TigerIllustrated - THE STORY OF UIAGALELEI - Part 2
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THE STORY OF UIAGALELEI - Part 2

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When she was raising her two boys, Tausha Uiagalelei often closed her eyes and pictured a different world.

A world in which she didn't have to carry someone else's baby six times as a surrogate mother to help make ends meet.

A world in which she didn't have to deal with the struggle of taking care of her own mother, who was disabled by multiple sclerosis and lived with the family for 14 years before succumbing to the disease when DJ was a freshman in high school.

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Don't misunderstand: Tausha wasn't miserable. She loved her boys, loved her mother and loved being able to bring new life into the world for couples who couldn't have children.

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But she also experienced the human impulse to imagine a better life, one allowing her both the time and the means to drive herself about 50 miles west to the ritzy Beverly Center mall in West Hollywood, to walk right into that Louis Vuitton store and buy herself a handbag.

That mall and that store might as well have been across the Pacific Ocean.

A much younger D.J. Uiagalelei celebrates a birthday.
A much younger D.J. Uiagalelei celebrates a birthday. (TI File - Uiagalelei)

She couldn't afford the real thing, and neither could her oldest son. But that didn't stop DJ, over the years, from regularly going out and buying various knockoff versions of the bag to make his mom happy.

Not just any knockoff from a random street corner. But the best damned knockoffs the kid could find, after carefully inspecting and comparing all the different imitation varieties.

"DJ knew how much I loved that brand, and he knew that was a dream of mine," said Tausha, now 44. "In all my years as a surrogate mom, I always thought: 'If I could just walk into a Louis Vuitton store and buy one of those bags.'

"I know this sounds ridiculous: I'm giving six babies life, and I'm thinking about buying an expensive bag? But that was my dream: To walk in there and buy something."

So much of the DJ Uiagalelei story shared to date has been told by his father, a big man with a big personality who has served as his sons' hype man for as long as they can remember.

"Big Dave," as he's called, believes strongly in the power of promotion on social media. He makes friends everywhere he goes, and among Clemson fans he's become a bit of a celebrity in his own right.

But it doesn't take advanced powers of perception to study the personalities of a father and his sons, to recognize the jarring differences in how they handle that celebrity, and conclude there has to be more to the story.

While his father invites fame and all the assumed branding benefits that can come with it, DJ and his younger brother Matayo seem uncomfortable with individual adulation.

This was evident in 10th grade after DJ beat out a senior star for the quarterback job and, when interviewed after the game, said he couldn't have done it without the guidance and companionship of the guy he just beat out.

Throughout his career, amid countless times he's elevated above everyone else and played a different game, he's always been politely insistent on emphasizing the collective and taking himself off the pedestal others have placed him on.

Tausha Uiagalelei is shown here with sons D.J. and Matayo.
Tausha Uiagalelei is shown here with sons D.J. and Matayo. (TI File - Uiagalelei)

Numerous people close to DJ believe that this preference for deference, the gentle spirit and the humility and soft-spoken nature, come from two women.

He is unmistakably a mama's boy. And a grandmama's boy.

When DJ was two months old, his father moved away to pursue his dream of playing football. He had one more year of college eligibility remaining after playing at Mt. San Antonio College near Los Angeles, and he left to play at West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas, south of Amarillo.

Tausha and DJ moved north to the Sacramento area, more than 400 miles away, to live with her mother. DJ's birth brought light into Judi Bryson's world, as she was going through a divorce and struggling to cope with the recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis; the disease, confirmed when lesions began showing up on her brain, forced her to give up her 30-year career as a public school special-education teacher.

Tausha and DJ eventually moved back to Southern California, and grandmother moved in with them permanently when DJ was 4 and Matayo was 1. The kids called her "Mammee."

