A year ago, Lance Manuleleua was on the football field at El Camino College, preparing to play in the City Section championship game and unaware of events elsewhere in the stadium.
He didn’t know that in an elevator near the entrance, paramedics were responding to a man in distress.
It was Manuleleua’s father, Ioane, 39.
School officials informed coach Manuel Douglas, who made the decision to tell Lance immediately, and not wait until after the game.
The son didn’t understand the severity of the situation, and he wanted to play. The coach wouldn’t let him.
“I was adamant he leave,” Douglas said. “He did not know [his father] had not been revived.”
School police escorted the teen off the field. Still in uniform, he was taken by a family member to a hospital in Gardena. He found his mother, Alani. He saw his father lying on a bed.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled recently. “I just thought sooner or later, he’ll be better. We walked down a hallway to take him to a different room. I kept asking my mom, ‘What’s going on? What’s wrong with Dad?’
Then she told me. ‘He’s gone.’ I couldn’t believe it. … I cried a lot. I cried hard.”
The football field at Corona Centennial High was nearly deserted. It was early September, and Narbonne had just lost 52-6.
Every Narbonne player had gone to the locker room except for All-City linebacker Raymond Scott. A week earlier, he had buried his mother, Jan Vaivao, 40, after her five-year battle with cancer.
For nearly five minutes, Scott squatted in silence, burying his head between his legs, grieving. Athletic director Kyla Berman came forward to rub his back. Centennial coach Matt Logan offered condolences, explaining that his wife had died of cancer and Scott would be OK.
This week, as Scott prepared for his team’s CIF state championship Division 1-A bowl game on Saturday against Lancaster Paraclete, he sat in Narbonne’s bleachers holding back tears while trying to explain the impact of his mother’s death.
“It’s difficult, especially when you have plans with your parent,” he said. “Going into a game, going into life, it’s a different feeling, a different atmosphere of everything I go through daily. You think about this person every day.”
He grabbed his head, looked down and stayed silent for a while.
“I really don’t know how to explain it. To this day, as we speak, I still think about her in class, in practice. Nothing really takes me off that mindset. There’s always been a thing between me and my mom to make the family proud and make her proud.
“I know she’s not here physically, but mentally, spiritually she’s around me. I can feel her. I still want to make her proud.”
Manuleleua, a senior defensive lineman, quit the football team last spring. He didn’t want to continue without his father. He was scared. He knew if he played, he’d have to look near the Narbonne stadium entrance where his father would sit and root for him.
“I was afraid I’d look up in the stands and he wouldn’t be there,” Manuleleua said.
After lobbying by his teammates, Manuleleua decided to return to the team one week before the start of the season.
“I wasn’t sure about football without my dad,” he said. “My teammates told me to do it for my dad. He always enjoyed coming to my school and watching me play. Why should I stop now?”
Last week, as a Narbonne captain, Manuleleua helped the Gauchos win the City Open Division title, 48-7 over Crenshaw. At halftime, he said a prayer for his father. Afterward, he and his mother had an emotional meeting in the same stadium where tragedy struck last year.
“My mom said my dad was very proud of me. I’m glad she said that because that was the whole point of coming back to football. I just wanted to make my dad proud.”
Manuleleua said he was grateful that his coach made him go to the hospital that night instead of playing.
“To this day, I thank Douglas for giving me that chance. Without him, I wouldn’t have seen him that night. It was a chance to say goodbye.”
Scott mostly keeps emotions to himself. He’s quiet, always thinking.
“He puts on a brave face,” Douglas said.
Scott has been a starter since his freshman year and committed to USC since his sophomore year. He’s graduating in two weeks. Through it all, his mother always stayed positive as she battled cancer.
“What motivated me was the smile on her face even though the things she was going through,” Scott said.
He says he’s trying to move forward and fulfill a promise to his mother to go to college. He just wishes she could be with him.
“I still pray to God and keep pushing daily,” he said. “I’m still motivated by her, still talk to her. … There’s no easy answer. It really is hard practicing throughout the week.
“Game day comes, you let out all that aggression, set your emotions free.”