Players killed in N.M. car crash
College football players from Texas A&M and the University of Utah were killed in a single-car accident in northern New Mexico on Monday night, according to officials from both schools.
Polo Manukainiu, a redshirt freshman defensive lineman at Texas A&M, and Gaius Vaenuku, an incoming freshman defensive tackle at Utah, were killed in a rollover accident near Cuba, N.M. A third person in the car, Andrew Uhatafe, 13, also was killed.
New Mexico State Police said the accident occurred when the driver overcorrected and the vehicle rolled several times. Police said alcohol wasn't a factor, and it appears the driver was the only one in the car wearing a seatbelt.
Police said Manukainiu and Uhatafe were ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene. Vaenuku was transported from the scene, but was pronounced dead in an ambulance en route to a hospital.
Another incoming Utah freshman and passenger in the car -- offensive tackle Salesi Uhatafe -- survived, as did his father, Salesi Sr.
Salesi Uhatafe is Manukainiu's stepbrother and Andrew "Lolo" Uhatafe's brother.
"Everyone who knew Gaius is heartbroken today," Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday. "He was the kind of young man who lit up a room and his future in football and life had no boundaries. Words cannot express our devastation over the loss of Gaius. This is a sad day not only for University of Utah football, but for everyone whose lives Gaius crossed or would have crossed but for this tragedy. Our hearts go out to Gaius' and Salesi's families, and to the Texas A&M coaches and players. We are praying for the speedy recovery of Salesi and his father."
The college football players were all graduates of Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. They were apparently traveling from Utah to Texas. At about 7:30 a.m. ET Monday, Manukainiu posted the following on his Twitter account: "22 hour drive back to Texas on no sleep. Oh my."
"We lost a terrific young man," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said in a statement. "Polo was loved by his teammates and coaches. Anyone who came in contact with him was struck by his sense of humor and smile. My heart aches for his mom and family members."
The New Mexico State Police said its officers responded to a single-car rollover accident involving a 2002 white Toyota Sequoia SUV shortly before 9 p.m. ET Monday at mile marker 83 on U.S. 550, about 80 miles north of Albuquerque.
Manukainiu, 19, was redshirted at Texas A&M last season, but was expected to be involved in the Aggies' defensive line rotation this fall. ESPN 300 ranked him as the country's No. 33 defensive end prospect in 2012 after he helped lead Trinity High School to an undefeated regular season and the third round of the Texas Class 5A Division I playoffs. He had 43 tackles and 1½ sacks as a senior.
Vaenuku, 18, signed a national letter of intent in February to play football at Utah. ESPN 300 ranked him as the country's No. 33 defensive tackle, and he chose the Utes over scholarship offers from TCU, Texas, BYU, Arizona, Arizona State, Baylor and Boise State, among other schools.
Vaenuku, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said earlier this year that he planned to play one season for the Utes before leaving for an LDS mission. He said Utah's LDS institute was one of the primary reasons he chose the Utes.
"I love the [LDS] institute building there," Vaenuku told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City in January. "That thing is huge and is going to really help me prepare well for my mission. Playing football isn't the most important thing for me right now -- serving a mission is and Utah has a great environment to help me prepare for that."
The players' teammates, and other college football coaches and players, offered their condolences on social media on Tuesday morning.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, tweeted about Manukainiu:
Heart hurts waking up to news about Polo.. I think I speak for everyone on our team when I say we love you brother you will be missed— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) July 30, 2013
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter, a former Texas A&M defensive coordinator, offered prayers to the players' families on Twitter: "Thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Polo Manukainiu. Such a tragedy. #CherishTimeWhileWeHaveIt"
Former Atlanta Falcons and Utah running back Jamal Anderson tweeted: "Terrible news. Heartbreaking car accident. My prayers are with the families of Gaius Vaenuke, Manukainiu Polo, & their young cousins. So sad."