This is a great background article about the young man published last year. He's essentially been injury free through college. And try not to worry when you read about the "foot injury" mentioned in the article that he sustained. It was not a Lisfranc, it was a Jones fracture which required the screw.........and that occurred his senior year in HS..............with no problems with it since. I believe we've picked up a "small" asset that Demeco can weaponize!
Why Henry To’oto’o deemed Tennessee the perfect fit as his next home
PITTSBURG, Calif. — Where had the time gone?
Jeremy Pruitt sat down in Tennessee’s film room last June alongside Henry To’oto’o and his father, Iese, at around 9 p.m. near the end of To’oto’o’s first visit to Knoxville.
Kevin Simon joined them. He played at De La Salle High School, just like To’oto’o, and has a claim to the title of the Spartans’ best player ever. Now working in player development for Tennessee, Simon wears orange instead of De La Salle green.
To’oto’o had been interested in Alabama and was doing his due diligence by checking out Tennessee, who had hired Pruitt, the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator, six months earlier.
For the next three hours, the four of them sat in the dark. Pruitt showed the To’oto’os film from Alabama, explaining how his defense worked and how he could use Henry within it. At Tennessee, To’oto’o would mostly play weak-side inside linebacker, with a chance to play some Mike linebacker. Pruitt needled To’oto’o with questions along the way, feeling out the five-star linebacker’s football IQ. Eventually, Tennessee’s staff told To’oto’o he’d have a chance to start as a true freshman.
Pruitt’s eyebrows were raised when To’oto’o picked up concepts as quickly as Pruitt could teach them. He moved on to some film cutups of Tennessee’s spring practice, explaining the differences between what the Tide could run with their personnel versus the brand of 3-4 defense Tennessee would be playing.
To’oto’o and his father had never met Pruitt before that weekend. Pruitt saw a player he could teach concepts to and explain how he could fit. So he did exactly that.
“This guy is wired up like a scientist,” Iese To’oto’o said.
Pruitt also took aim at Henry To’oto’o’s own tape. He offered a frank assessment: To’oto’o’s aggressiveness and ability jumped off the screen. But, often, he’d read an opposing offense and pause. He’d overthink instead of reacting. He had to improve there, along with a few minor technique tweaks Pruitt pointed out.
“He already had started teaching my son,” Iese To’oto’o said. “And we haven’t even talked about commitment.”
It made Henry feel like he impressed Pruitt. At the same time, it gave him a glimpse of how much more he had to learn and how eager Pruitt was to teach him.
The Vols had camp at 7 the next morning. When the clock struck midnight, Simon alerted his head coach.
“(Pruitt) was like, ‘Well, man, I could keep going,’” Iese To’oto’o said.
One thing was clear as the To’oto’os returned to their hotel. Iese turned to his son and laughed.
“Man, that was crazy,” he said. “You’d fit in well here.”
For the first time, Tennessee had a real chance to be Henry To’oto’o’s new home.
Henry To’oto’o’s grandfather brought his family to the mainland from American Samoa. When he moved, he registered his new family name as To’oto’o, his father’s first name. The correct pronunciation is TOE-oh, TOE-oh.
Iese and Rima To’oto’o had their first son, Sos, when they were still teenagers. Henry followed. The To’oto’os have had six more kids, with a toddler named Hercules as the youngest. The others are Ieseline, Elenoa, Tiute, Bill and Fia.
Henry got his name from an uncle, Henry Falonga, who was a mentor to Iese, and a great grandfather, Henry Roberts, who was adopted by an English family and played international rugby.
Henry, who is half Tongan and half Samoan, spent most of his early life in south Sacramento.
“It was a bad area,” Iese To’oto’o said. “It felt like people who got in trouble with the law, whatever that might be, here in the Bay Area migrated out there.”
By the time Iese’s oldest sons were in school, he would take them to the park for workouts that have become a family tradition. By now, even the family’s youngest kids are well-acquainted with the speed, agility and football drills, doing their own version when the family heads to the nearby field. From March to December, it was a common ritual, one that lasted nearly two hours.
