Shots fired from car kill popular former football standout outside party
Sione Folau was the team captain and homecoming king at Valley High in '03.
By Jocelyn Wiener - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, August 5, 2007
The hopes of south Sacramento's Tongan community rested on Sione Folau, a popular young football and rugby player who had a promising future. Folau, his loved ones say, showed no signs of letting anybody down.
Just before 1:30 a.m. Saturday, the 21-year-old was shot and killed while he and a group of friends walked out of a party at VFW Post 67 on Stockton Boulevard, said Lt. Don Rehm of the Sacramento Police Department.
Rehm said a car pulled up and fired shots. Police are investigating, but gave no motives for the slaying.
Folau -- who was called Sione in Tongan and Johnny in English -- had been Valley High School's football team captain in fall 2003, his senior year. He was named homecoming king at halftime during a game, still wearing his sweaty uniform as he traded his helmet for a blue velvet crown. His father, John, remembers a broad smile stretching across his oldest son's face.
In high school, Folau was chosen to the All-Delta League first team.
He was a high school all-American for rugby, and traveled to Guyana with the U.S international under-19 rugby team, remembers Eugene Baker, his rugby coach and longtime family friend.
Folau loved to eat: Hometown Buffet offerings and double cheeseburgers were among his favorites.
But at 6-foot-1 and more than 300 pounds, he remained surprisingly quick, sprinting 40 yards in 4.85 seconds.
Opponents often would double or triple team him, or simply choose to get out of his way.
"You don't want to be in front of something that big, coming that fast, when you're trying to tackle it," Baker said.
In a Bee profile in October 2003, Folau said he took it as a compliment when opponents tried to illegally chop block him -- hitting him at the knees or below: "Because they can't stop me, they have to cheat," he said.
Although he delighted in athletics, Folau's dreams transcended the playing field.
He was deeply devoted to his family -- two parents, four younger brothers and a 5-year-old sister whom he would take to school, piano lessons and the movies.
"Despite looking like a grizzly bear and being built like a battleship, you could see with his little sister that this was a kind, gentle, loving man who, if given the opportunity, would have been a great father," Baker said.
On Saturday afternoon, a silence had descended over the Folaus' pale yellow house in the Valley Hi neighborhood. A few young men sitting out front puffed on cigarettes and stared dolefully at their hands, at a loss for words. Inside, his siblings and cousins curled up on couches hugging star-shaped pillows. In the back room, people sobbed.
Folau's father, John, placed a few mementos on the dining room table: A football plaque. The blue velvet homecoming crown.
"We don't know what happened," he said.
Sione Folau spent a lot of time pushing his younger brothers to succeed both on and off the football field. His father said his oldest son's leadership skills made him an apt delegator -- whenever he was told to take out the trash, he would instead put one of his younger brothers on the job.
"We call him 'The King,' " said his 15-year-old brother, George, with a small smile.
Folau briefly attended a community college in Oklahoma, and played rugby with the University of Oklahoma team, his family members said. But after a year, "he was homesick," his father said.
He enrolled instead at Sacramento City College, where he focused on playing football and getting his grades up enough to attend a four-year university. Ultimately, Baker said, Folau hoped to play football for the University of California, Berkeley. He said several universities had their eye on the young man.
But while he was serious about his future, Folau loved to have a good time. He adored reggae music, said his little brother George. If the football plan didn't work out, his big brother had set his sights on becoming a reggae artist. Folau loved playing John Madden video football and never let his brothers win.
Folau had "thousands" of friends, said his 17-year-old brother, William. He was out with some of them early Saturday morning, when the car pulled up, and the shots were fired.
Outside VFW Post 67, at 2784 Stockton Blvd., no sign remained Saturday afternoon of the violence that had occurred a dozen or so hours before. The building was decorated with blue stars, red stripes and promises of Tuesday night bingo. A billboard overlooking the parking lot encouraged students to enroll in the Los Rios Community College district.
Folau was supposed to have been heading back there this fall.
"When you lose potential like that, it's not just the family," Baker said. "It's the whole community."