In those days Dave was gone almost all the time, touring the world as a bodyguard for Hollywood stars and music artists. Tausha said she decided to try out being a surrogate mother to generate income. She gave birth to her first surrogate baby 11 months before Matayo was born, had her fifth on her 40th birthday, and her sixth just two years ago.

She said being a surrogate mother allowed her to stay home and raise her boys while taking care of her mother. She said she's definitely done having babies now, partly because of urging from DJ out of concern for her health.

"That's just what I did," she said. "Not because it was fun being pregnant, but because it just worked out for our situation. The kids grew up seeing me pregnant all the time. People would say to them: 'Oh, your mom is having a baby! You're going to have a brother or sister!' And they'd say, 'No, she's having a baby for another family.' They just grew up with it."

DJ joked that the best part of his mother being pregnant all the time was that she was always hungry so they'd eat out a lot.

"But it was tough sometimes," he said. "I worried about her health, because she was getting older and having babies. It was kind of scary to me. I knew she didn't want to do it, but I also knew she was doing it for the right reasons. She was doing it for our family, and I appreciate her for that."

The Uiagalelei brothers get ready for a morning ride.
The Uiagalelei brothers get ready for a morning ride. (TI File - Uiagalelei)

Dave's full-time bodyguard gig stopped when DJ was 9 years old. His father took a job as a resource officer at his old high school, where his boundless athletic potential was never realized because he couldn't make the grades and was more interested in being the class clown.

Dave was a freakish talent who played quarterback in high school but couldn't stay eligible, so instead he would perform at halftime of basketball games with an array of gravity-defying dunks, and by heaving the football long distances during intermission of football contests.

"They called me 'The Halftime Show' in high school," Dave says. "I didn't like school and couldn't stay eligible for nothing. Everybody's like: 'Who is this kid and why isn't he on the team?'"

Tausha's side of the family was also gifted athletically. Her father played semi-pro baseball and ran track. Her uncle, Rolland Lawrence, played for the Atlanta Falcons from 1973 to 1980 and his 39 career interceptions are still the franchise record. Her brother played football.

Tausha said she and Dave separated last June and that she has filed for divorce. Most of the time this season they have traveled separately across the country to and from DJ's games.

For DJ and Matayo, living at home and seeing the steady deterioration of their grandmother shaped their souls. In the early years of her struggle with MS, Mammee was able to walk slowly with DJ to preschool, using her walker. She would play with Matayo in the front yard.

Tausha calls her "the ultimate grandma." Before she was bedridden, she loved board games and would sit for hours playing Monopoly with the boys. She would read to them and help them with art projects. Sometimes she'd just sit and watch.

DJ remembers sneaking into his grandmother's room at night when he was supposed to be asleep. They'd watch TV and talk.

"The boys never knew her as being well," Tausha said. "She was always sick, or handicapped with a walker, disabled. She had a wheelchair and we always had to go slow wherever we went. They learned not to stare at people who are different or disabled.

"They have a different appreciation for things because of that. They see life through a different set of eyes because of what they witnessed her going through, seeing the strength she had and her faith in God. You have a different outlook on things when you witness that in somebody, or at least you should. It really gave them a concern and care for others. 'It's not about you,' is what I always try to tell them. 'What are you going to do for other people? How do you make other people feel?'"

Tausha saw affirmation of this lesson during Clemson's game at Notre Dame in November, when DJ made his second collegiate start and carved up the Irish's defense.

Left guard Matt Bockhorst went down with an injury in the first half and was writhing on the turf. Per routine, the training staff rushed onto the field and the offense moved to the sideline to regroup.

Tausha saw her son alone on the field, crouching over Bockhorst and grabbing his right hand.

"He didn't know where to go," his mother said. "He stood there with him. It was so sweet. I told him after: 'That shows character. That's you, DJ.'"

DJ also has a knack for business and marketing. In eighth grade, he wanted an iPhone and the family couldn't afford it so he came up with an idea: Buying potato chips in bulk and selling them at school.

