PROVO, UTAH — Four years ago, Vic So’oto and Russell Tialavea left Oceanside together as teenage football stars en route to Brigham Young University, or BYU, and Provo, Utah, 680 miles and a world away from everything they had known growing up by the seaside.
Four years later, the childhood best friends and student-athletes have blossomed together into young adult men, tied to the hip by their unwavering faith and friendship. And their journey may very likely come full circle when BYU plays Dec. 23 in the Poinsettia Bowl at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. An official decision on the team’s destination will be announced Dec. 6.
“That would be a great moment, going back home to play my last game,” explained Tialavea, a 2005 Oceanside High alum who will begin a two-year Mormon mission to Chile on Dec. 30.
Added So’oto, a 2005 Carlsbad High alum: “I never imagined I’d be the first in my family graduating from college. There’s been no one better to be blazing trails with than my best friend.”
Privately-owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, BYU is arguably the most unique institution participating in the ultra-competitive world of Division I college football. Named in honor of the prominent settler of the American West and leader in the Latter Day Saint movement — Brigham Young — the university is the only one on the national college football scene devoid of a sea of tailgaters on game day just hours before kickoff. In line with LDS teachings, BYU forbids the consumption of alcohol and all student-athletes must adhere to a strict university honor code. What’s more, almost all male students take a two-year hiatus from their studies to serve as Mormon missionaries.
And although both So’oto and Tialavea were born and raised as LDS members, each said they knew little about BYU when they were recruited by the school while they were local high school adversaries. So’oto was a three-year letter winner and scholar-athlete at Carlsbad High, earning first-team All-CIF honors as a tight end. Tialavea was the Avocado League Defensive Player of the Year at Oceanside High, leading his team a perfect 13-0 record as a senior.
Yet as two of the most prized recruits in the state, UCLA and Cal, among others, courted both aggressively. But they also had been best friends since preschool. As they grew into adolescence, they would go to Oceanside High football games together. When So’oto transferred to Carlsbad High after his freshman year, they became opponents.
“I remember before one game, I’m warming up and one of the (Oceanside) players hits me and Russell saw it and started yelling at him, ‘You don’t do that! That’s unsportsmanlike!,” So’oto recalled. “We were still close friends.”
So it was only natural they went on their recruiting trip to Provo together. It was a trip that changed their lives. They were about to defy conventional wisdom and tell the more storied football programs of the Pac-10 Conference, thanks, but no thanks.
“I told my parents (Richard and Robyn) after I came back that I was going there,” Tialavea explained. “And to know Vic would be coming with me; he’s just always been there for me.”
The similarities between So’oto and Tialavea are hard to ignore. They’re both seniors that play defensive line. They each stand 6’3” and each weighs about 265 pounds. They’re both Polynesian. And each has had their share of adversity these past four years, but they’ve had each other, too.
In 2005, Tialavea missed the season due to an injury. The next year, So’oto suffered the same fate. It was déjà vu for Tialavea in 2007 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury during fall camp.
“(Vic) was the one to help me out of the hospital,” Tialavea explained. “He was the one who got me my food when I couldn’t (physically) do it. It’s funny. One year I get hurt, then he gets hurt, and then it happens all over again.”
After playing in the first two games of last season, So’oto went down with a season-ending leg injury and was devastated.
“(Russell’s) just been a great example of how to fight through adversity,” So’oto commented. “He’s kind of like the David-like figure in the Bible.”
This year, they’ve finally been able to consistently play together. Their proudest moment? Beating arch-rival Utah Nov. 28 in Provo, 26-23 in overtime, as students rushed the field in celebration. It’s a rivalry known as “The Holy War” that dates back to 1896.
While Tialavea is in Chile, So’oto intends to graduate in April and begin working on becoming the first in his family to earn a master’s degree.
“In the sports world, it’s hard to deal with injuries when something is taken away from you,” So’oto said. “We’ve shared a lot of great moments and tough moments together. We’ve fought with each other but then at the next moment, we make each other cry. I wouldn’t change what we’ve gone through any other way.”