My dad came here for school and we’ve always been BYU fans, I thought it would be cool to come here so I signed a letter of intent.”
Tavana reflects that he wanted to get off the island since he had been on an island his whole life. He wanted to go somewhere where he could get a good education and also be surrounded by members of the church, so BYU was a natural choice
Before serving a Spanish-speaking mission to Riverside, Calif., Tavana came to BYU and redshirted his first season in 2005. In contemplating his mission call, he wanted to stay in the states.
“I was really happy that I stayed in the states,” said Tavana. “As I was getting my papers ready, I was thinking that I wanted to go to a place that is really hot because I wanted to sweat a lot and not gain weight so I could come back and play volleyball again.”
His first summer in the desert, he was eating his words in 120 degree heat every day, but is so grateful for everything he learned on his mission.
“The biggest thing I learned on my mission was not what I did for other people, but what the mission did for me,” he said. “Being on my mission really opened up my eyes that what I do today is what is going to lead me to the direction that I want to be in the future. I think the mission was mainly for me – but teaching people the gospel was the icing on the cake.”
Serving from August 2006 to August 2008, Tavana returned from his mission a week before school started. Playing open gym seemed like a joke since he felt so uncoordinated.
“I was trying really hard to jump, but I think I got two inches off the ground,” Tavana said. “I was so out of shape I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Early in the fall semester, the team decided to hike Mt. Timpanogos, the second-highest mountain on the Wasatch Front. He describes that hike as a wake-up call.
“I’m not always in the best of shape, but right when we started I was already out of breath,” he said.
Getting back into the gym after the hike, he felt like quitting sometimes and was embarrassed to show up to practice. After a month of struggling, Tavana was feeling almost back in shape, but soon he would struggle with more than jumping.
Recruited as an outside hitter, Tavana got back from his mission and couldn’t pass the ball. They tried moving him to opposite, but that wasn’t working either.
“I was so uncoordinated, and coach was running out of options,” he said. “We had some pretty good guys on the team and I was on the bubble, ready to get cut. I don’t think the coaches wanted to give up on me.”
Then BYU head coach Shawn Patchell asked him if he had ever played middle and he said when he first started he did, but has since played outside. Patchell decided to try him in the middle.
“I was able to pick up middle really fast,” Tavana said. “Maybe I was scared of getting cut, and all I had to worry about was blocking and hitting. They kept me on the team going into the preseason and when we went to Hawaii that’s where it turned and I started playing a lot better and was able to stay on the team.”
“I can still remember, when Shawn put him in the middle,” BYU interim head coach Rob Neilson said. “Futi went to the outside and our outside hitter tried to tip the ball over the top of Futi. He had this enormous jump and it was almost like he was dunking and he threw the ball down. When that happened, I remember looking over at Shawn and he was smiling and I was smiling. I thought this kid was quick and knew he was going to do a great job for us.”
Tavana has lived up to Neilson’s expectations, starting every game during the 2009 season as a redshirt freshman. In the 2010 season, he started every game but five, broke many school records and earned a second-team All-America citation.
Last season he ranked second in the NCAA in blocks per game and lead the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation in blocks and helped BYU achieve 3.59 blocks per set to lead the NCAA and MPSF.
In 2010, he helped BYU achieve the No. 7 spot for hitting percentage in the NCAA while maintaining a .408 hitting percentage individually. Tavana broke the BYU all-time record with 15 total blocks against UC Santa Barbara on March 27, 2010, also helping his team break the BYU all-time record of 24.5 team blocks. He has tallied 190 kills on .408 hitting, 14 assists, 12 service aces, 48 digs, 14 solo blocks and 146 total blocks on the 2010 season.
The culmination of all these records and awards was being named All-American by the AVCA, all of this happening only a slightly more than a year after he was almost cut from the team.
When attending a BYU volleyball match, the Northwest corner of the Smith Fieldhouse is laden with Futi fans wearing Futi t-shirts. The extended Tavana family loves supporting its sons, nephews and cousins – not only supporting Tavana, but Tavana’s brother and two cousins that play football for Southern Utah University, and his cousin, Algernon Brown that plays football for BYU.
“My whole family loves sports, and my dad’s siblings live in Salt Lake and Tooele,” Tavana said. “It’s a family tradition how we all go out and support each other at sporting events and wear the t-shirts. Most of the people wearing t-shirts are family, but some of those people I haven’t even met and they have a Futi shirt. I don’t know how other people get the shirts – that has to be a violation of some sort.”
Amongst those fans are Tavana’s parents who have recently moved to Utah to mainly cheer on Futi and his younger brother who plays football for Southern Utah University.
“We lived in Hawai’i for the past 10 years and were following him and his brother every game in high school and then they moved here,” said Tavana’s father. “We missed watching them play, so when Futi got back from his mission we flew out for every home game, but that got expensive. After the year we decided that we would move to Utah to watch him and his brother play. They are more important to us than anything.”
After two more seasons at BYU, Tavana will graduate with a degree in business and has aspirations to play professionally for a few years, later to complete an MBA. He plans on staying in the states, working in business and using his Spanish and Samoan to give his future family more of an opportunity to have a better life.
In his last two seasons as a Cougar, Tavana will continue to lead in the middle and look for the team’s fourth national championship.
“Futi is the best,” Neilson said. “The game is still out in front of him and he is just getting better. We are really excited for him and all the other guys coming back.”