The Uiagalelei brothers with the late Judi Bryson.
The Uiagalelei brothers with the late Judi Bryson. (TI File - Uiagalelei)

In addition to her frequent runs to the grocery store to buy the chips, Tausha would stay up late making Kool-Aid-covered gummy worms that he'd place into individual ziploc bags and stuff into the duffel bag with the chips.

"He probably made 600 or 700 bucks," his mother said. "I'm like, 'DJ you can't take that much to school.' He's like, 'I got this.' Sure enough, he got caught and got in trouble. But I give him credit: He did it and got that iPhone.'"

Once at St. John Bosco High School, DJ started slinging the gummy worms again. His mom estimates he made about $70 a day, and soon school administrators were puzzled and even angry when they started seeing empty ziploc bags littered through campus. The deans at the private school put an end to that burgeoning side business.

His inventory included a wide variety of hot chips, Skittles and watermelon Sour Patch Kids, but his specialty was the gummy worms that his fellow students found irresistible.

"I was a human vending machine," DJ says. "I had a big old backpack and I'd sell the candy for a dollar per bag. People loved the gummy worms because of the way we made them. I found a recipe on YouTube: When you put Kool-Aid powder on gummy worms, shake them up and let them soak overnight ... man, they taste amazing."

Matayo, now a 10th-grader at Bosco, is already taller than DJ and has a promising football future ahead. But he also has a talent for music production, and DJ has used his enhanced profile to reach out to luminaries in the music business and tell them they need to work with his little brother, introducing himself as "the CEO for Young Concrete."

And while DJ doesn't saturate social media, he does quietly manage the Instagram account for the family's dog. The Bichon Poodle, named Nike, has 284 followers (handle: @shaboinike).

When Tausha travels across the country to see her son play at Clemson, she savors every possible glimpse of him.

She arrives at the stadium in time to see him descend from the bus on the way to the locker room.

She is among the first in line when the stadium gates open, rushing to her seat so she sees him come out for preliminary warm-ups before the team returns to the locker room to put on pads.

She watches him patiently sign autographs after games, and then she's still watching him when he leaves the field for the last time and disappears into the tunnel beneath the west stands.

"I can't leave the stadium with him still being in the stadium," she said. "A security guard stopped me once while I was watching him and said: 'Your son is special.' But to me he's not special for the athlete he is. He's special for the person he is."

These days, Tausha grabs hold of every moment because she missed so many of them when DJ was in middle school and early in his high school career.

While taking care of her sick mother, Tausha was also carrying babies. There was a time when she'd listen to more of DJ's games on the radio than see them in person.

She said she was there for only two or three games his freshman year.

"It was hard," she said. "But I had to do it for my mom. When I'd show up, some people would ask DJ: 'Wait, you have a mom?' Or they would think we were brother and sister."

Matayo Uiagalelei (left) already claims a dozen offers and is a 2023 defensive end prospect.
Matayo Uiagalelei (left) already claims a dozen offers and is a 2023 defensive end prospect. (TI File - Uiagalelei)

DJ wasn't bothered that his mother missed so much in those days. He knew what she was going through; it's just the way things were.

"It was super hard for her, because she's pregnant and having to move her mother around and help her," he said. "And she's watching her mother basically dying slowly. It was tough for her. Even for me it was super tough.

"I can't imagine what my mom was going through, seeing that in her own mom while trying to have kids for others to provide some money for us. It's just testimony that shows how strong of a woman she is.

"It shows that she is our rock."

When DJ beat out Re-al Mitchell for the starting job at Bosco, the drama was being captured by Netflix. The documentary series "QB1: Beyond the Lights" chronicled the high school team's 2017 season and followed Mitchell everywhere he went.

Mitchell had led Bosco to the state championship the previous year, so his senior-year struggles and subsequent benching were not part of Netflix's script.

