Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Death of former East football player jolts family, friends Tanuvasa seemed destined for great things.

Anchorage Daily News

Published: February 27th, 2012 11:30 AM
Last Modified: February 27th, 2012 11:31 AM

Born in American Samoa and raised in Mountain View, Frank Tanuvasa always seemed larger than his surroundings.

For one thing, he was physically enormous -- at 6-foot-7 and 370 pounds, one of the biggest high school football players ever to come out of Alaska.

His close-knit family and community hoped that the polite giant known as "Frank the Tank" could turn his frame and surprising speed on the football field into a dream held by more than a few young men in the neighborhood.

"Just like all the other boys, he wanted to be in the NFL and help out his family," said his best friend, Ulualo Tuulauulu.

In 2010, when the call came inviting the East High School graduate to join the football team at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., his friend was overjoyed.

"I was dying for him to leave," Tuulauulu said. "I didn't want him to waste his talent."

In the early morning hours last Thursday, just months before he was supposed to graduate, Tanuvasa was shot and killed by a Palm Desert, Calif., police officer as he allegedly fled from the scene of a burglary. He was 20.

His death has left a large circle of Anchorage family and friends wondering how the life of a boy who seemed destined for great things could end this way.

Tanuvasa was finishing his second year at the College of the Desert, a community college east of Los Angeles near Palm Springs, when he was killed.

According to the Riverside Country Sheriff's Department's account of the incident, Tanuvasa and two other men were burglarizing an apartment in Palm Desert just after midnight when Palm Desert police showed up.

They ran. An officer chased Tanuvasa and tried to use a Taser on him. It didn't work.

Then, according to the police report, Tanuvasa charged the officer.

In the ensuing struggle, the officer shot him.

He died at a local hospital an hour later.

One of the other men police say was involved in the burglary, a fellow College of the Desert football player named Roman Tausaga, 22, was arrested later that day.

Police said that the officer involved in the shooting is on administrative leave.

The image of Tanuvasa as a burglar fleeing from police is hard to reconcile with the choir-singing grandson of a preacher people knew in Anchorage, said Tuulauulu.

"His parents are so supportive," he said. "I can't imagine him being a thief."

Tanuvasa was one of seven children of a tightknit family, his father Nero Tanuvasa said.

In the summer, he and his father fished together at Ship Creek and delivered newspapers for extra money in the winter. In high school, his mother would perform traditional Samoan "fofo" healing massages to soothe his football-strained ankles.

He spent some of his childhood living with his grandfather, the head of a Mountain View Assembly of God church.

In Anchorage, he was better known for hanging out at church functions and entering singing contests more than getting into trouble. He had no criminal record, his father said.

He was a talented singer. People were surprised to hear the sweet, clear tenor voice that came out of the giant offensive lineman, Tanuvasa said.

But his son, he said, had recently and reluctantly allowed Roman Tausaga and the third man involved in the burglary, whose name has not been released, to live with him in Palm Desert because they didn't have anywhere else to stay. He believes they led him astray.

"Those were the kids who pushed him to go," Tanuvasa said.

Police have not said what role they believe Frank Tanuvasa played in the burglary.

"We are praying to God to help us learn he truth" about what happened the night Tanuvasa died, his father said.

The head football coach at College of the Desert, Dean Dowty, said Tanuvasa was a smart offensive lineman who would likely have moved on to playing at an NCAA Division I or Division II college.

Almost everybody on campus knew Tanuvasa, Dowty said, owing to his job delivering mail to campus departments. During the weekend, more than 100 College of the Desert students showed up at a candlelight vigil for Tanuvasa, playing a Hawaiian version of the song "Over the Rainbow" and giving speeches, according to local news reports.

His death has shaken his already-reeling football team. In September, a freshman free safety from Chicago was charged with attempted murder after allegedly stabbing a fellow player in a fight.

Tanuvasa's father said Sunday that he was in Palm Desert, where he's in the process of claiming his son's body from the morgue. His employers at Cal Worthington Ford Lincoln, where he works in shipping and processing, are paying for Frank's body to be flown back to Alaska, he said.

A fundraiser for funeral costs is being planned for the weekend by Frank's friends, he said. He's also looking for a lawyer. He says the Palm Desert Police Department needs to answer for his son's death.

"I will come back and face them, what they did to my son," he said.

He regrets not making the trip to Palm Desert earlier.

For two years he had wanted to watch his son play. But plane tickets were expensive.

"I didn't make it," he said.

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