After living in his car, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu has made USC his home

The sun was peeking over the Santa Monica Mountains, shining through the double-tinted windows. Out the other window, the Pacific Ocean sparkled. And in the back of his 2004 Chevrolet Suburban, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was sound asleep when there came a rapping on his window.

Private security guards, Tu’ikolovatu had found, usually had the same question. What in the world was this big man doing sleeping in a car in Malibu?

Often, it was easier to move than to explain.

Where would he even start? A few months ago, Tu’ikolovatu was living comfortably, with a wife and free housing, as a member of Utah’s football team. He’d been a periodic starter on a fearsome defensive line. But a search for more playing time, and a more personal journey to find what he believed was his purpose in life, had led him here, to the streets and beaches of Southern California, in a sort of limbo.

“Pretty much homeless, I guess you could say,” Tu’ikolovatu said.

Tu’ikolovatu was planning to transfer to USC. But NCAA rules prohibit a school from providing a recruit with benefits, like a stipend or housing, until he is enrolled. That would happen once his transcript arrived from Utah. But the paperwork was taking some time.

After his junior season, Tu’ikolovatu (pronounced “Tooey-kolo-vah-too”) sat down with his wife, Kalo, at a crossroads. Utah’s defensive line was so loaded his playing time was scarce. His best shot at the pros would be elsewhere.

He was also set to enroll in graduate school. What did he want to do with his life after football?

They reflected on what was important to him. His mind kept returning to his grandfather.

“Stevie’s an old soul,” Kalo said. “He’s always with the elderly. He just flocks to them.”

“They have a lot more wisdom than anybody else,” Tu’ikolovatu explained. “And I like to learn.”

He thought of one memory in particular. When Tu’ikolovatu was in high school in Salt Lake City, his grandfather, Sonasi Po’uha, had fallen ill with terminal cancer. Po’uha, who, like Tu’ikolovatu’s parents, had emigrated from Tonga, decided to live his final days at home instead of the hospital. The whole extended family moved in with him, a couple dozen in all.

“I just remember we partied every day,” Tu’ikolovatu said. “We roasted a pig every day. He wasn’t supposed to eat that stuff because he had colon cancer. And he wasn’t supposed to drink any soda. So when he got sent home, we brought in all the Dr. Pepper, brought in all the food, anything he wanted to eat.”

His grandfather was happy, Tu’ikolovatu recalled. It left an impression.

Now, thinking about their future, Tu’ikolovatu  and Kalo started to dream. One day, they decided, they’d open up elderly-care facilities all across Southern California.

Meanwhile, USC was desperate for defensive-line help and happened to have a renowned gerontology school. It was an ideal match.

But his transcript still hadn’t arrived. He waited, he grew antsy.

“He was just like, ‘I need to go, I need to just go already,’ ” Kalo recalled. “He just wanted to be with the team.”

A friend hooked him up with a flight to Los Angeles. He stuffed some workout clothes in a bag and hopped on the plane, so he could practice with his new teammates.

At first, Tu’ikolovatu rented a small car, and on the nights before workouts, he’d park on a street near campus. Other days, he’d venture out across the city. “When I got tired of driving, I would just park the thing,” he said.

He learned which cities had more proactive guards (Santa Monica, Malibu). He memorized the street sweepers’ schedules, so he wouldn’t awake to a clamor or a ticket.

Eventually, his parents delivered his Suburban to California, and he removed the back seat to provide more room. Still, his 6-foot-1, 320-pound body did not agree with the back of an SUV.

“It started getting comfortable towards the end because my body sort of adjusted to sleeping in a car. But no, for the most part, not really,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kalo was in Salt Lake City, working for a hospital, and was the pair’s only breadwinner. Both Mormon, they’d met at church. They have been married about a year. After a few weeks of waiting, Kalo grew anguished thinking of her husband alone on the unfamiliar streets. She quit her job and moved to Los Angeles. Now there were two in the car.

They settled into a routine. At dawn, they’d work out in the sand. Then Kalo would drop him off at USC while she hunted for a job. At around 5 p.m., she’d pick him up.

Kalo outfitted the car with shower curtains to keep out the sun. They showered at the beach. They found a favorite spot atop a parking garage in Huntington Beach, where they could wake early to view the sun rise over the Santa Ana foothills and bathe in the sprawl of Orange County.

On weekends, they’d work out early, then spend the rest of the day swimming or exploring. “We were basically all around the coast,” Kalo said. “We were little hippies.”

Toward the end of the day, they’d buy meat from a Dollar Tree and barbecue on the beach, using a grill Tu’ikolovatu had rigged from an aluminum-foil pan, pieces of wood and lighter fluid.

Some relatives lived near Inglewood, and Tu’ikolovatu spent a night, here and there, with them. The USC coaches, too, tried to arrange for him to stay with a teammate, Kalo recalled.

But, she continued, “My husband is a very, very particular person. He likes to be dependent on himself. He doesn’t like to burden anyone.”

So he awaited his transcript’s arrival. After a few more weeks of nothing, he checked in with Utah. A hold had been placed on his transcript: He hadn’t paid an outstanding fee. He paid it off, and still, the transcript didn’t come.

“I started to get the feeling like I don’t belong on a team anymore,” Tu’ikolovatu said.

He waited and prayed. When that didn’t work, he checked in with Utah again. He was told he’d paid the fee but hadn’t explicitly asked for his transcript to be released.

Would you like us to send it to USC, he was asked this time? He’d thought he’d been clear. “I was like, ‘Yeah! Please!’ ” he said.

The next day, at last, the transcript reached USC. He was admitted soon after. On Aug. 3, the day before training camp, after almost a month and a half of living in his car, the couple moved into university housing.

A Utah spokeswoman declined to comment on Tu'ikolovatu's specific circumstances, citing privacy laws. According to university policy, a hold can be placed on a student's transcript for non-payment of a debt, such as a parking ticket or library fine.

“Stevie made his decision, we wish him well, and that's just kind of it,” Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters this week. “We worry about our own guys right now.”

For USC, he has been a blessing, one of the best players on defense. Tu’ikolovatu, 25, (he served a two-year mission in the Philippines) has been a steady, mature presence for an inexperienced group.

He told Kalo that he is making it a point to demonstrate compassion on the field. Each time he knocks over an opponent, he tries to offer a hand up.

“I go to bed thanking the Lord that he's on our football team,” Coach Clay Helton said.

Kalo has seen her husband play for USC, in person, only once. She isn’t traveling for away games, even back to Salt Lake City, to see Tu’ikolovatu play his old team on Friday.

She has done enough moving around. They have a real apartment now. So she’ll watch him play from there.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

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