The producers wanted to shift the focus to the sophomore who'd just engineered a come-from-behind victory with Mitchell watching from the sidelines. That would mean cameramen now embedded with DJ, not just when he was with the team but when he went home in the evenings. That would mean great promotion for the kid who always excelled at baseball, but who now was becoming a certified monster on the football field.

Big Dave was all for it and pushed hard for DJ to be showcased. DJ and his mother were strongly against it. Mother and son won that battle, and the cameras stayed away.

Paul Diaz, who coaches defensive line at Bosco and now has Matayo as a defensive end, drove DJ to and from school through most of his high-school career. The drive is about 45 minutes but can take an hour-and-a-half with traffic, and Diaz remembers having deep conversations as DJ was processing his rise to superstardom and having regular phone conversations with college coaches.

He remembers DJ being turned off at the thought of cameras following those private moments.

"DJ just didn't want that kind of attention," Diaz said. "From the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep the cameras are there. He wasn't out there seeking that attention. He told me: 'I just want to concentrate on being the quarterback.'"

Entering DJ's senior year at Bosco, Netflix pitched an idea for another season of QB1: They'd make the story about DJ and Bryce Young, the star quarterback for Bosco's bitter rival Mater Dei.

The year before, Bosco smoked Mater Dei 41-18 in the regular season and was the No. 1 team in the country when the teams met in the playoffs. Mater Dei dealt Bosco a devastating defeat, forcing three turnovers and winning 17-13.

More great theater between the two football giants seemed assured entering 2019. Uiagalelei had committed to Clemson a few months earlier, on his mother's birthday. Young had decommitted from USC and would choose Alabama soon thereafter.

Both were can't-miss, 5-star prospects playing for two high school football factories in the same area. The storyline seemed like a slam dunk.

Once again, DJ and his mother said no thanks.

Diaz: "I remember him saying: 'Coach, I just want to win a championship. I don't want any distractions, and I don't want any more attention than I already have. I don't want cameras in the back seat of your car.'"

D.J. Uiagalelei has thrown for over 900 yards and five touchdowns in 2020 in very limited action, but with two starts under his belt.
D.J. Uiagalelei has thrown for over 900 yards and five touchdowns in 2020 in very limited action, but with two starts under his belt. (TI File - Uiagalelei)

When the end was near for Mammee in 2017, when Tausha could no longer take care of her and she was moved to the hospital, DJ was at his grandmother's bedside.

When the disease had taken her whole digestive system, causing her to die of starvation over a period of 10 days, DJ and Matayo returned to the hospital. They wanted to say goodbye.

"I wasn't sure if DJ was going to cry," his mother said, "but he wept. He loved her -- loves her -- very much."

Mammee had told her grandsons not to worry, that she was just changing her address. When that first Christmas without Mammee neared, Tausha was still very much in the throes of grief and concerned about how DJ and Matayo would handle it.

DJ reassured her everything was going to be fine. He told her Mammee was now in heaven and having the best Christmas ever, so there was no reason to be sad. When DJ points skyward during football games, he's pointing to God and Mammee.

Tausha has a talent for decorating Christmas trees, having picked that up from her mother. On a recent trip to Clemson, she went to a thrift store and bought a couple of trees for DJ and his roommate, Bryan Bresee.

"DJ won't be home for Christmas," she said. "And Christmas is our favorite holiday. I put one of the trees next to his bed, just so it feels like home."

Last year, DJ and Matayo disappeared the morning after Christmas. They were gone all day, and when they returned they told their mother to close her eyes.

They had made that 50-mile trip to the Louis Vuitton in West Hollywood, fighting all that horrible Los Angeles traffic and taking every dollar they'd saved.

For so much of her life, that store and that bag seemed like an ocean away.

Tausha's sons brought it right into her living room.

"I was bawling," she said. "I don't think I've ever cried so many ugly tears. They told me: 'This is your Christmas, mom. This is what you deserve.' They went broke doing it, but they were glad they did it. It was from the bottom of their heart."

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