Illinois football’s Joe Fotu wears his history on his arm

By Charlotte Carroll

A smile breaks out on Joe Fotu’s face as he tilts his head sitting in the recruiting room of Memorial Stadium. Eyes, chin and fingers all point to his left arm.

It’s covered in ink.

The etching starts at the top of his shoulder and extends to the mid-forearm. A mix of designs and patterns creates a work of art that overlays skin and finds cohesiveness from its cultural background.

Shading and outlines ripple as muscles twist the arm to show each part; each carrying a meaning and each depicting a different aspect of his life, but all coming together to tell his story.

Teepees. A heart. Horns.

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And as Fotu lifts his orange t-shirt’s sleeve higher, it begins to make sense.

Rather, he begins to make sense of it. Because he can’t quite grasp it all.

Earned, not given

He was going to get a tribal design regardless.

After his mom, Toa Mafi, explained what the tattoo really meant, he realized he would have to wait to get the ink.

Though he pestered Mafi endlessly and felt he deserved the design sooner, he had to first understand the significance of such a tattoo. He’d wanted a tattoo since high school, but it was not until his junior college years that he knew he wanted a tribal.

But, he could not just get a tribal design of any given thing.

“It was frustrating,” Fotu said. “I felt like I was a man already and that I could do whatever I wanted.”

And so the end result came one afternoon after Fotu had come home from extra practice in preparation for his transition from junior college to the Big Ten.

It was a moment symbolizing a transition from boyhood to manhood; one that Fotu felt earlier, but was finally acknowledged when he realized a dream to play Big Ten football.

Dark, almost lost to the other markings, but present: a series of teepees illustrates this decision.

“Joe’s tattoo was designed after he signed to Illinois,” Mafi said. “So we blended in tepees as a symbol of the house of the University of Illinois, where he’s going to be sheltered in his last home.”

They signify where he will learn what it takes to get him through the next stage of his life.

While the teepees characterize his new home, it’s more of a journey’s end east as Fotu has settled in Champaign, Illinois, after moving to Oakland, California, from the kingdom of Tonga when he was just two-years-old.

A Polynesian sovereign state, the kingdom of Tonga is a collection of 169 islands in the South Pacific Ocean. Just over 100,000 people reside on the islands, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

So it was a shock for a middle school boy who claimed California as his home to discover he was born in a completely different country. Though it wasn’t until later in his life that he learned he was from Tonga, he’s claimed California ever since, but gradually has become more in touch with his heritage.

“Yeah, I’m Tongan,” Fotu said with a laugh. “I’m not American. Probably since sixth grade or something — around middle school — I’ve been claiming I was a Cali kid.”

The thick lines and shadings tell his story. It was a painstaking four days, six hours a day spent talking and watching TV as the tattoo was built, but each stroke came with a sense of cultural understanding.

Designed by his uncle, the tattoo is all Fotu.

While Fotu admitted to being scared of getting his first tattoo, he got off easy compared to how his ancestors received tattoos.

“When I got the tattoo, it was a different feeling,” Fotu said. “I didn’t feel the same. And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I felt tougher.’ People start looking at you differently and all my friends were like, ‘Oh, Joe has got a tribal.’ Just a different feeling.”

A tough heart

Past the teepees and leaves, laying on what appears to be an arrow’s head, sits a heart: a focal point amongst the lines and curves.

The familiar shape holds a deep resonance in his own beating organ as it denotes his first shift to manhood.

It’s a glimpse into a loss that shaped the family.

It happened in 2006. Joe’s baby sister, Emma, died at just three after falling and hitting her head.

It left the family heartbroken. And it left Joe an older sister, but three younger brothers as well.

So Joe was strong for his family.

He stayed strong during his sophomore year of high school when his older sister Alice took a turn for the worst. She had been sick with juvenile diabetes since she was eight, but it was this moment almost five years ago that sticks out for the family most.

Alice was in the hospital on life support. It was early in the morning and Mafi had gone home the night before, leaving her mom and sister to watch over Alice.

Joe and his brother Anthony were at church school when Mafi got the call. But she couldn’t face watching another daughter take her last breath.

“I was just crying,” Mafi said. “I wasn’t ready for that.”

So Joe, Anthony and Mafi’s second husband went. When they got to the hospital, Joe walked over to Alice and placed his hands on her head. Everyone prayed, but with their eyes open, watching Alice.

