THERE was something missing from last weekend's Hula Bowl picture.
Itula Mili still has
the eye of NFL scouts
Laie's Itula Mili was not in it.
The brilliant tight end from Brigham Young, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in the Western Athletic Conference championship game against Wyoming, was once called a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
But during Hula Bowl week, he was back in Utah, putting himself through painful, two-a-day therapy sessions. He's charging through rehab in the hope that the draft will not pass him by.
"The therapy wears me out," he said by phone from his apartment. "It requires a lot of bending and stretching and it hurts a lot. But if I overcome this, I'll be a stronger person."
He said his doctor believes he'll play football again.
Fueling his drive to recover from one of the most devastating injuries a football player can suffer is the love of his family here. "It's an energy that flows through me," is the way Mili put it.
To him, being drafted into the NFL means more than just personal wealth. It means being able to help his parents, who had no telephone until just last year.
"I love them," said the Football Coaches Association of America All-American. "They put up with me in a lot of things. My motivation is to give something back."
BUT Mili is unconvinced he'll be drafted at all. "I can accept that," he said.
The good news is that the scouts are still very interested.
Several who were in town last week for the Hula Bowl said Mili should go in the first four rounds with Colorado's Chris Naeole (Kahuku) and Washington's Ink Aleaga (Pac-Five).
These scouts all understood the extent of Mili's injury. But the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder appears too good to pass up.
"If I have anything to do with it, he'll be drafted," said one.
"Up until his injury, he was the best tight end I'd seen all year," said another. "I can say he'll go in the third or fourth rounds."
"He has great body control, great hands and can take it all the way," said yet another. "He'll be drafted, though it might take a year before he's 100 percent."
Olive Mili said she'd rather her son become a doctor than play in the NFL.
But Olive Mili knows her boy's destiny has always been to play on Sunday, and so she concedes, "I hope when he goes, he has all the techniques not to get hurt."
She said she cried when she saw him crumple to the ground after receiving the fateful short-yardage pass and getting hit at knee level by a Wyoming safety.
"I know it hurt my parents to see their only son go down," Mili said.
MILI has always been the kind of kid you'd want to see win the lottery.
Unassuming, hard-working, humble, and never quite realizing how exceptional he is.
I remember the night of Feb. 1, 1991, when we talked at a North Shore fast-food restaurant about his decision to accept BYU's offer. Mili had just led Kahuku's basketball team to ts eighth win in nine games. He was famished and tore into a Double Whopper.
"My favorite dinner," he said through a mouthful of burger, lettuce and dressing.
It was an image of a genuine person, and one I won't forget when he has signed a pro contract that makes him wealthy beyond his imagination.
The best thing I heard Mili say during our phone conversation last week was, "I'm still the same person I was raised to be."