The heat was sweltering and the rain was coming down in torrents. Still, the missionaries continued down the road, a mix of perspiration and rain rolling off their backs and faces. To their left and right they passed the humble houses of the people of Hong Kong.
Knocking on the plywood doors of these homes, Elder Tavita Sagapolu seemed a giant. Standing six feet tall and weighing 265 pounds, the college-football-star-turned-full-time-missionary towered over most of the people in this city. And now, he discovered he towered over their homes too. The buildings only came up to his chin.
After approaching one of the houses, Tavita’s more experienced companion, who had been on his mission several months, turned to the young Samoan man and offered him the door. It would be Tavita’s first door since arriving in Hong Kong, an experience that would remain with him throughout his life.
Tavita shook with nervousness as he prepared to knock. “My mouth went dry and refused to open,” he recalls. Nonetheless, he mustered the courage to approach the door, a door so small he had to kneel down to knock.
“As I was kneeling there, I forgot how strong I was. I didn’t even have to knock—my hand was shaking so much that all I had to do was put my arm up to the door.” Before Tavita knew what was happening the door fell in under the weight of his arm. Panic swept through him as he tried to put the door back on its hinges before anyone came.
Suddenly, an elderly woman appeared at the door. When she opened it, it fell on her. She came out screaming. “I grabbed my companion and put him in front of me. I said ‘Here, talk to him!’ The memory of that little old woman’s face after the door fell down will always be with me.” Now, when he recalls the episode, Tavita chuckles.
A Lifelong Dream
Ever since Tavita was 11, it was his dream to serve a mission—and nothing was going to stand in his way. He loved to sit and listen to returned missionaries share their spiritual experiences, and each day he grew more determined that he too would serve. By the time Tavita was a college freshman, preparing to sign scholarship agreements to play football at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, he made sure he could leave for two years to serve the Lord.
After serving an honorable mission, Tavita returned to his spot on the Hawaii roster and this fall will suit up as offensive guard.
Though Tavita was born in American Samoa, his family moved to Hawaii when he was only four years old. “I am one of the ‘end of the rope’ ones,” laughed Tavita, commenting on his role as the 14th child in a family of 15.
In the Samoan culture, families are very important, and large families are respected. Parents are treated with great honor. “Coming from a large family helps the brothers and sisters to depend on one another,” Tavita explains. “They draw upon each other’s strength and give moral support to one another. Any time one of us needed the others, we were always there. Regardless of where we were, we’d come back to help. It is still the same to this day.”
As Tavita’s brothers and sisters got older, they would work to help support the family. Their father worked, and their mother stayed home to raise the children.
All 15 children were brought up in the Church, and the gospel played an important role in their lives. “I am thankful that my parents constantly encouraged me to do the right thing,” Tavita says. “To this present moment I have never had any problems keeping my standards, no matter what.”
David and Goliath
Most who meet Tavita are intimidated at first by the tall, muscular young man. But when he starts speaking, his cheerful and loving spirit radiates and they are no longer afraid. “I want people to see that Samoans are a soft, gentle, and kind people. We are taught to respect others and, more importantly, to treat others the way we want to be treated.”
Tavita may be big, but he’s not ferocious or quick tempered. His name means “David.” Though he is closer in size to Goliath, his name represents courage and patience, traits he and the biblical David share.
Tavita started learning patience when he was a young boy. He needed a direction in his life, and when he was 13 a good friend got him into weight lifting. By the age of 14 Tavita could bench press 315 pounds and squat 500 pounds.
“People thought that I was 20 when I was only 14 because of the way I acted and the way I looked. I had the body of an adult. Even so, I still loved to play and watch cartoons.”
In the following years Tavita continued to grow in both strength and size. He entered and won weight lifting competitions around the country. At the age of 15 Tavita traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was recognized as the strongest 14–17-year-old in the United States, bench pressing 402 pounds and squatting 650 pounds. For five years he won national titles. By 18 he could bench press 525 pounds and squat 908 pounds.
In high school Tavita excelled at weight lifting and football. In his first season on the football field he made all-state and all-American. His list of awards goes on and on. “I excelled in football and weight lifting because they are the two sports I love the most,” he says.
But Tavita excelled not only because of his love for the sports, but because he taught himself strict discipline. That discipline helped him learn Cantonese while still preparing to enter the Hong Kong Mission. “When I got my call to Hong Kong, my next thought was, ‘What is a 265 pound Samoan going to do there?’ But I knew that was where Heavenly Father wanted me to serve.”
At the beginning, Tavita had a tough time with the language. It was frustrating to not be able to communicate his strong feelings about the gospel. “Through patience and prayer I learned to endure. The relationship between my Heavenly Father and me grew closer, more than I ever thought it could. My knees literally had calluses on them.”
Patience and long suffering helped him succeed on his mission. These attributes have continued to help him succeed in his college studies and football career. Unlike high school, where he thought he had to prove something, all he has to prove now is his worthiness to his Heavenly Father.
Tavita continues to work out six days a week. “I take a lot of pride in building the body Heavenly Father gave to me—to keep it clean and to keep it physically as well as spiritually fit.”
Tavita also strives to be a good example to both his LDS and non-LDS friends. He wants to have a positive influence on those around him.
But first and foremost is his relationship with the Lord. “The relationship I have with my Heavenly Father is a little like the one I have with my own dad and mom. I try to do the best of my ability and serve Him and do what He wants me to do.”
Tavita’s father recently passed away and his mother is living in California, but every opportunity they have, the family gets together to have fun. Tavita especially enjoys working on cars with his brothers and cousins. “I love to fix cars. I love anything to do with hands and tools. I have a strong talent for being able to fix and repair things. In fact, my father was a mechanic, and my brothers are also mechanics.”
Tavita has enthusiastic advice for the young people of the Church. “Serve a mission. Especially the young men when they turn 19. Go now. It might not be the easiest, but it will be the best two years of your life.”
He also advises youth to learn the importance of the gospel in their lives.
“Stay close to the Church,” Tavita adds. “Have a close relationship with your Heavenly Father. It has helped me.”
And that’s the kind of attitude which, whether he’s standing or kneeling, makes Tavita Sagapolu a true spiritual giant.