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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Life challenges prepare Vol: Church mission, brother's accident strengthen Mapu


KNOXVILLE — J.T. Mapu shouldn't be majoring in sociology.

He should be teaching it.

His background and travels have allowed him to hear different languages (Hawaiian and Creole), taste local delicacies (gumbo and Texas barbecue), and experience unique traditions (Mardi Gras and the Vol Walk).

The Tennessee defensive tackle is expected to be a force for the Vols this season. Fans will study his on-field production, but Mapu will concentrate more on the time he's spent away from football. And how it's made him better, in every respect.

He is from Hawaii, lives in Knoxville, and recently spent two years on a church mission in Texas and Louisiana.

His travels have taken him all over the world.

But it's the trip he took exactly four years ago today that matters most, an emotional flight home to Hawaii to see his older brother who was struck and nearly killed by two vehicles while he was protesting against drugs.

Mapu's travelings and
triumphs and tribulations are enough to make anyone's head spin. Now, as a senior, as a 23-year-old man, it's helped prepare him for things beyond blocking gaps and footwork and schemes.

"I've learned a lot of things that I can apply to more than just football," Mapu said.

On a mission

It's taken time to get to this point.

Mapu, a room-filler at 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, started 11 games as a sophomore for the Vols in 2003. He made his presence known with strong showings against powerhouses Florida, Alabama and Miami.

But after the season he had a decision to make. Coming from a deeply religious family, Mapu had to decide whether to go on a church mission.

It wasn't an easy choice. He was playing well and knew it would hurt his chances of playing professionally one day. In the end, the big picture outweighed the big risk.

The letter arrived in late May 2004 at the Mapu home in Kahuku, Hawaii. It was from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The family gathered. The letter read, "You have been called to serve in the Texas Houston East Mission. You will be prepared to teach the gospel in the Spanish language."

One year later, Mapu completed the mission. Then he was off to another one in Louisiana. Two football seasons were gone, but a lot of respect was gained.

"To me it's just a great sacrifice that a young guy makes," UT defensive line Coach Dan Brooks said. "He started for us the whole year as a sophomore, and to leave in the middle of that and go, that's a tremendous sacrifice. I think our team and our staff has a lot of respect for him as a person."

Wakeup call

It's been four years to the day since Mapu received an early morning phone call from a family member in Hawaii.

Something terrible had happened.

His older brother, Daniel, was standing on the side of a road in Ka'a'awa, Hawaii, with about 20 friends protesting the use of crystal meth and promoting the area as a drug-free community.

According to police reports, a white pickup truck was weaving in and out of traffic and struck Daniel, sending him into onto the road, where he was hit by another vehicle.

Daniel was in critical condition. He had suffered serious head injuries. He was in a coma.

With the help and support of UT Coach Phillip Fulmer, Mapu was on a plane that afternoon for the half-day trip to Hawaii. When Mapu arrived, his heart sank. His older brother — one heck of a high school football player back in the day — was helpless. Daniel eventually showed signs of recovery. He woke up from the coma. He could blink. But he couldn't speak and was far from being out of danger.

A special walk

Mapu returned to Knoxville a week later for the South Carolina game.

His heart still heavy, he tried to think of something, anything, to make his big brother smile.

Then it dawned on him: If his brother couldn't walk, then his brother would experience one of the best walks in the country.

During the players' traditional Vol Walk to Neyland Stadium before the game, Mapu called his mom on his cell phone. He had a family member press the phone to his brother's ear.

Daniel Mapu heard thousands of fans screaming, the band playing, and Rocky Top blaring.

"That was the day he was supposed to see my first game here," J.T. Mapu said. "My family told me later he was smiling listening to it."

Hear and now

This story doesn't have a happiest of endings. Daniel Mapu still suffers seizures. His parents still care for him at their home. He is still unable to talk.

But in two weeks UT will host Southern Miss.

It will be the first Vol Walk of the season.

And someone in Hawaii will push a phone to Daniel Mapu's ear.

And Daniel Mapu will smile.

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