KELLER, Texas — In Tonga, the word for sibling is the same as it is for cousin. It’s born from a culture in which people who would be considered aunts and uncles in Western countries can be your parents as much as your birth parents.
It’s a concept that may describe the how the Teuhema and Taliaferro families made the decisions that produced two highly recruited brothers, Sione and Maea Teuhema, who will be reunited this fall at LSU.
Robert Taliaferro coached Sione and his own son Brett in T-ball. One day, when bringing Sione home, his father Sidney Teuhema told the boys to go into the house and spoke to Robert in the yard.
Sidney and his wife Liliani wanted Sione and Maea to go to Keller High School, one of the top public schools in Texas. Tongans are proud of their island nation’s near 100 percent literacy rate; education is something that’s highly prized.
The Taliaferro’s lived in the Keller district, the Teuhema’s did not, residing in another Fort Worth suburb.
Robert Taliaferro agreed. But it would have to be immediately, he said, not their freshman year, a decision he said took the Teuhema’s aback.
Robert’s reason: He knew the boys would be exceptional athletes and he didn’t want anyone to question why they were just showing up at Keller in ninth grade.
“You hear stories about how a kid could throw 30 mph at age 10,” Taliaferro said. “Sione was throwing 60. He was a monster and we knew it.”
That was seven years ago. Last year, Sione signed with LSU. Wednesday, his “little” brother Maea did the same, flanked by Sidney and Liliani on a stage in Keller High’s auditorium.
“The boys were going to be famous,” Robert said. “We’ve known it since they were 5. There are a few kids you just know are going to be something special. Some people hate famous people, they try to bring them down. They moment they entered the UIL (University Interscholastic League, the governing body for Texas high school sports) they needed to be associated with Keller.”
Maea’s signing was a symbolic moment for both families, the culmination of two different kinds of sacrifices made by both families.
For the Teuhema’s, it meant their two oldest children going to live with another family for the rest of their developmental years.
For Robert and his wife Annie Taliaferro, it meant shouldering a financial and cultural burden.
“It’s been a struggle,” Robert Taliaferro said of their role as guardians. “We’re not rich by any means.”
In Tonga, the word “kainga” means extended family. With Maea and Sione, it has literally taken a village to raise them.
“I think we made the right move so they could come to this school,” Liliani Teuhema said. “They are real family to us. We appreciate their help.
“We were friends. We played baseball together. But it’s just grown and grown to where we are family. It’s not going to stop here.”
The Teuhema brothers weren’t just regular students. Maea was a starter in football since ninth grade, and the college offers soon started pouring in, so many he lost count. He visited all the major schools in Texas, plus Oklahoma, UCLA and LSU.
Because Maea lived with them, the Taliaferros had to deal with the onslaught of recruiting calls and visits.
“It’s been going on for years,” Annie Taliaferro said. “It gets really crazy. There comes a point where you want to turn the phones off and shut the door and protect your child. They look like grown men but they’re still kids.”
Both brothers originally gravitated to Texas, but that changed with Sione’s official visit to LSU.
Sione was a struggling student, Robert Taliaferro said. LSU assistant athletic director for football operations Sam Nader laid out the core courses and grades Sione would need to be eligible his freshman year.
“Coach Nader had all of Sione’s grades,” Robert recalled. “I’ve been to 13 schools and they were the only one that had that. Texas never did that, and I asked.
“If they wouldn’t have done that and let us know far in advance what (Sione) needed, we would have never made it.”
Made it he did though, playing in nine games as a true freshman and recording seven tackles with two sacks at defensive end.
When Sione signed with LSU last February, Maea committed to the Tigers that same day, one day after decommitting from Texas. The Longhorns pushed to get back in the picture and UCLA called virtually every day to the end, but Maea’s commitment stayed firm.
Wednesday, there was joy on his face as he signed his national letter of intent, cradling his smart phone so Sione could watch the ceremony on Skype from back in Baton Rouge.
There was relief, too. Like many of the few young people his size (6-foot-5, 340 pounds) Maea doesn’t relish the unrelenting attention.
“It’s finally over,” Maea said, his soft but deep voice difficult to hear in the whirl of Keller High’s signing day scene.
“I just don’t like the spotlight. It’s not me.”
It’s a spotlight he’s earned though, rated as a five-star prospect by Rivals and the 29th best prospect in the entire country. He played in the Under Armour All-American game (Sione played in the U.S. Army game) and was named to USA Today’s All-USA first-teamer.
“I’ll probably never coach another one like him,” said Keller offensive line coach Colby Meek, himself a Keller grad before going on to a recently completed career as an offensive lineman at UTEP.
Keller coach Carl Stralow said as long as he’s at the school no other player will wear Maea’s No. 76.
“That’s pretty dope, I guess. Pretty cool,” he said.
Meek said Maea may be quiet off the field but finds an inner intensity when he’s on it. Many times at practice, that intensity showed itself in trench battles with Sione.
“It’ll be fun to see them battle again,” Meek said. “There will be some violence when they go against each other.”
Maea comes by his size honestly. Sidney Teuhema can see eye-to-eye with his son and is formidably built, a member of Tonga’s national rugby team from 1978-81.
Maea said the word for him between now and moving to Baton Rouge this summer is running. He hopes to drop 10 pounds or so, though whether he plays tackle or guard remains a question.
Sione and Brett Taliaferro, an LSU student manager with the football team, lived with another massive Tongan Tiger last year, former offensive guard Fehoko Fanaika.
Fanaika’s eligibility is up and he may soon be going on to the NFL. So Maea will take his place in the apartment with Sione and Brett.
He’ll take his place with both his brothers. It’s the Tongan way.
“They can’t wait for me to be there,” Maea said. “
The Teuhemas and Taliaferro’s will be there too, this fall, to see Maea and Sione play as much as they can. One part of their journey, may be drawing to a close, but a new chapter is about to begin.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.