The simple passage of time has given Tui Eli the opportunity to find both the positives and the silver linings in his life over the past 14 months.
It’s things like planning a wedding and then marrying Tiana, a childhood friend, earlier this month. It was visiting family in Hawai’i, in Canada and in Polson, Montana, a place he now calls home.
And yet, admittedly, there was still a frustration with how his 2021 season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers ended, too. If you recall, Eli suited up for the Western Final on December 5th that year but was then suspended and unable to play in the 108th Grey Cup game in Hamilton as the club’s only unvaccinated player. Government travel guidelines and mandates put in place by the Canadian Football League meant he could not accompany the team for the championship. Eli opted not to get the COVID-19 vaccinations and calls it a ‘faith-based personal health decision.’
Now all these months later – and after his first contract expired and he opted to sit out the entire 2022 season – Eli has recommitted to the game after signing a three-year contact with the Blue Bombers.
“It was a nightmare to be suspended from your dream team and to be taken away from your team at the time,” said Eli when reached in Montana by bluebombers.com. “I couldn’t travel that was the final deal. My fiancée and I prayed about it and made a decision and that’s what came of it.
“A lot of good things happened, though, after the suspension including getting engaged and getting married. Through it all, one of the things that was really affirming to me was Coach O’Shea… he was really there for me every step along the way. He wanted to see me play in the Grey Cup, but we both came to terms with the rules and what the CFL and the government mandates were. That’s what we had to go with.
“I have my own opinions on things, but those were the rules. They had to do what they had to do, but there were a lot of teammates that showed me they cared and respected my decision, even though it might not have been what they or anyone fully believes in. That respect, though, is something that really stood out to me.”
Eli’s engagement and marriage marked a significant moment for their families – Tui’s father is a chief in the village of Falelatai on Upolu Island in Western Samoa, while Tiana’s father is a chief in Samatau, just a few miles away on the same island.
The Blue Bombers had kept in contact with Eli for much of 2022, but his decision to step away from the game was a spiritual one.
“The Lord told me to be still,” he said. “I prayed with my wife and Montana was where we were called to be. At the time we both knew what we were doing what we were supposed to be doing, and where we were was where we were supposed to be. That was affirming throughout the season, even though it was really tough to watch from afar and not being out there. But through all the victories and triumphs the Bombers had throughout the season I supported them from afar.”
Eli’s return only further bolsters the club’s offensive line depth. A fourth-round pick of the Blue Bombers in the 2019 CFL Draft, he was an accomplished player at the University of Hawai’i as he was twice named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award as the top centre in NCAA football.
The team has already agreed to new contracts to pending free agents Pat Neufeld, Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick and returns Canadians Geoff Gray, Chris Kolankowski, Liam Dobson, along with import tackle Drew Richmond and Tomoya Machino, a Global tackle.
Veteran centre Michael Couture remains the one pending free agent.
In addition to travelling and getting married, Eli said he also took odd jobs working for Door Dash and Uber Eats while also doing renovation work with his father-in-law and coaching the offensive line at Ronan High School. There’s also this: his year away from the game only fuelled his desire to return.
“There’s a fire. I feel it. It’s still very much there,” he said. “You can talk to my wife – that fire is still burning for me. It’s interesting, throughout my whole football career – from high school to college to the Bombers – my passion has only grown. Once I reached the Bombers after taking a few years off after college I started to feel that burn again. And all the way up to the suspension the fire kept burning and burning. The suspension happened when I was at the top of my passion for the game. So, going from that to no football for a year has been… different. But it hasn’t left. It’s something I feel deep within and the only way I can describe it is as a fire.”
On top of that, the club’s commitment to him with a three-year deal after the decision he made in 2021 and his suspension at the end of that season has made him even hungrier to return.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s a testament to the coaching staff and all the players and leaders in the locker room. It’s very much a family. It’s not a normal locker room or the usual organization when you walk in there – it’s special.
“Whatever went into their decision to bring me back – my tape, my character, whatever it may be – most of all it’s a testament to the locker room they have.”