A lot can change in two years. A simple drive around Fort Mill these days confirms that.
When speaking with Hank Tuipulotu, there is little doubt that two years have changed him, too.
Tuipulotu recently returned from a two-year Mormon mission trip to Manchester, England, a trip he had in mind long before deciding on a college destination. The next trip for the former Nation Ford standout is to Provo, Utah, to suit up for Brigham Young University’s football team.
The overseas trip, though, clearly laid the foundation for the westward trek.
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“The experience that I had there was very humbling,” Tuipulotu said.
“It’s incredible to see so many people from so many different places. I’ve never been anywhere that’s been so diverse in my life. There are so many different cultures. It was just amazing for people to be so hospitable to us, as the missionaries. They were all very open and willing to discuss what we believe, in Jesus Christ. That was very special.”
The journey refined Tuipulotu’s commitment to his faith and service to others. His mission call allowed him a chance to serve, and he had another opportunity to serve upon his return from the United Kingdom. Tuipulotu visited Nation Ford for some time to pay forward his experience.
“It was so special,” said Tuipulotu of the return to his alma mater.
“I really, really love the staff, the teachers, the coaches at Nation Ford. I really owe a lot to them. They’re a big tribute to what I’ve been able to be blessed with. It was great to go back and try and pay back a little bit. I got to speak to some players and speak to some students, to try to encourage them to listen up, because they (the staff and teachers) know what they’re talking about.It was a great opportunity.”
Those words likely resonated more with one Nation Ford student than any other. Hank’s brother, Petey, is a rising junior receiver for the Falcons. Petey was a big part of the conversation between Hank and Nation Ford head football coach Michael Allen, but not the only part.
“He (Allen) really, really cared about my experiences I had in England, and wanted to know about them,” Tuipulotu stated. “I think he was very, very genuine in the way that he was trying to figure out where I was and where I was headed.”
While Petey will play at Nation Ford, Hank’s other brother Ben – himself a former Nation Ford star player and BYU commit – and sister Sami will also soon head on mission trips. Ben will soon depart for Osomo, Chile, while Sami departs later this year.
“The biggest thing (I’ve told them) has just been to let themselves give everything. They’ve gotta give up the things that they want, the things that they’re holding back,” Tuipulotu said. “Ben, for example, giving up the pride that comes with football is just a way for him to embrace everything else that will come from his mission. The biggest advice I’ve given him is that he can really be an instrument.He can really help so many people, if he’s willing to let himself be used in that way.”
The ability to stay in football shape is one of the challenges of being on a mission, due to the demands of the call. Tuipulotu acknowledges that challenge, while stating that he feels himself rounding back to where he needs to be.
“I can feel myself getting there (back into shape),” Tuipulotu said. “It’s very difficult to maintain, but getting it back hasn’t been the most difficult thing.”
Tuipolotu took some extra time to be with his family before heading to Provo, stating his commitment to them is “back up in its rightful spot” atop his list of priorities. He will find another familiar face in BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, who is a longtime friend of Tuipulotu’s father, Peter. Hank realizes nothing is promised him, though, and plans to make the most of his opportunities.
“Football is a means. It’s a means to an end, and it’s a great opportunity, of course, to move on and to go to school, and perhaps to get paid, to have a job,” Tuipulotu explained, before returning to the influence of his calling. “To me, that mission trip has meant the world, and I’m very, very excited to see the opportunities that it will continue to open up, because I know that there are many to come.”
Whatever opportunities await him, Tuipulotu knows that his time in Fort Mill helped him achieve them.
“This is a wonderful area to live, and a place where kids, especially, can have a great education and great opportunities to learn, to grow, and to move on,” he said. “Fort Mill does a great job of doing that. Otherwise, it wouldn’t grow like this.”