Photo courtesy Mark Atuaia
Elizabeth Wolfgramm, left, has changed the way
Mark Atuaia is living his life nowadays.

Atuaia singing a
different tune now

The former BYU and Kahuku star
enjoys life after football
with family

By Pat Bigold

He was the young man whose nimble yet powerful legs trampled the prep rushing records of a Hawaii sports legend.

On Nov. 2, 1990, when Kahuku High School's Mark Atuaia rushed 19 times for 166 yards in a home-field victory over Kaimuki, he replaced the revered Mosi Tatupu as the state's all-time prep career and single-season rushing leader.

His 3,404 career yards outdistanced Tatupu's feat by 37 yards. It's a mark that could stand intact until well into the next century.

When the time came for Atuaia to make a decision on a college, every media organization in town was poised to jump on the story. He turned aside pursuers like Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Texas A&M, the University of Hawaii and San Diego State to choose Brigham Young.

But where is the Golden Boy of the North Shore now?

It's an often-asked question these days for two reasons. One is that his NCAA eligibility was used up last season. And the other is that two of his former teammates, Chris Naeole (New Orleans Saints' top draft pick) and Itula Mili (Seattle Seahawks) have signed with NFL teams in the past two months.

"Me and football have parted ways," said Atuaia last night by phone from Orem, Utah, where he lives with his wife and child in an apartment.

The personality seemed as gregarious as it was in his prep days. Back then, Aloha Stadium fans were used to this endearing image: Atuaia posting a 100-yard rushing game and then carrying Coach Doug Semones' infant son, Jake, in his arms around the sidelines before hitting the locker room.

Photo courtesy Mark Atuaia
Mark Atuaia holds his daughter, 6-month-old Anessa.

"You know, when I was in high school, I heard the cliches about how a baby will change your life. But I didn't know to what extent that was true."

The baby who has changed Atuaia's priorities is his 6-month-old daughter, Anessa. And her mother -- music industry celebrity Elizabeth Wolfgramm -- is the lady he married a year and a half ago in Laie.

Atuaia said it's a relationship that surpasses all previous happiness in his life.

"I wouldn't trade Elizabeth and Anessa for anything," he said.

For a dozen years, Wolfgramm was a lead vocalist for the pop R&B recording group, The Jets, who have traveled the globe. They played the Apollo and headlined in front of crowds as large as 160,000 people.

The original group was composed of eight of the 17 children in Wolfgramm's Tongan family.

(Elizabeth's sister, Kathi, is married to another Hawaii football player, Al Noga. They live in the San Francisco area.)

At their peak, the Jets turned out two platinum (1 million units sold) albums and one gold (500,000 sold).

Eight of their singles releases made the top 10 in the 1980s. Most popular were "You've Got It All Over Him," "I've Got a Crush on You," "Make It Real," and "Rocket To."

Wolfgramm did lead vocals on three of those.

Now, only four originals remain with the group, and Elizabeth has retired from the tour.

Like Atuaia, she has put her career on hold to cement the new family unit.

"Mark and Anessa are my life now," she said.

Just as Atuaia doesn't keep football memorabilia around, Wolfgramm keeps only one tape of The Jets. Her platinum and gold albums are with her mother.

"It's nice not to be in the spotlight and not to worry about what people are looking at," said Wolfgramm, who fully empathizes with her husband about the scrutiny he endured as a BYU player in Provo.

Atuaia makes no secret of the fact that he was disappointed with his college football career. He spent much of his time as a blocking back at BYU -- a program which does not favor the run -- and thus never realized the potential many believed he had as a ball carrier.

"A lot of times, I just wanted to come home and give it up," said Atuaia."I know that if I had gone to Arizona or Colorado, it might have been different for me. But I would not have met Elizabeth if I did that, and I would not have had a daughter, so I can't complain. You know me, I always follow my heart."

Atuaia is a year away from his degree. His major is tourism and travel with a minor in business management.

His future career could bring him back to work in Hawaii's most vital industry and that both excites and motivates him.

"I know people wonder what I'm doing," said Atuaia. "What I'm embarking on now is making a life for myself doing something to secure my family financially. And I hope I can continue to be worthy of the kids looking up to me."

Right now, the couple is living modestly off Atuaia's scholarship money.

Although Wolfgramm no longer tours with The Jets, she performed with them on the Fourth of July in Provo when they opened for Natalie Cole. She is also working on her first solo CD, a collection of adult contemporary music.

"Mark is with me all the way on this and he encourages me," she said.

Semones, who enjoyed a strong rapport with Atuaia, couldn't pass up the opportunity to rib him. Told that Wolfgramm is doing a solo, he deadpanned, "Good. Just as long as there's no Mark Atuaia on backup vocals. I've heard him and he sings like a dog being kicked."

Not taken in the NFL draft, Atuaia declined a chance to try out as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers, and he similarly turned away from offers to play in the Canadian Football League because he would lose time with his family.

"I've had my share of opportunities, but the principles I learned in football, I will apply to my life now: hard work and determination," he said.

The first time Elizabeth Wolfgramm ever saw her future husband was in a game against Farrington in his junior year.

"But I was more interested in going to the snack bar for food that day -- I was hungry," she recalled with a chuckle.

She finally met Atuaia later that year after The Jets played the Polynesian Cultural Center. He was asked to show her and one of her sisters around Laie.

"I liked him right away," said Wolfgramm. "He doesn't believe it, but I did."

A fan of her music, Atuaia said, "I figured she was way out of my league so I didn't even bother."

They didn't see each other again until 1995 in Utah when she invited him to a recording session and they renewed an acquaintance that quickly blossomed.

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