Years ago, Iese apologized to his son. Their relationship was built around the game they loved — too much in his view. But it serves as a central meeting point for both. It always has.
Iese saw the natural ability in Henry and sought to direct it. He had football dreams of his own, but he says his own “bad decisions” fueled by his “quick temper” plus a child at 18 meant he had more pressing matters at home. Playing college football wasn’t possible anymore.
“Him pushing me, I feel like that kind of shaped me into who I am now,” Henry said. “Seeing him go through his struggles and then him telling me that, you know, football is the key to education. So we’re going to use football to get your free education. So that’s kind of how we’ve used football as a tool.”
Every day, Iese wakes up around 4:30 and makes the pre-dawn, 30-mile commute to Oakland, where he’s a mechanic on large machinery. Rima spends her days caring for the children at home.
Iese is also ordained in the Melchizedek Priesthood in the Mormon Church. Henry is ordained in the Aaronic Priesthood, which is placed upon “worthy” men in the church ages 12-17.
During spring break earlier this year, Rima found herself shivering in bed with what the family thought was a bad flu. By Tuesday, Henry found himself talking his mom out of bed.
“We need to go to the hospital,” she said.
Rima, who never wanted her son to miss a workout, pleaded with him that they could wait until later in the day.
“No, we’re going now,” he said.
They ended up in the hospital overnight. The next day, Iese made a quick trip home to tend to the rest of the kids and grab a shower and some food. He had barely gotten home when the doctors gave Rima and Henry distressing news back at the hospital. She needed surgery immediately.
With a lump growing in her throat, Rima paused her recounting of the story and gestured to Henry to finish.
“When she had to go into surgery, I was still the only one there,” Henry said.
He called his dad with an update.
“I said, ‘Henry, God loves you and wants you to share this moment with your mom. This is your moment with your mom. It’s meant to happen this way. Be there for her. Make sure you comfort her. Make sure she feels confident,’” Iese said.
Traditionally, before a medical procedure of that magnitude, a Melchizedek priest in the family would give the blessing. Instead, that responsibility fell to Henry. He comforted his mother, laid his hands on her head and prayed aloud.
“It was special,” Rima said.
For the To’oto’os, it was another benchmark moment in the growth of their son. It was a trying moment for the family. It was a moment that told Iese’s mind what his heart already knew: Henry had grown up and was ready to leave home as a man.
When Henry signed with Tennessee, the family began looking at purchasing a home in Knoxville and moving everybody 2,000 miles away. Henry stopped them. He wanted to go alone. And he wanted to still have somewhere to return to in California, a state that, save for a couple of years in Utah, he’s called home.
De La Salle head coach Justin Alumbaugh was still trying to get a feel for his new team during a summer workout when an assistant jogged across the field.
The assistant was in charge of the JV team, but he had a request. He told Alumbaugh he needed to get a closer look at this new sophomore, Henry To’oto’o. His older brother, Sos, was playing varsity, and Alumbaugh’s assistant had a warning.
“He’s gonna kill people if he’s on JV,” the assistant said.
The To’oto’os had moved from Sacramento on the recommendation from a cousin who raved about De La Salle’s education and football program. Alumbaugh made his way over to the other side of the field and needed to see only one play before he pulled To’oto’o off the field.
“Hey, I’m going to try you on the other side of the field with varsity, but just do what you were doing there,” Alumbaugh told his new player.
It took one more play before Alumbaugh’s JV coach stopped watching. There wasn’t a decision to be made.
To’oto’o had yet to be indoctrinated by De La Salle’s intense offseason program, and even though he was a 6-footer, he was still south of 180 pounds. He played well as a sophomore, though he struggled against some of the larger, better competition.
A year later, a stronger, heavier To’oto’o began a season that cemented his status as a five-star prospect in the 2019 class, as he led the team in sacks.
“He was the backbone of our team. That guy was the leader,” said Beaux Tagaloa, a cousin, close friend and teammate of To’oto’o who signed with San Jose State this year.
