Read the original story here in The Oregonian.
It was a Sunday afternoon in 2007, just after services at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Rose City 1st Ward. The 11-year-old boys knew of each other. Both their families had come to Portland from Tonga, a tiny Polynesian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. They lived in the same neighborhood of ranch houses at the city's edge. They both had something to prove.
Later, neither could remember why they fought that day. Boys growing up on the blocks just off North Columbia Boulevard, an especially poor, rough part of eternally downtrodden North Portland, didn't need a reason. They earned power and respect just for swinging.
Taumoe'anga, lanky with the first shade of a mustache, punched Kofe in the mouth. Kofe, neckless and wide, grabbed Taumoe'anga and slammed him against a car.
Other boys from the neighborhood were joining the Crips. Kofe and Taumoe'anga had already lost a few friends to juvenile detention centers. As onlookers pulled the boys apart that morning, Kofe and Taumoe'anga shared the same scary thought: We could be next.
"We gotta do something different, bro," Kofe remembers saying.
A friendship was formed. A deal was made.
Taumoe'anga's uncle ran a makeshift gym in a detached garage near Pier Park. Maybe, Taumoe'anga suggested, he could train them for something more productive. For football.
They showed up for the first session wearing school uniforms and no shoes. Both their fathers worked in concrete, an industry that slowed to a near-halt during Portland's wet winters. They had dress shoes for school, but no sneakers.
Kofe suggested they steal a pair. Taumoe'anga had a better idea: "What about the wires?"
People often threw perfectly fine sneakers -- the laces knotted together -- over telephone pole wires. Several pairs hung in the sky near their homes. They knocked a few sets down before finding a pair of baby blue size 9 knockoffs, then took turns wearing them. Kofe ran laps around the park while Taumoe'anga stood barefoot on the sidewalk. Then Taumoe'anga ran while Kofe waited and watched.
"We're gonna get this done," Taumoe'anga said between laps. "Get better. Prove everybody wrong."
They slapped hands and prayed: "Heavenly father, help us get out of here."
It was a contract made by boys, no more binding than a spit-shake. Later, they took to calling it their pact.
BY THE TIME they reached eighth grade, Kofe and Taumoe'anga each weighed 235 pounds, yet they both moved as fast as running backs. They were the star defensive players on their neighborhood Pop Warner squad, and all the high school coaches in town wanted them for their defensive lines.
Christian Swain, the new coach at Roosevelt High School, caught the boys one afternoon as they finished practice. Roosevelt was their neighborhood campus, but Portland Public Schools allowed students to change schools with little trouble.
For years, anyone with the brains, the talent or the transportation to abandon Roosevelt did. Three-fourths of Roosevelt's students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, and fewer than 60 percent graduated on time. Football players were dissuaded by another record: The Rough Riders were on a 26-game losing streak. The team had no cheerleaders, no marching band and no bleachers lining its rutted field.
The neighborhood youth team had played for the city championship the year before. But the previous season's stars all abandoned Roosevelt. Swain told Kofe and Taumoe'anga he wasn't going to let them leave, too.
If Kofe and Taumoe'anga went to a richer school, he said, they would likely win state championships. They would play in state-of-the-art facilities and have access to tight alumni networks that guarantee graduates big scholarships and lucrative jobs. But they would be giving up something in the process.
"You'll lose your sense of community," Swain said. "You'll be a stranger there."
Coaches tended to talk about the two friends as a unit. They were inseparable and identically large, both caramel-skinned with jet black hair. But Swain recognized they were very different boys: Taumoe'anga, an only child, was hyper-focused on the future. He planned to become a lawyer and wanted a high school with a good mock trial team. He usually obeyed his mother, who wanted him to attend school closer to home.
Kofe, the youngest of 10 children, was brash and impulsive. He wanted nicer clothes and a computer he could use to make hip-hop beats. When coaches from private school powerhouses Jesuit and Central Catholic approached the friends, Kofe saw their ticket out.
Swain tried appealing to Taumoe'anga's sense of duty and to Kofe's ego.
"Everything here is going to change," he said. " And you're going to be a part of it. When people talk about the history of Roosevelt, the rebirth will start in 2010 with you showing up on campus."
