Nearly five decades ago, Petelo Kaufusi sent for his cousin in the Tongan village of Koloa.

Petelo had migrated to Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and nine children, and every year, he would help a new family member apply for a visa and green card.

According to Petelo's second son, Rich, if you think of paradise, the Kingdom of Tonga might be where you want to be. Nestled in the South Pacific, 1,500 miles northeast of New Zealand, the turquoise surf laps on white sand. Fishing and farming flourish. Religion and tradition thrives.

But in one of the world's last remaining monarchies, Petelo saw no progress, no ascension of class for his family, no proper education for his children.

"Someone cannot be more than what they are because your title is this, or your lack of title is this," said Rich Kaufusi, 52, who moved to the United States when he was 5. "Your family will be no better. This is your family situation. In America, you can be whatever you want to be and do whatever you want to do."

And so, Hilamani Fifita joined his cousin Petelo in Salt Lake City, migrating his family to the geographical base of their Mormon faith.

Year after year, more Tongans arrived, branching out their family trees across northern Utah enough to make a community. And, with their athletically-prone genes, enough to fill several football teams.

Perhaps you've seen their names on Division I rosters: Sam Taimani, a defensive tackle at Washington; Paul Maile, a defensive tackle at Utah; Vaha Vainuku, another tackle at Nebraska.

Each of those players played at East High.

So did Siaki "Apu" Ika, a four-star defensive tackle who signed in December with LSU.

As did Soni Fonua, the grandson of Hilamani Fifita, who committed to the Tigers on Sunday and is on track to sign with Ed Orgeron's 2019 recruiting class on Wednesday during national signing day.

Kaufusi once was a defensive assistant at East High, and he still mentors students there. One time, Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham came on a recruiting visit, and Kaufusi told him that East High was "a one-stop shop" for athletes. 

"He had five coaches, and they just spread out," Kaufusi said. "Each took a corner of the gymnasium and just started talking to kids. (Whittingham) said 'This is a sweet deal. I'll keep coming!' "

LSU safeties coach Bill Busch has been recruiting East High ever since he was a defensive assistant at Utah State from 2009-2012. And when Orgeron hired Busch last year, Busch returned to the well.

East High head coach Brandon Matich has seen Southeastern Conference recruiters from Alabama, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt come through, and he said "Bill's built that bridge between us and LSU."

When Busch flew to visit Fonua at Mesa Community College after the Fiesta Bowl, the 6-foot-4, 246-pound Fonua called up his friend Ika to cross reference.

"After Apu gave me the go-to — 'He'll take care of you, he's the right guy to look up to and trust' — that's what did it," said Fonua, the nation's No. 6 junior-college strong-side defensive end according to 247Sports.

LSU's No. 6-ranked recruiting class now has three defensive tackles, including Haynesville High's Joseph Evans, and the Tigers have found a new pipeline for Orgeron's trench wars against Alabama.

Joining nose tackle Breiden Fehoko, a native of Hawaii, a Polynesian bond is forming in Baton Rouge that can start a migration from Salt Lake City similar to the ones that began decades ago in Tonga.


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"There's typically a real payoff," said Barton Simmons, 247Sports' national recruiting reporter. "Once you get one or two in the door, they're so close in their communities, you see a domino effect — a door really kicked open to recruit those guys at a high level. We're starting to see that at LSU."

Just how close are Polynesian communities?

Tongan funerals can last more than a week. Weddings are festive ceremonies. At both, there is an orator who lists all the families so everyone can know how they're connected. Families are generally large; Fonua and Ika is each the youngest of eight children. Males refer to any older male in their village as "uncle." 

The communities become even closer because there's plenty of Polynesian crossover.

Kaufusi went to BYU and met Fehoko's parents, Vili and Linda. Vili taught Kaufusi and his brothers ceremonial dance such as the Haka, which Vili has done with his son before LSU football games.

And the bonds last generations: Kaufusi once changed Fehoko's diapers; more than two decades later, Fehoko is advising Ika and Fonua in their recruiting decisions.

"It just shows your love and support and appreciation to the family," Kaufusi said.

Kaufusi now oversees scholarships at the University of Utah, and when students receive scholarships, part of their stewardship is to mentor high school students in the community.

Some of them mentor students at East High.

Fonua said he went through a motivational change from his sophomore to senior year. Both Matich and Kaufusi said he distanced himself from the wrong crowd and devoted himself to his academic future. In some ways, it was too late; Fonua did not qualify academically for a football scholarship at Michigan. But he enrolled at Mesa Community College and qualified at LSU after two years.

"(It's) something to make you grow up as a man," said Fonua, who recorded 114 tackles and 4½ sacks in two seasons with the Thunderbirds. "You learn to take responsibility for your actions. I learned to develop as a man and go through these trials and struggles."

Come August, Fonua will join Ika in Division I football to develop together.

A generation of Tongans still seeking progress.