Mafi later heard from her sister and mother that it was as if something was released into the room as Alice’s lungs began moving more visibly.

Joe felt it too.

“Man, I don’t know what is was,” Fotu said. “It’s crazy … I could remember that forever. I can remember as if it was yesterday.”

That moment has shaped their brother-sister bond.

“Maybe it was a miracle, but ever since that day, Alice was really close to Joe,” Mafi said of her now 22-year-old daughter. “I think that’s why their bond is really special.”

He’s been there to calm her down every time since. Between her constant hospital stays, her younger brothers’ aggravation and even on her wedding day when he walked her down the aisle.

He’s the prescribed peacemaker and talker. Though Mafi was worried about the relationship as Joe traveled to the Midwest for school, the pair talks almost every day and Joe remains a force for his family.

“He’s become more mature and responsible in his first time away from home,” Mafi said. “To see him in his ups and downs, some days we talk and I know he’s a little homesick, but he’s grown. It’s good for him.”

It starts with the horns

As the shading extends upward, it reaches the shoulder blade and it hits the horns. Their curved edges begin the tattoo and crown the design, a nod to Fotu’s astrological sign and the sign of his late father.

“Joe asked to add it,” his mom said. “So his father’s memories are not only in his heart, but so that he feels him watching everything he does and protecting him.”

It was in a three-month span after Emma died in 2006, that Likiliki Fotu, who went by Ricki, died as well. Like his eldest daughter, he’d been battling diabetes, but finally succumbed to a stroke.

Joe said a more acute cause of his father’s health issues might have been his heartbreak about his youngest daughter’s death.

“I could tell my dad was going through it,” Joe said. “He was losing weight and sweating all the time. Nobody knew, nobody could see it coming, but we could tell he wasn’t in a good condition.”

So Joe stepped up.

“There were times in high school, as soon as I’d come back from practice, I’d help clean up the house and help the little bros with homework,” Fotu said. “It was tough. I could feel the stress, and how my mom feels trying to raise kids.”

For Mafi, he was a father figure in the family.

“It hit everybody,” Fotu said of his father’s death. “But at the same time, we used it as a strength to keep striving.”

The family got by with the help of Ricki’s younger brother, Will. He had moved to the United States and had been in California helping out as his brother got sicker.

He stayed when Emma and Ricki died. He stayed as the younger children slept in his arms, as they had with their father. More importantly, he stayed with the family as the children grew. In 2010, Mafi finally married Will and he has stayed for good.

They don’t call him pops or dad, rather uncle. And it was Uncle Will who Joe said got him into sports as a way to cope after his father’s death.?“He is why I’m here,” Fotu said. “Just him watching out and looking for us, I have so much respect for him.”

Joe never felt he was replacing his father, he understood Will was there to help.

“You have to respect that’s what makes Mom happy and they understand now,” Fotu said. “To have someone to help support the family, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Joe has extended that support with his sister and with his brothers. The bond is equally tight between Joe and the next oldest brother Anthony.

The brothers played rugby and football together at San Leandro High School in California and they played one year of junior college together.

“They don’t play with the other teams to better themselves, they compete with each other and the same thing with JC,” Mafi said with a laugh on her sons’ competitiveness.

When Joe transferred to Illinois after his second season, Anthony told himself he could do the same as his brother. Joe noticed the change in his brother.

“He started getting more focused,” Joe said. “Once I made it, he was like damn, my brother’s gone too. I need to take it more seriously. He’s been way more serious this year.”

A cultural link, one with a connection to family and the unknown, the tattoo and Joe’s signing to play at Illinois is a proven testament as to why the family moved from the islands in 1996.

“His father didn’t go to college, didn’t have an education. Since we’ve moved here, he’d been working and I’d been working. We’d been looking forward to a day like today,” Mafi said of Joe’s commitment to Illinois. I know if he was still here, he’d be crying like I am now because he was a very emotional guy. He’s the oldest son and (his father) would be very happy.”

A finished product, an unfinished tale

When he lowers that orange shirt, even Joe still isn’t sure what it all means.

But he knows he wants people to hear his story and the explanation behind the tattoo.

At the surface, it’s an intricate pattern weaved through strokes of ink.

But each contour and line conveys a deeper meaning.

History, tragedy and legend blur together in the outlines and shadings.

It’s a finished product, but an unfinished tale. A story of all that’s happened and what is to come.

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @charlottecrrll.