ROOSEVELT'S RECORD LOSING streak ended their freshman year, with Kofe and Taumoe'anga on the varsity defensive line. Roosevelt made it to the playoffs their sophomore season. Football didn't turn the friends into perfect role models. They still hung out with the bad boys from the neighborhood, and Kofe was nearly expelled after he stole a computer then punched an assistant coach.
But the sport gave them focus, and hope. By their junior year, they were fielding calls from recruiters at Brigham Young University, Colorado, UCLA and the Ivy leagues. The team's average GPA had risen from a 1.2 to a 3.0. The graduation rate rose. And the Rough Riders played games on new artificial turf and in new uniforms, courtesy ofNike.
As they prepared for their senior year, Rivals.com ranked Taumoe'anga and Kofe the third and sixth best defensive players in the state. Yet Kofe was still wearing the sneakers his mother bought his freshman year. They were green and grey with a hole rubbed through by his big toe. "Ventilation," he joked.
He'd be able to afford any shoes he wanted soon, teammates said. They expected Kofe to make it to the NFL. They joked about him buying a Jaguar for the coach some day.
Kofe didn't think that far ahead. He was still waiting for actual scholarship offers. Nearly every coach from the Pacific-12 Conference had watched the boys play. Most said Kofe, a defensive end, and Taumoe'anga, a nose guard, would fit well on a 2014 college roster. They were big enough -- both 300 pounds, with trapezoid frames that stretched their shirts at the shoulders -- and surprisingly fast. Best of all, Swain said, they were easy to coach.
But the boys didn't plan to play college ball until 2016.
They had grown up in the Mormon Church and, though they didn't talk much about faith with friends at school, they attended seminary every morning at 6. At night, they studied scripture after finishing their homework. They had asked God to help them get out of their poor North Portland neighborhood, and they believed he'd blessed them with athletic skill as a means to do that. Now it was time to give back.
The Mormon Church expects 18-year-old men to spend two years after high school as missionaries. Elders spend 11 hours a day, six days a week knocking on doors. Missionaries can't travel home and can make phone calls only on Christmas and Mother's Day. They can email once a week through the church's filtered service. They aren't allowed to date, watch TV or play sports.
Taumoe'anga worried he would lose muscle during the trip. "You think you can stay in shape on your mission?" he asked.
His best friend, more sarcastic and mellow, assured him they'd be just fine. "Round is a shape," Kofe said. "I'll stay round."
The prospect of a two-year break from football made their senior season even more important. This was their last chance to play for a while. The Rough Riders went into the fall opener expecting to win every game. It showed: Scappoose trounced Roosevelt, 41-8.
"When you get tested, you revert back to bad habits," Swain told the team. "We needed to be humbled a little bit."
Roosevelt recovered and won the next eight games, usually by several touchdowns. Before every kickoff, Kofe and Taumoe'anga kneeled on the turf to pray. Then they channeled their faith into fury; Kofe averaged 10 tackles a game, according to school records, and Taumoe'anga averaged eight. They played offense, too, executing what Swain called "the Tonga package." When the Rough Riders got close to scoring, one big Tongan would carry the ball while the other helped bull a hole through the defense.
Roosevelt won the Portland Interscholastic League championship for the first time in 18 years, and the Tongans were named the city league's co-defensive players of the year. The Rough Riders won their first state playoff game -- only the school's second playoff win ever -- and then hosted Ashland in the quarterfinals.
It was 46 degrees and pouring at kickoff. Ashland's quarterback ran for two early touchdowns, and the visitors were up 13-7 with a minute left in the first half when Swain made a bold move. Knowing the weather likely meant a low-scoring game, he sent in the team's tallest player -- the 6-foot-2-inch starting quarterback -- on defense to deter Ashland's passing game with his long reach.
A few plays later, Taumoe'anga and the quarterback both dove to make a tackle. Taumoe'anga felt his helmet pound into something bony: the Roosevelt quarterback's shoulder.
The players argued on the sidelines. Kofe spoke up for Taumoe'anga, who was so upset he could barely speak. "They put you in there so you could stop the pass, not hit somebody," Kofe told the quarterback.
Taumoe'anga came out of the locker room after halftime scowling. The quarterback returned to the field wearing a sling.
The Rough Riders had expected to make it to the state championships. But they couldn’t compete after the starting quarterback separated his shoulder.
