Star-Bulletin Sports

Friday, May 7, 1999

N F L _F O O T B A L L


‘Tui cared about
all the local guys
in the NFL’

Mark Tuinei inspired a
host of young isle players
during his NFL career

By Pat Bigold


Pio Sagapolutele said he was thinking yesterday about his NFL rookie card.

"It's from 1991 when I was with the Browns," he said. "In the picture, there I was jumping to block Troy Aikman, and Mark Tuinei was in the shot, too."

That card had always been sentimental to Sagapolutele, but never as much as it is now that the man he looked up to is gone.

Mark Tuinei, who played high school football at Punahou, collegiately at UCLA and the University of Hawaii, and with the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, died yesterday at age 39.

"Guys who played with or against Mark respected him," Sagapolutele said yesterday from his home in Louisiana.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Mark and Pono Tuinei shared grill duties
while tailgating at Aloha Stadium in 1989.

Even though Sagapolutele seldom saw Tuinei, he knew they had a powerful bond.

They were both local boys.

"In a 1995 game against Dallas when I was with the Patriots, there was a play where the ball was going outside and the Cowboys' guard, Nate Newton, tried to bait me to the inside," said Sagapolutele, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints.

"I read the play, but Mark was coming down with the same force Newton was -- enough to knock my helmet off. It's the tackle's job to clean me out on that play. He could have torn my head off. Instead, he just hit me right by the waist and got me out of position.

"I saw he was kinda laughing, and I laughed too. It was like, 'Thanks, man, for not slammin' me.' "

Sagapolutele, said he learned about Tuinei's death from the Saints' two other Hawaii products: linebacker Ink Aleaga (Pac-Five) and offensive lineman Chris Naeole (Kahuku).

They told him as soon as he stepped into the training room yesterday morning.

Aleaga said he didn't know Tuinei personally but he felt the loss big time.

"He set the tone for all of us guys from Hawaii who are trying to get to his caliber," Aleaga said. Just like Tuinei was in 1983, Aleaga entered the NFL as a free agent in 1997.

"Our strength coach, Mike Wocik, used to be at Dallas, and he would sometimes tell me that Tui would ask how I was doing. That really made me feel good that he cared. But Tui cared about all the local guys in the NFL."

Aleaga said he recalls his former Washington teammate, offensive lineman Patrick Kesi (Farrington), telling him about how Tuinei took him under his wing when he joined Dallas as a free agent in 1997.

"Tui would give Pat pairs of shoes because Pat didn't have a shoe contract," Aleaga said. "That's all I ever heard when we talked was what Tui did for him."

Tuinei, whose roots were in Nanakuli, initiated a $10,000 annual scholarship award at Punahou for youngsters from the Leeward side, Punahou president Jim Scott said.

"His only requirement was that the kid who won it become a pen pal," Scott said.

Scott said he will ask the school's trustees to make sure the scholarship award continues.

Doug Bennett, retired Punahou athletic director, was head coach of the last Buffanblu team to win an Interscholastic League of Honolulu football championship (1977). Tuinei was a senior defensive lineman on that team.

"With his gentle demeanor, he might have been one of the future great coaches in this state," said Bennett, referring to Tuinei's acceptance of a position as Punahou's offensive line coach under new head coach Kale Ane.

Tuinei was to fly to Hawaii yesterday.

"He was always logical, talking things out," Bennett said. "He was a student of the game, and I think he would have been a superb coach. He would have had tremendous rapport with kids. One of the things I'm going to miss most is not having the chance to see that happen."

Ane, who also played in the NFL, said he had already told returning Punahou linemen that Tuinei would be coaching them in the fall. "The kids were very about excited about working with him."

Chris McLachlin, who was a course marshal working from early morning to late afternoon yesterday at the state high school boys' golf tournament on the Big Island, didn't learn of Tuinei's death until he was leaving the course late in the day.

Tuinei was McLachlin's starting center on a Punahou basketball team he coached to the ILH championship in 1978.

"I feel a little disoriented right now," said McLachlin, who is also a former athletic director at Punahou. "It's hard to believe Mark is gone. I remember him as a wonderful person. Loyal, respectful, honest. He'd catch a bus from Nanakuli at 5 a.m. to get to his 7:30 a.m. classes, and he'd be the first one at practice and the last one to leave. Impeccable work ethic."

