Julie Latu remembers when her twin sons Viliami and Alani first tried playing linebacker at Rancho Cucamonga High School in California. Both were playing well alongside each other, but that changed when the coaches subbed one of the Tongan brothers out of the game.
That’s when Julie noticed her boys start to struggle.
“The other one that was in there, he didn’t look good,” she said. “So I said to the coach, ‘You know what, I think you have to put one by the other, side by side.’”
Since then, Viliami and Alani Latu have been virtually inseparable.
It’s a little different now that the 6-foot-2-inch, 230-pound fraternal twins are freshman linebackers for the ASU football team.
All throughout fall camp, the Latu brothers have come in at different times with the second and third teams, but co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Randolph said he is glad the twins are on the team and that he admires their connection.
“I know they’ve always been playing on the field together, but they’ve handled it well (not playing at the same time),” Randolph said. “When one is out playing, the other is cheering for him.”
The twins were desirable high school recruits coming out of Rancho Cucamonga. Rivals.com rated Viliami as a four-star prospect and the 13th-best inside linebacker in the nation while Alani had a three-star rating and was the No. 49 outside linebacker in the country.
USC, UCLA, UA, Boise State and many others offered scholarships to at least one of them. They each could have easily committed to almost any school in the Southwest and gone their separate ways, but Alani and Viliami always knew it was best they play together.
They told recruiting sites they wanted to commit as a “package deal,” and every school soon gave them a joint offer.
San Diego State and Oregon State were serious options for the Latus when they trimmed their list to three schools, but they both said being a Sun Devil seemed natural to them.
Perhaps it was because their cousin, Paul Unga, played defensive end for ASU from 2007-08. The Latus, who said they wanted to be just like Unga, took pictures with him after games, both donning ASU shirts.
The two gave their verbal commitments to ASU together on Oct. 6, 2012, and they officially signed their national letters of intent on Feb. 6.
“We’ve always pictured ourselves being here,” Viliami said.
Choosing the school they wanted to attend, however, was only half the battle. The Latus had another difficult decision to make.
A Difficult Decision
Viliami and Alani grew up as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has been a longtime fixture in the Latu family.
Many Mormon males opt to serve a two-year mission after high school, and because the twins dreamed of going on theirs for their entire lives, they considered foregoing their first two years of eligibility at ASU.
But Viliami and Alani itched to play football and didn’t want to walk away from the sport they’ve been playing their entire lives.
Dealing with their conflict was difficult as their entire family assumed Alani and Viliami would go on their mission. At first, it shocked Julie when the twins approached her about skipping their mission to play football, but she softened her stance after they reasoned with her and Alani, Sr.
“I had to give them their free agency,” she said. “They decided that, ‘Mom, if it wasn’t for this, of course we would go on our missions.’”
Even though both parents gave their approval, Julie said their other relatives criticized their decision, but she didn’t care. Today, Alani, Sr. and Julie fully support everything in the twins’ college football careers.
Winning ASU over was a lot easier for the twins. Randolph said he knew the Latus might not be able to play immediately when he recruited them, yet it was a risk he was willing to take. The coach said the team was willing to let them go on their mission knowing that they would have returned as mature adults.
“They’ve talked about how tough it was to make that decision, but they’re both excited that they are here and they are playing football,” Randolph said.
Looking back, the Latus believe they made the right decision.
“I don’t regret my choice,” Alani said. “I’m glad that I’m here. I’m loving it right now.”
A Reason for Playing
Alani and Viliami aren’t just playing football for themselves.
The twins said they dedicate their football careers to their 9-year-old brother Joe, who is quadriplegic.
The twins assist their parents in supporting him every day as much as they can, even while they are away. Viliami and Alani would care for Joe whenever the nurses were away from their house, and Julie said she found Alani on Joe’s bed one night because Alani learned in his anatomy class that touching a person will help them live longer.
A teacher once asked Joe what was his one wish. After the interview, the teacher told the twins Joe’s wish was to play football alongside his brothers.
It changed Viliami and Alani’s perspectives on life, and Julie said she fondly remembers a high school game when the twins rolled Joe’s wheelchair across the field to let the crowd know he was their brother.
“We’re basically doing this for him,” Viliami said. “We’re doing this for him so he can have that life that he can’t have.”
A Family Away from Home
Family values are important in Polynesian cultures and, along with their Mormon identity, it was a priority Julie instilled in her sons as they grew up.
And this is one of the things the twins wanted to bring with them to ASU.
The twins consider redshirt freshman linebacker Carlos Mendoza and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mo Latu their best friends on the team. Despite having the same last name, Mo isn’t blood-related to the twins, but they tell people he is their brother because of how much they have in common.
Mo remembers when he first met the Latus. He got excited when he first heard about them and dropped everything to introduce himself.
“I couldn’t stay away from them,” Mo said.
Besides their last name, the three Latus share many other similarities. Like Viliami and Alani, Mo is Tongan and grew up in California. All three love singing and playing the ukulele, and the fact that Mo switched from playing offensive line to defensive line just before the twins arrived helped them become friends as well.
The three Latus kept in contact after the twins left from their recruiting trip and became closer when Viliami and Alani gave their verbal commitment to ASU. Over the summer, Mo constantly visited the twins’ dorm room to hang out.
The extended family Viliami and Alani have created in Tempe doesn’t stop with Mo. The Latus believe the entire team itself is a family.
After all, it’s the biggest reason why they picked ASU.
“It was family oriented,” Alani said. “It’s like a brotherhood over here.”
The Challenges Ahead
Alani and Viliami understand many more challenges await them as they begin college.
The Latus said they know the linebacker position is one of the deepest on the entire team, but even though they acknowledge the fact that they aren’t at the top of the depth chart, they said they don’t want to redshirt and are determined to find playing time.
Randolph said he refuses to count them out from seeing action, because many freshmen use the beginning of camp to learn the system. So far, he’s noticed their tireless work ethic, which is what Mo and Mendoza said would be the biggest thing the twins bring to the team.
“I tell the coaches every day, ‘I’m ready to play; I’m ready to play,’” Alani said. “Every rep I get, I put all of my effort into it.”
Viliami and Alani said most players on the team know they’re Mormon and that they trust their teammates will support and help them refrain from any temptations. They said the captains tell the team to not get involved in risky off-the-field activities anyway.
Meanwhile, Julie is confident her sons will stay clean.
Viliami and Alani said they would still consider going on their LDS mission at some point, but it’s not a subject they are focusing on now. The Latus still pray daily and attend church once a week.
“If it wasn’t for Him, we wouldn’t be here, so we always got to put God first,” Viliami said. “We always praise Him and give Him thanks.”
For now, however, the Latu brothers will settle on another kind of mission — helping ASU achieve its goals of winning the Pac-12 Championship and getting a berth to the Rose Bowl.
And, of course, win for Joe.
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