Kofe, Taumoe'anga and the rest of the Rough Riders defense held Ashland to 37 yards in the second half. But with their offensive engine on the sidelines, the Rough Riders couldn't score. Ashland won, 13-7. Roosevelt's playoff run was over.
"These seniors have done something truly historic at this school," Swain told a post-game huddle that included players, parents and many Roosevelt fans. "Many, many years from now, people are going to remember Kofe and Taumoe'anga. They're going to remember those names."
Taumoe'anga wasn't there to hear him. He had slipped away from the crowd, his helmet hiding his tears. It was the boys' last post-game talk at Roosevelt. Kofe had listened alone.
AS FALL GAVE way to winter, Kofe and Taumoe'anga felt uprooted. School days seemed to last forever. Afternoons dragged without football practice.
They waited on word from colleges, but the letters stopped coming and recruiters didn't call. The coach from Colorado said it first: His school couldn't wait two years while the Tongans went on their Mormon mission.
"I didn't think the mission would be that big of a deal," Kofe said in December. "We thought we'd train harder, and they'd see what they were missing out on."
College coaches see advantages and disadvantages to waiting on a player. They're inheriting a man two years older -- possibly bigger, stronger and more emotionally mature than the average freshman. Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young's successful football program has been accused of enjoying a "missionary advantage," because so many of its players come back to football after two years of physical and spiritual growth. But missions are intense and time-consuming, and coaches worry that teenagers might lose interest, stamina and muscle while they're away.
Swain called school after school to make the case for his two stars. Most of the kids he coaches won't ever play college ball, he said, but these were rare talents. They were good enough to play in Division I, the NCAA's highest level and the only one at which players receive full scholarships.
The news Swain heard back was not encouraging: Coaches who initially expressed interest in Kofe and Taumeo'anga said they couldn't justify the risk that the boys might come back smaller or less passionate about big-time football.
In December, Swain told the Tongans that they needed to make a choice. He held out a slip of paper, a list of schools that would likely offer them scholarships if they decided to forgo missions and start college right away. It included UCLA, Colorado and Arizona.
The guys didn't waver.
"God is what got us here in the first place," Kofe said.
One school was still interested, mission or not. Portland State University sits just a few miles from Roosevelt, but the Vikings play Division 1 football.
A month after Swain laid out their options, the boys went on their first official campus visit. They checked into the downtown Hilton, watched the Vikings practice and met professors. They ate more in one weekend than they had in a month, first a Hawaiian feast at Coach Nigel Burton's house and then room service at the hotel. They started with pizza and hamburgers, then ordered what they considered the most exotic item on the menu: meatloaf.
The next morning, Burton called each boy into his office separately to offer a scholarship covering tuition, room and board. He showed them Vikings jerseys with their high school numbers, 51 and 52, and said their scholarships would be there when they returned from their missions.
Kofe and Taumoe'anga hadn't been dreaming of Portland State -- the Vikings, not exactly a national powerhouse, had lost as many games as they had won the previous season. But this was an all-expenses paid path out of the neighborhood, everything they'd said they wanted, everything they'd promised each other.
A FEW WEEKS later, Taumoe'anga sent a letter to the Mormon Church, officially announcing his intention to serve. In April, he received an answer.
School was out that sunny Friday, so Taumoe'anga helped his father mix and pour concrete. He carried the unopened white envelope -- postmark, Provo, Utah -- from job to job, laying it carefully on the hood of the family truck as they worked.
That evening, his family held a small ceremony at an uncle's house. To them, this was a much bigger occasion than football signing day or the state playoffs. Missionaries aren't paid for their work, but Taumoe'anga's family had been putting money aside for his mission trip for a decade.
Taumoe'anga clutched a Bible and the Book of Mormon, the sacred text written by Joseph Smith, in his thick right hand. With his left, he texted Kofe. Where was his best friend?
Late. Kofe arrived 20 minutes after the ceremony was supposed to start, bounding up the driveway in gym shorts and with a hairstyle verging on an Afro. Taumoe'anga was wearing dress clothes, a pressed gray suit that looked nothing like the neon T-shirts he usually preferred. His friend teased him.
"You still the same guy, right?" Kofe asked. "Don't try to change."
They laughed and pretended to box. Kofe rubbed a hand over Taumoe'anga's head, where a tangle of curls had been cropped to a close fade.
