ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Damontre Moore helped recruit Polo Manukainiu to Texas A&M and remembered the day the two met.
Manukainiu was still in high school, even then a fearsome figure at 6-foot-5 and some 275 pounds. Beneath that mammoth frame, though, was a young man with sweet and caring personality, a huge smile and kind words for everyone fortunate enough to know him.
“He was this huge kid,” Moore told The Associated Press in a phone interview from New York Giants training camp. “I’d been in college already for like two years and he was this huge monster who had at least two inches over me and he was so intimidating. And when he talked he was the kindest person in the world. He was like the gentle giant.”
Texas A&M said Tuesday that Manukainiu, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman for the Aggies, was among three people killed in a single-car rollover crash in the high desert of northern New Mexico, stunning both schools just days before fall practices begin. Also killed where 18-year-old Utah recruit Gaius “Keio” Vaenuku and 13-year-old Andrew “Lolo” Uhatafe.
The wreck happened Monday evening on U.S. 550 near Cuba, N.M., about 85 miles north of Albuquerque, as the group of five was returning from Salt Lake City to suburban Dallas, where three of them had ties to prep football power Trinity High School in Euless.
The southbound 2002 Toyota Sequoia drifted off the sagebrush-lined highway, New Mexico State Police spokesman Emmanuel T. Gutierrez said. The driver, 18-year-old Siaosi Salesi Uhatafe Jr. of Euless, over-corrected, causing the vehicle to lose control and roll several times. Alcohol wasn’t involved and it appeared the driver was the only one wearing a seatbelt, investigators said.
Manukainiu and Andrew Uhatafe died at the scene after they were ejected from the vehicle, Gutierrez said. Vaenuku was pronounced dead in an ambulance that responded to the accident.
The driver and his father, Salesi Uhatafe, were taken to the San Juan Medical Center in Farmington, N.M., and suffered only minor injuries, authorities said. Siaosi Uhatafe was a stepbrother of Manukainiu and, like Vaenuku, also is a Utah recruit.
Manukainiu had apparently traveled to Salt Lake City for some relaxation, tweeting Sunday: “It’s always good to get away from the Texas Heat for the weekend. Utah got that breezeeeeeee.”
On Monday, hours before the accident, he tweeted: “22 hour drive back to Texas on no sleep. Oh my.”
Manukainiu played football at Trinity High and was part of the Aggies’ 2012 signing class. He 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,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “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.”
He was very close to his family, even bringing them on his recruiting trip to College Station and constantly checking on them while on his official visit. He was proud to be an Aggie, and Moore said he never complained when he was redshirted last season and toiled through months on the scout team.
“He put the team before himself,” Moore said. “He was just overall, a good, gentle and loyal person. He was more than a teammate. He was like a brother to everybody. Everybody just loved being around him.”
Texas A&M finished last season ranked No. 5 after an 11-2 season, their first in the Southeastern Conference. They were led by quarterback Johnny Manziel, who became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, and are expected to be highly ranked again this year.
“Heart hurts waking up to news about Polo,” Manziel tweeted on Tuesday. “I think I speak for everyone on our team when I say we love you brother you will be missed.”
It is the second such tragedy for Texas A&M in less than two years: Senior offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio, 22, was killed in a December 2011 car accident after veering head-on into the path of an 18-wheeler 40 miles from College Station. He had spent part of that day delivering gifts to families at a local shelter. Manziel mentioned Villavisencio during his Heisman acceptance speech last year.
“It’s mind-boggling that this has happened to this team twice in such a short time,” Moore said. “It’s such a crucial time with all the expectations for the season and I hope this will bring the team closer together and make them cherish everybody around them and just realize that they’ve got to live every day like it’s their last.”
Vaenuku was a defensive tackle who had planned to play one year at Utah before going on a two-year Mormon mission.
“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 mother, Cela Vaenuku, said the last time she spoke to him was on Sunday – a brief conversation on how he had spent his day.
“He was a wonderful son,” she said. “He was very social, very outgoing young man and a people person who always made people laugh.”
She said he was the third oldest among seven brothers and sisters, and “they took it very hard” when they heard the news of his death. She said her son had planned to be dormitory roommates with Siaosi Utahafe, the driver.
The news stunned Trinity High in Euless, where Manukainiu, Vaenuku and Siaosi Utahafe all played football. The team has been one of the best in Texas in recent years, with three state titles in a span of five seasons from 2005-09 and a trip to the championship game in 2010.
Principal Mike 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.
Texas A&M associate athletic director Alan Cannon said Manukainiu was known for his sense of humor and “will be sorely missed as a person you enjoyed being around.” He said the football staff was working Tuesday to notify teammates of his death. Players are scheduled to report to campus Sunday to begin practicing for the upcoming season.
Cannon said Manukainiu was to wear jersey No. 90 and that it was too early to determine if players will affix the number to their uniforms as a tribute. The NCAA must approve any such recognition, Cannon said.
Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and David Warren and Uriel Garcia in Dallas contributed to this report.