MISSOULA — Tuufuli Uperesa, who captained the Montana football team to a Camellia Bowl appearance in 1969 and went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles, has died.
Kristin Uperesa of Billings, Tuufuli's ex-wife and the mother of four of his seven children, confirmed that the 73-year-old passed away on Monday in American Samoa. He was battling kidney failure and other ailments.
Uperesa played both guard and tackle for the Grizzlies when they took a perfect 10-0 record into the Camellia Bowl in 1969. That game was for the I-AA national championship and Montana lost to North Dakota State, 30-3, after 14 Grizzlies were ruled ineligible due to junior college transfer rules.
"He was a character," said Kristin, who met Tuufuli at the University of Montana and was married to him from 1970 to 1988. "He was funny and outgoing in his earlier years. Lately I think he was struggling. He was kind of in and out."
Tuufuli was with the Eagles for three years, then played in the Canadian Football League for five years with Winnepeg, Ottawa, Calgary and British Columbia.
With his playing days behind him, Uperesa returned to Missoula to complete his degree in health and physical education.
"I had spent too much time playing Frisbee golf," joked Uperesa, who retired in 1997 after working as a teacher and a counselor at the community college and high school level in Pago Pago, American Samoa. "I had a good time in Missoula. I remember meeting a lot of great people."
Despite suffering from arthritis and having both knees replaced, Uperesa continued to work with young football players in his 50s and 60s. The former Griz standout and member of the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame estimated he helped more than 300 Samoans land football scholarships.
Kristin Uperesa would like to see her late ex-husband honored with induction into the Montana Football Hall of Fame. Based on his credentials, it's surprising Tuufuli has yet to receive the accolade.
"He should have been inducted by now," Kristin Uperesa said. "I have no idea why he hasn't been."
John Talalotu, who grew up with Uperesa and was a teammate in high school and at UM, said Tuufuli was "a natural-born athlete."
"He played basketball and baseball and was on the track team in high school," Talalotu noted. "Just a hell of an athlete."