Top prospect Vita Vea to find home in NFL and for family

Updated April 22, 2018 - 1:03 pm

FREMONT, Calif. — No one in the Vea family ever had to wonder.

When Endora wanted inside their South Bay house, the white-furred Bedlington terrier made her desire known. She’d sit in the backyard near the sliding glass door. Her brown-button eyes, like those of a stuffed animal, would search inside for Vita, his brother Sifa, sister Alisi, mother Fipe and father Sione.

Without a whimper, she’d paw at the glass, scratching until someone granted her entry.

In early 2009, Endora wanted inside.

She sat. She pawed. She waited. The family watched from the backyard, but they couldn’t slide open the door. Their house was seized. They no longer had access. They had no home. And yet their dog sat and waited, scratching and scratching.

“It was like, ‘Man, she doesn’t understand we’re leaving,’ ” Alisi said. “’We can’t be here. We don’t live here now.’ It was cute that she did that, and it was kinda sad.”

Vita Vea, the youngest child in his family, remembers the month-plus in a motel that followed. All grown now at age 23, the 347-pound former Washington defensive tackle is expected to be selected Thursday in the first round of the NFL draft. He’s an option for the Raiders with the No. 10 pick.

Regardless where he goes, he has home on his mind.

“I worked my whole life for this,” Vita said. “Being a kid, I knew this was my dream: To one day play in the NFL and have the opportunity to do something special for my parents.”

Family first

Sione and Fipe grew up in Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga.

They didn’t meet until moving to the Bay Area.

Running in the same social circle, he told a friend of hers he thought Fipe was beautiful — he’d actually seen Fipe before on the island, but no relationship had been forged. This time, an introduction was made. On March 12, 1988, they married at a small ceremony in Reno, choosing Nevada because of its more lenient green-card policy, Fipe said.

Alisi was born first. Sifa arrived about five years later.

On Feb. 5, 1995, the future NFL prospect was born, but he almost left the family as soon as he arrived.

Vita is named after Sione’s brother, who was interested in adopting the third child. He and his wife didn’t have any children, and they lived near Sione and Fipe’s home in East Palo Alto. He requested permission to adopt the child since the couple already had one son and daughter.

They obliged initially, but Fipe wasn’t entirely on board.

While pregnant, she would whisper to the unborn Vita that she wouldn’t give him away. She did the same after his birth, becoming increasingly evasive about the agreement. For months, she postponed the baptism. The elder Vita was disappointed but appreciated her attachment. And so, it remained a family of five.

“When I prayed, I asked (God) to give me the courage and strength to say no,” Fipe said.

Vita learned work ethic through his parents’ example.

Fipe followed her sister to the U.S. in 1983 as a babysitter. Over time, she’s handled various jobs, most of which are focused on some form of caregiving. She’s watched over the elderly and children alike, tending to households, gardens and pets while developing a strong attachment with clients.

“She definitely thinks it’s good karma,” Vita said. “Her philosophy is one day we’re all going to be old, and you’re going to want somebody to take care of you, just as how she was taking care of everybody else.”

Sione also has kept busy for the family.

He began work at a gas station in 1984, following his brother to the U.S. so they could send money home to family in Tonga. He specialized in the scaffolding trade. He acquired an 18-wheel rig and worked as an intrastate truck driver. He’s managed an Oakland restaurant. He’s worked as an electrician and in landscape architecture.

Now, at 63, his primary job comes during the morning, shuttling passengers and earning reviews as an Uber driver.

“Mine are always good,” Sione said. “Always five stars.”

These jobs came while raising their children, encouraging them to play sports and entering other after-school programs such as the East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring. They owned two houses, one they rented out in East Palo Alto and another they inhabited in Newark.

Then, the housing crisis struck.

Despite all their efforts, their life was displaced.

Staying together

The waiter or waitress at Hometown Buffet might give a quiet head nod.

Or maybe a wink with a smile.

When the two houses foreclosed, the Vea family moved most of their belongings into storage. Essential items such as clothes were stuffed inside their black Chevrolet Suburban or within the single-bed Motel 6 room in Newark that Sione, Fipe, Sifa and Vita occupied for several weeks.

This was their new home.

Alisi was about 90 minutes north at the time, studying at St. Mary’s College. So it was the parents and two youngest children who stayed there and frequented the Hometown Buffet across the street. They stayed there for hours, in no particular rush to return from lunch to a cramped room where Vita and Sifa slept on the floor.

The waiting staff at the buffet turned a friendly, blind eye as Vita and Sifa wrapped such food items as cookies, fried chicken and small corn dogs into napkins. Fipe did the same, placing food in her purse. These were snacks should they become hungry in the evening.

The family leaned on one another and their Christian faith.

“My brother and I, we had to take it upon ourselves to grow up fast,” Vita said. “Not sit and dwell on something we can no longer control. I relate it to football. Sometimes, plays and games might not go your way. It only matters what you do the next play, how you redeem yourself. … It didn’t matter where we slept. The only thing that mattered is we were all still together.”

Today, Sifa admits the month felt more like “forever.”

When it ended, the family moved to a rental house in Newark not long before Sione found a rental house in Milipitas. This second move was critical because it enabled Vea the opportunity to attend Milipitas High, where he flourished in football.

The family has been renting since.

Vita’s parents worked for what they have. They don’t complain or ask for handouts.

“We survive,” Sione said.

Nonetheless, as the NFL and first-round contract approach, their youngest child still wants to give.

“The one thing I do know is I’m going to get my mom a house, make sure my parents are comfortable over there with their living situations,” Vea said. “That’s one guarantee.”

More Raiders: Follow all of our Raiders coverage online at reviewjournal.com/Raiders and @NFLinVegas on Twitter.

Contact reporter Michael Gehlken at mgehlken@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GehlkenNFL on Twitter.

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