McLachlin said he had been looking forward to seeing him around campus again.

"He loved basketball," Scott said. "As a matter of fact I heard a couple of kids asked him if he had planned to play in the NFL, and he said, "No, the NBA.' "

Scott said he saw Tuinei three times in 1998, including the occasion of Tuinei's 20th high school reunion.

Mosi Tatupu, another former Punahou student who played 13 years in the NFL, mostly with the New England Patriots, said he didn't learn of Tuinei's death until he awoke this morning to get ready for work at King Phillip High School in Wrentham, Mass.

"I was shocked to hear it, even though I only met him a few times," Tatupu said. "He was a pretty good person. There was a time in his life he walked a crooked line like a lot of people, but he straightened himself right with the help of his family and coaches and made it big with a good organization."

Tuinei’s last
hours uncertain

Authorities in Texas are still trying
to piece together the events that
preceded the gentle giant's death

Star-Bulletin staff


Police investigators today are still trying to piece together the last 24 hours of Mark Tuinei's life.

The two-time All-Pro lineman for the Dallas Cowboys was found dead yesterday in front of his home in Plano, Texas -- a wealthy suburb located north of Dallas.

The cause of death for the former Punahou School and University of Hawaii standout is still unknown, but Plano Police Chief Bruce Glasscock said in a news conference yesterday there was no evidence of drugs or foul play.

"We're treating it like any other unattended death," Glasscock said.

Investigators, however, are trying to determine how Tuinei spent the last day of his life in an effort to find someone who can provide reliable information.

According to several published reports, Tuinei went out with friends Wednesday night. They took him home and left the 320-pound lineman in his car after he passed out.

Late yesterday afternoon, police spokesman Carl Duke told the Houston Chronicle that investigators had "talked to several people" but had not confirmed Tuinei's activities on Wednesday.

Former Dallas Morning News beat writer Ed Werder reported for ESPN that Cowboys running back Nicky Sualua was interviewed by Plano detectives.

Glasscock said he wasn't sure how long Tuinei had been passed out: "The only information we have at this point is that it was a good portion of the morning."

The Plano police chief that added an unidentified friend was asked to check on Tuinei early yesterday morning. The friend found Tuinei unconscious in his car and immediately called 911.

Paramedics tried to revive Tuinei at the scene, but when they couldn't, he was taken to Medical Center of Plano where doctors worked for a half-hour before pronouncing him dead at 6:54 a.m (CDT). Glasscock said Tuinei was not known to have any major medical problems.

The Collin County medical examiner said a cause of death won't be known until results of the autopsy and the toxicology tests are reviewed early next week.

Tuinei's wife, Pono, was in Hawaii preparing for their return. He was about to start a new job as the offensive line coach at Punahou. Pono Tuinei has since flown back to Dallas. Funeral services are pending.

Most people here and in Dallas expressed shock at Tuinei's death. He was 39 and the picture of good health, Dallas defensive line coach Jim Bates said.

"It's shocking for all of us," Bates told media members yesterday at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters. "He was in the weight room last week. He was in great shape. It's just a shock."

A preliminary report from the medical examiner's office was expected by police yesterday, but because of the high profile of the case, officials chose to wait until next week to be sure.

Knee injuries forced Tuinei to retire after the 1997 season. He had hoped to make it back in 1998 but could not. His 15 years with the Cowboys ties the club record, equaled only by Bill Bates and Ed "Too Tall" Jones.

In 1983, such a mark seemed unlikely for a player who came to the Cowboys as an undrafted defensive lineman after playing only seven games his senior season with the Rainbows.

But Tuinei caught the attention of then-coach Tom Landry and played 10 games that season. Tuinei was shifted to offense two years later. By 1987, he was a starter at left tackle where his primary job was to protect quarterback Troy Aikman.

"Right now, there is a sense of disbelief," Aikman told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I don't know anybody who can truly describe the emotion that everybody is feeling. We are affected deeply. He was one of the nicest guys to ever wear a Cowboys uniform."

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