The two grew up alongside each other from the time they were toddlers, engaging in more than a few “Madden” battles, with To’oto’o preferring the Panthers and controlling middle linebacker Luke Kuechly on every play.
To’oto’o was named a unanimous captain as a senior and reprised his two-way role as star linebacker and running back, playing offense when needed. He might carry the ball once against an overmatched opponent. Or, in national showcase games like last year’s nationally televised 27-21 win against Bishop Gorman, he’d turn 15 carries into 130 yards with touchdown runs of 55 and 53 yards.
The Friday night before the Spartans played for the state title against national No. 1 Mater Dei, To’oto’o was casually jogging during a half-speed walkthrough. He made a cut he’d made thousands of times before, but the fifth metatarsal on the outside of his foot cracked. The team went silent and mostly stayed that way for hours while To’oto’o’s injury was being treated.
In a training room, Alumbaugh had a quiet conversation with his star. No one would blame him if he sat. He had a college career to worry about. He’d proven himself over and over again throughout his three years. He couldn’t do further damage to the foot and needed a screw installed, in addition to the plate installed in his shoe, which they weren’t even sure would fit, thanks to the severe swelling overtaking his foot.
“It was like I slapped him in the face,” Alumbaugh said. “He just goes, ‘Coach, I’m F’n playing.’”
Iese still had to sign off on allowing athletic trainers to give his son the painkillers he’d need to have a chance of playing. He did so with reluctance, and at Henry’s insistence.
The next morning, Henry arrived at the team’s quiet, nervous breakfast. No one knew what to expect, and no one wanted to ask the only question anyone had.
Was Henry going to play?
He found a seat with his teammates at breakfast and threw his foot on the table.
“Sorry, boys, I gotta keep it elevated so I can play tonight,” he said with a smile.
Doctors barred To’oto’o from playing offense. Defensively, he was limited. The painkillers wore off after halftime, and by late in the third quarter, Alumbaugh pulled his star for his own sake. To’oto’o was trying, but he wasn’t the same player who could run into the box and throw an offensive lineman into his backfield. He was getting caught on blocks, and the limp got worse and worse.
“After the game, I told him, I would never, ever, ever do that again. I would never do it,” Iese To’oto’o said. “I would rather get 1,000 needles and shove ’em in my eye than watch my son suffer like that again.”
The Spartans lost, but for one last time, To’oto’o won the respect of his teammates. If there was a shred of doubt on the roster whether he deserved to be the guy during the season to restart practice if he didn’t like his teammates’ effort, it was gone.
“We’ve grown together,” Henry To’oto’o said. “I told them I love them, and when I say that, it means I go all in for someone.”
Tennessee’s coaching staff never asked about To’oto’o’s speed or skills when they called or visited De La Salle. They wanted to know more about his personality behind the scenes and his toughness.
Questions about the latter were permanently answered.
Playing football on the West Coast while favoring two SEC schools as a recruit makes life complicated. Campus visits during the season are basically impossible, and To’oto’o knew he needed more time. Signing in December wasn’t going to happen, even as he trimmed his list from “everyone” to Alabama, Washington and Tennessee.
At times during his junior year, he turned off his phone for most of the day and turned it back on when practice and homework were done around 9 p.m. He would be greeted with more than 300 messages.
The first time Alabama coach Nick Saban saw his film, he told Tosh Lupoi, his defensive coordinator, that To’oto’o was “incredible” and he wanted him. Tennessee’s staff reached a consensus: He was one of the best linebacking prospects they’d seen in years.
“Everyone wants attention so when I first got it, I loved it. But then as it time moved on, it got worse. I was kind of tired of everything, I just wanted it to stop,” To’oto’o said. “And then it was just hectic and stressful.”
In the sprint between the early signing period in December and February’s National Signing Day, To’oto’o focused on the decision, but Alabama was a near certainty. The Tide were a power, and Lupoi, a fellow De La Salle alum, had taken the lead on his recruitment and earned the trust of the To’oto’o family.
