Khyiris Tonga turning heads but staying grounded after following Sitake to BYU
Khyiris Tonga never imagined he would be wearing a BYU uniform someday. In fact, he initially disapproved the idea of it.
Growing up deep in the heart of Ute territory in West Valley City, Tonga had always been a Utah fan. After meeting with then-Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake while playing at Granger High School, the two agreed that they would one day team up in Salt Lake.
“Kalani gave me my first college football scholarship offer when I was 15 years old,” Tonga said. “He told me, ‘Hey, we would love for you to play football at Utah.’ I was super excited.”
Although neither of them ended up where they originally planned, Sitake and Tonga could not be more eager to be working together on the same team. The two have remained close over the years and share a unique bond both on and off the field. Tonga has looked up to Sitake considerably since the two first met, calling Sitake a guide, mentor and father figure. Tonga ultimately attributes Sitake as the primary reason he decided to flip his commit and come to BYU.
While serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deep in the cornfields of the Kansas Wichita Mission, Tonga heard the news that Sitake was coming to take over the reins at BYU. After much reflection and thought, Tonga felt following his longtime mentor to Provo would be the right decision. Although it took some time to warm up to the idea of wearing blue, Tonga decided BYU had the resources necessary to set him up for success in both football and life.
“Kalani’s always been there for me and for my family,” Tonga said. “He has always reminded me to work hard and to be myself. When I heard he was coming to BYU it kind of just felt right to follow.”
Now in their third season together, neither Sitake nor Tonga has ever looked back.
Coach Sitake is far from the only one who saw potential in Tonga from a young age. Tonga’s closest friends and family never doubted his athleticism would one day take him places.
Tonga’s older brother and best friend, Joseph, also played football at Granger High. The two would often wake up early and stay out late so they could have time to play basketball together. Joseph claims Tonga’s versatility would leave people in awe.
“He would shock the sports world with how athletic he is on the basketball court,” Joseph said. “Especially for how big he is. He’s so quick on his feet, and he’s got a nasty step-back three.”
While Tonga also ran track and played rugby growing up, those close to him always knew that the football field is where he really belonged. Tonga and his friends played little league football throughout their elementary and middle school years without losing a single game. Those who watched Tonga play knew that he had long-term potential before he even played in high school.
“The sky was and is the limit for him,” said Tonga’s father, George. “He has always had the potential to be a great football player as long as he puts in the extra time and effort. Football has and will continue to allow him to open doors for himself as well as others.”
When the time came for Tonga and his little league teammates to attend high school, they began to be recruited away from Granger to some of the more historically successful football programs in the area. Tonga and his family, however, decided that it would be best for him to stay at Granger to make a difference for both the program and the community.
The decision to become a Granger Lancer brought immediate results, as Tonga began to earn the respect of his new teammates and coaching staff from the start.
“From the time he was a freshman he was already athletically superior,” said Granger assistant football coach and current athletic director Christopher Shipman. “He didn’t realize it, but there were seniors who were looking up to him and going, ‘How can I be more like Khyiris?’”
A string of personnel and coaching changes, however, took its toll on the team during Tonga’s time at Granger. The program saw three different head coaches during Tonga’s first three years and won just 10 games throughout his high school career.
Amid all the changes and uncertainty, Tonga, who played tight end while in high school, remained a bright spot on the team and continued to inspire those around him
“He was just a great kid, on and off the field,” Shipman said. “He always wanted to please the coaches and do what we wanted him to do. He was just a joy to be around. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
While Tonga was unable to play with the team his senior year due to personal reasons, he continued to work hard and push his teammates to be better from the sidelines. He never missed a game or a practice, and was always looking for opportunities to help the team in any other ways he could.
Tonga’s positive energy carried over into the mission field, where he immediately developed a love for the people, the culture and — most notably — the food. He came back to Utah a much bulkier version of himself after spending two years in the Midwest. Going into his freshman season at BYU, Tonga weighed in at 340 pounds, almost 50 more than what he played at in high school.
The former tight end knew he would have to follow his coaches’ advice and move to the other side of the ball to play on the defensive line.
“I didn’t want to switch over to the defensive line, but I just ate too much on my mission,” Tonga said. “The rest was history. But it’s been good, it’s been a good decision for me to play there.”
Cougar fans and coaches could not agree more.
Tonga made an immediate impact during his freshman year, causing all sorts of problems for opposing offenses. He played in all 13 games his first season as a Cougar and racked up 19 total tackles, including four tackles for loss and two sacks.
As a sophomore, Tonga caused even more trouble, recording 28 tackles on the season, including 19 solo stops and three tackles for loss. He had 1.5 sacks and recorded his first career field goal block against Utah.
Tonga is planning on elevating his game to yet another level this season as he looks to help anchor the defensive line. He spent much of the offseason working to get stronger, quicker and have a higher endurance. He slimmed down to the point that he now hovers around 320 pounds, with hopes of having more opportunities to stay out on the field longer.
“I think he’s just like me — he can gain 20 and lose 20 pounds real quick,” Sitake said. “He’s explosive and powerful. I love the strength that he has in the weight room and how it shows on the field. I think him losing weight will allow him to be on the field more and that’s important to him.”
Tonga, who has already gained respect and attention from scouts, isn’t showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Thanks to his longtime mentor and now coach, however, Tonga is keeping himself grounded and refraining from getting too caught up in the NFL hype. Because of Sitake, Tonga realizes that football won’t be around forever, and wants to stay just as focused on all other aspects of his life.
“Kalani has helped me realized that there is more to life than just football,” Tonga said. “We hold callings, we have families, we have wives and we have parents who care for us and love us. He kind of gives us the bigger picture rather than over-stressing about the game.
“Kalani has definitely paved the way for me,” Tonga added. “I just want to be able to one day give it back. I don’t know how I’m going to but one day I will.”
Sitake, proud of the growth he has witnessed in Tonga since first watching him play at Granger High, can’t wait to see what his football player can accomplish.
“I’m really proud of the things that he’s done,” Sitake said. “I’m excited to see what he can continue to do.”