When someone wakes up with a view of the Santa Monica Mountains on one side and the glimmering Pacific Ocean on the other, it may be easy to assume that they’re doing well in life.
But instead of million-dollar Malibu mansion, University of Southern California defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was awaking in the back of his 2004 Chevy Suburban. He’d gone from living comfortably with his wife and playing for the University of Utah and ended up in California in his quest for more playing time and a purpose in life.
Tu’ikolovatu was “pretty much homeless,” he told the Los Angeles Times. The 25-year-old had been planning to transfer to the University of Southern California, but per NCAA rules, the school was unable to provide him with benefits, like housing or a stipend, until he was enrolled, which wouldn’t happen until his transcripts arrived.
He and his wife, Kalo, dreamed about one day opening elderly-care facilities in Southern California.
But, Tu’ikolovatu grew antsy while waiting for his transcripts, and he hopped on a flight to Los Angeles without her so he could practice with his new teammates.
Living in his rented car, he eventually learned that Santa Monica and Malibu had the most proactive guards and memorized the street sweepers’ schedules to avoid getting a ticket. His parents eventually delivered his Suburban to California.
His 6-foot-1, 320-pound body eventually became accustomed to sleeping in the large SUV, but it was never comfortable, Tu’ikolovatu said. Kalo remained in Salt Lake City, working for a hospital and serving as the couple’s only breadwinner.
But, Kalo grew worried, thinking about her husband living alone on the unfamiliar streets. So, she quit her job and joined Tu’ikolovatu to live in the Suburban.
The couple created a routine. They’d work out in the sand in the morning, and Kalo would drop Tu’ikolovatu off at USC while she looked for a job. She’d pick him up again at 5 p.m.
Kalo added shower curtains to keep the sun out and the two would shower at the beach. They found a favorite spot, at the top of a parking garage at Huntington Beach. And on weekends, they’d work out early and spend the rest of the day exploring.
“We were basically all around the coast,” Kalo said. “We were little hippies.”
Tu’ikolovatu would spend an occasional night with family living in Inglewood and teammates. But the independent athlete didn’t like to “burden anyone,” Kalo said.
The transcripts had been delayed due to an outstanding fee on Tu’ikolovatu’s record, the couple found out. Once USC received them, Tu’ikolovatu was enrolled and the couple moved into university housing on Aug. 3, after almost a month and a half of living in their SUV.
Tu’ikolovatu has been one of USC’s best defensive players and has served as a veteran presence for the inexperienced football team.
“I go to bed thanking the Lord that he’s on our football team,” Head Coach Clay Helton said.
As for Kalo, she’s avoided traveling to away games to watch her husband. She’s content watching him play from their apartment.