“The relationship between us and them grew because they’re pretty straightforward. They weren’t trying to sell us nothing. I felt like all the recruiters were trying to sell us their product,” Iese To’oto’o said. “They’re trying to say how better their vacuum was compared to everybody else and pointing out everybody else’s problem. So what they did that stood out was they were just trying to get to know us.”
While every other recruiter told Henry how good he was, Tennessee’s staff focused on the other side of the coin: his flaws and how the Volunteers could coach them out of his game.
In January, Lupoi took a job coaching the defensive line with the Cleveland Browns, shaking up To’oto’o’s recruitment once more.
In the final weeks before signing day, the Alabama and Tennessee head coaches showed up in his living room.
Alabama brought Saban and new defensive coordinator Pete Golding and visited with Henry’s parents while he was at school, spending a couple of hours with Rima and Iese. Tennessee brought Pruitt and To’oto’o’s lead recruiter, Brian Niedermeyer, the 247Sports national recruiter of the year as a rookie position coach.
There weren’t any arguments left to make, just time to hang out. The family watched a Warriors game together before packing up in a few cars with more than a dozen of To’oto’o’s family members to nearby Mel’s Diner, where Henry chatted about his future over his favorite plate of chicken and waffles.
After a lengthy visit that breached four hours, Tennessee’s contingent headed home and the family sat down with a list of pros and cons.
In their minds, Tennessee and Alabama were nearly identical. But the Vols had a connection to De La Salle that Alabama suddenly lacked. To’oto’o had been in Alumbaugh’s office when Simon called for their occasional chat to catch up. Recruiting could wait. They were just old friends. He saw that bond and heard the trust and love in his coach’s voice toward his former player. So when Simon tried to tug him to Knoxville, his words made an impact.
“It’s a brotherhood, it’s like a frat, once you’re in, you’re going to reap the benefits of that, that frat for the rest of your life,” Iese To’oto’o said. “I knew that Kevin Simon understood his struggles and understood all the challenges that he’s been through. I knew that he would not give up on him, regardless of what happens to him if he would leave or whatnot, and he will stay in touch with him. That meant everything.”
Simon was a major point of contact between Tennessee and De La Salle, and he’s also a close friend of Alumbaugh, who coached Simon and played with Lupoi.
When To’oto’o might reference a teacher at his school, Simon or Lupoi might have shared a class with the same teacher.
“That recruiting process can be really overwhelming,” Alumbaugh said. “If you can really find a moment to put an anchor in and you can kind of feel safe and feel a little bit more protected and cared for, I think that goes a long way. And I think that I know, I mean, I talked to Henry about it a lot. I know that that meant a lot to him because it made him feel just more comfortable with the whole thing because it’s a whirlwind.”
Tennessee left the To’oto’o family with a key question: Which school did they trust most with their son’s life for the next four years? Simon and his connection to De La Salle meant the family’s answer was Tennessee.
In the morning, he fielded calls from Saban and Pruitt.
“The night before, I knew I wasn’t going to change my mind,” Henry To’oto’o said. “I’m gonna go to Tennessee and do what I had to do.”
He told Saban the difficult news and thanked him for the opportunity.
“Then he, you know, kind of gave me a little long lecture about how he would benefit me,” To’oto’o said. “But then I just told him straight up and he respected my decision.”
Two hours before he was scheduled to announce his decision on TV, he called Niedermeyer with news he knew the Tennessee assistant would like.
“You’re lying. I don’t believe you,” Niedermeyer told him.
To’oto’o laughed and tried to offer his new coaching staff some assurance.
“We’ll believe it when we see it on ESPN,” Niedermeyer said.
Two hours later, with scores of family surrounding him and multiple leis hanging around his neck, To’oto’o did exactly what he said he would do. In Polynesian culture, leis can have multiple meanings. They can be a gesture of gratitude, a thank you for the time you’ve spent together. They can be a welcome. They can be a celebration of success.
In Henry’s case, all of those applied.
He found his new home.