"OK," Taumoe'anga's father interrupted. "Everybody get inside."
Two dozen Tongans formed a circle in the living room, singing songs of praise as Taumoe'anga took a seat. A church elder prayed, and Taumoe'anga wiped tears from his eyes.
At the "amen," Taumoe'anga stood and opened the envelope.
"Dear Elder Taumoe'anga," he read to the group. "You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the Texas, Houston mission."
Afterward, Kofe grabbed Taumoe'anga's hand. They shook and hugged a teenager's embrace, five seconds of back-slapping. As they broke apart, kids crowded around Taumoe'anga, wanting pictures with him. In between poses, Taumoe'anga looked around the yard, then down the street. Kofe was gone.
As he hurried away, Kofe thought about his mother. Kofe wanted his family to have a similar ceremony, but he had worried all school year that he wasn't ready for a mission. He wished he could be as self-assured as Taumoe'anga, who never seemed to mess up or lose focus. He wasn't distracted by the girls who called their names in the school hallways. He never veered off their chosen course.
By the church's standards, Kofe was an elder. Yet he still felt like a teenager. He slacked off. He cursed. He flirted.
He believed in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. But he didn't feel like a role model, like the kind of sage missionary who could lead strangers to Christ. He wasn't ready to put his life on hold for two years.
By the spring, Kofe's grades had slipped from Bs to Cs. He stopped texting Taumoe'anga every night and skipped classes to stay in bed or wander the neighborhood with a new friend, a younger kid who didn't play football and didn't attend his church.
The best friends were barely talking by the time classwork gave way to graduation parties. But Taumoe'anga was still the first person Kofe wanted to talk to when he had big news.
Kofe grabbed Taumoe'anga one June afternoon at the end of their AP Literature class. He had spoken with the ward bishop, the leader of their congregation. He had made a decision.
"Bro, I'm not going on a mission this year," Kofe said. "I'm going to go straight to PSU."
For the first time in seven years, they were headed in different directions. They were getting out -- but not together.
KOFE MOVED INTO the PSU dorms in late June with one duffel bag, three pairs of shoes and no sheets. His was the only dorm without a TV or an Xbox, he told his high school counselor when she came to visit.
"I need a laptop," he told her. "I'm trying to write this essay today."
He earned straight A's in summer school, and the Vikings coach was talking about letting him play in the Aug. 30 opening game against Oregon State.
"You're so different," the counselor said. "You're so much more focused."
He was more muscular, too, Taumoe'anga noticed in early July when they finally ran into each other at Taumoe'anga's going-away party. Half a dozen former Roosevelt teammates showed up for a dinner of barbecued chicken wings and macaroni. Kofe ate only watermelon.
"My coach said I have to eat healthy," he said. "They want me at 300, but only in muscle. No fat."
The party moved downstairs, where the guys played Playstation 3. Kofe and Taumoe'anga stayed upstairs. Taumoe'anga said he was happy for Kofe, but their friendship felt altered.
"We didn't talk for three weeks," Taumoe'anga told Kofe. "It was weird." He laughed but then he repeated himself, his voice softer: "It was weird."
Taumoe'anga was headed to Utah for missionary training in three days. His bags were packed: 12 white shirts, six pairs of slacks, not much else. In a few weeks, he would be in Houston, hitting the streets each day by 10 a.m., ringing doorbells and trying to convince strangers to give their lives to Jesus Christ.
"I don't start class until 2 some days," Kofe told him.
"Really?" Taumoe'anga said. "Aw, man."
Kofe handed his phone to Taumoe'anga. "Did you see Coach Swain posted an old picture of us on Facebook?" he asked.
The photo, a sepia-toned shot of their junior high team, looked blurry and wrinkled. Kofe and Taumoe'anga were boys in the picture, despite the tough expressions they put on for the camera.
They had become men together, and now they were both leaving. Their pact had worked. Yet as Taumoe'anga laughed and stared at the picture, Kofe grew quiet and thoughtful: Maybe he would find another best friend one day. But no one else would remember fighting in the church parking lot or sharing a pair of sneakers. No one else would understand where he came from or how hard he worked to escape.
"Are you gonna write me?" he asked.
Taumoe'anga rolled his eyes.
He promised to stay in touch, as high school friends always do. Then they sat silently for a few minutes, together but already alone.
-- Casey Parks