SALT LAKE CITY — The clattering sound of weights reverberated off the East High walls one morning last summer. The sun barely awake, Ula Tolutau loosened his muscles following another squat set in anticipation for the 2013 season.
“After last season, when we lost to Timpview, from that day on I was in the weight room,” Tolutau said. “I challenged myself every day to get better and better.”
His summer workout regiment consisted of multiple agility-based exercises with an emphasis on improving lower body strength. Tolutau sacrificed his downtime from the early morning to late evening without fail. Gradually, the Wisconsin commit became bigger, faster and stronger.
“He’d walk out of here soaking wet every day,” East coach Brandon Matich said. “He’d put the headphones on and he’d do it all by himself. It was a commitment he made.”
The relentless dedication propelled him to one of the finest individual rushing seasons in state history, and after leading East to the 4A state championship game with 2,465 yards and 31 touchdowns, Tolutau has been named the 17th Deseret News Mr. Football recipient.
“He’s gotten other accolades in his life and people have put him up for awards, but when I told him he was Mr. Football he was genuinely excited,” Matich said. “I think the Deseret News got this right. I think in 2013 Ula was the best player in the state of Utah. He was the guy that everybody came to watch when they went to watch East High football this year. This is a culmination of four years of hard work and doing things the right way.”
Tolutau broke a state record with 13 100-yard rushing games, and his cumulative rushing total ranks third all time. On only 195 carries, he averaged 12.5 yards per attempt — the third-highest average in state history. His explosion is characterized by his touchdown runs. In his 31 scores he ran for 1,254 yards alone, which would have ranked fourth in 4A and No. 15 statewide. He had 16 touchdown runs of 40 or more yards, and five of 80 or more.
“I thought I was going to be the prey and everybody was gunning for me, but after Alta I thought I’d average over 100 yards a game,” Tolutau said. “As every game progressed my mentality was just get the ball and run.”
Twice Tolutau eclipsed the 300-yard plateau, and in 10 games he rushed for the most yards that specific opponent gave up the entire season, including 121 against Timpview in a championship game loss when the Thunderbirds hadn’t surrendered a 100-yard performance all year.
“I’ve never had a player that you can put anywhere on the field and he could be dominant,” Matich said. “I think he probably would have been the best defensive end in the state if (he) played there all yearlong. He’s grown into that player in just a year's time though. Last year he was a really good running back; this year he was a phenomenal player. Ula Toluatu is a quintessential player that you want on a high school team. He’s as special of a kid that I’ve ever coached.”
For his part, Tolutau quickly deflects such compliments. “It wasn’t only me that did my job. This year’s team had so much talent to back up each other,” he said. “The ones that really helped me were the kids that don’t play, who know they don’t play, but they still come to practice and they still give it their all. They were the ones that really pushed me.”
Tolutau led by example on the field, and his leadership profoundly influenced the Leopards’ 13-1 season.
“He always had leadership instincts — he just didn’t know how to apply them. He had to grow up as a leader,” Matich said. “He’s very animated when he plays, but he’s very soft-spoken by nature. When he does speak the whole room listens — he’s like E.F. Hutton — because what’s coming out of his mouth is going to be really important.”
Tolutau is the second consecutive Mr. Football winner pledged to Wisconsin after Jordan’s Austin Kafentzis won in 2012.
“Wisconsin is getting a big power back that has phenomenal feet. He’s like a semitruck barreling down with a Porsche’s mobility. He’s a guy that can outrun you and a guy that’s going to hit you like an anvil over and over again,” Matich said. “You look at (1999 Heisman trophy winner) Ron Dayne from Wisconsin and he was a lot like that. (Tolutau) would hit the hole so fast and so hard that he was to a second level before the safety had time to react. He’s a great combination of size and speed.”