Meet the Kaufusis — the first family of the Utah-BYU rivalry

Utah defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi (No. 90) rises high in hopes of knocking down the ball during season-opening victory Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 2, 2021. Kaufusi comes from a long line of Kaufusi-playing brothers, cousins and uncles who have donned both red and blue jerseys. | Maddie Hansen, University of Utah Athletics

With apologies to the Whittinghams, the Kaufusi family, etched deeply into BYU and Utah lore, earns the honor

Nearly 50 years ago, Petelo and Eveline Kaufusi traveled from their homeland of Tonga and eventually arrived in the United States and made it their new home.

At that time, in 1972 — which coincided with legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards’ first season at the helm at BYU — nobody could have imagined the impact the Kaufusis would have at both Utah and BYU.

All six of the Kaufusi sons grew up to play college football for either the Utes or the Cougars. Five of the grandsons have played for BYU, including Devin, a defensive lineman who transferred to Utah in 2020.

When the Utes and Cougars renew their rivalry Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Devin Kaufusi will represent the Utes while his cousin, Jackson Kaufusi, a linebacker, will represent the Cougars.

BYU defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, left, puts him arm around his brother, Devin Kaufusi, following the Cougars’ 45-10 win over New Mexico State on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in the team’s home finale. Brandon Judd, Deseret News
BYU defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, left, puts him arm around his brother, Devin Kaufusi, following the Cougars’ 45-10 win over New Mexico State on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Devin has since switched jerseys and will be representing the Utes Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium when the two teams collide.

For all the games the Kaufusis have played in the rivalry, this marks the first time there will be a Kaufusi on both sides in the same game.

For Devin, returning to his hometown of Provo — his mom, Michelle, is the mayor — to play his former team on Saturday, will be surreal.

“I always thought it would be weird playing them in general. But the fact that we’re playing them down there, that’s not something I’ll ever be used to. It will be the first time. It will be strange,” he said. “I think about it being a road game and I’m in the other hotel; I get off the bus and go to the other locker room; and I’ll warm up on the other side.”

During the offseason, his Utah teammates asked him about the atmosphere at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“They’re like, ‘Are you going to get some boos?’ I say, ‘I’m sure I will.’ When I think of both programs, what I think about is gratitude,” Devin said. “What they’ve done for my family and my extended family between both schools. So going down there will be fun. I’m super excited. I know they are too, coming from that side. I can’t wait to get down there and go to work.”

Devin was with the Cougars in 2018 and 2019, when the Utes extended their winning streak over BYU to nine consecutive games. Saturday, Devin will be looking to help prevent the Cougars from snapping that streak.

Perhaps no single family has more connections with both the Utah and BYU football programs than the Kaufusis — with apologies to the Whittinghams.

Kyle, Cary and Freddie played for BYU and their father, Fred, was an assistant coach at both schools. Kyle is, of course, the Utes’ head coach and Freddie is the tight ends coach. But the Whittinghams haven’t been a part of BYU’s program since the late 1980s.

So let’s call the Kaufusis the first family of the Utah-BYU rivalry.

The Kaufusi clan

Steve and Rich Kaufusi played for the Cougars in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Younger brothers Jeff, Henry, Doug and Jason played for the Utes from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

As the story goes, BYU didn’t offer Henry a scholarship in the early 1990s and some of the Kaufusis took offense.

“I definitely hold a grudge in my heart for BYU because they hurt Henry,” Jeff told Sports Illustrated in 1995. “And of course Henry feels that way too.”

That began a trend of Kaufusis going to Utah, which helped the Utes establish a reputation for defensive dominance.

Defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi works his players during practice Thursday as the BYU football team works out at BYU March 29, 2007. Kaufusi coached at the U. from 1994-2001 before joining the Cougars staff, which helped influence his sons, Bronson (2012-15), Corbin (2016-18) and Devin (2018-19) to become Cougars. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi works his players during practice Thursday as the BYU football team works out at BYU March 29, 2007. Kaufusi played for BYU and coached at the U. from 1994-2001 before joining the Cougars’ staff, which helped influence his sons, Bronson (2012-15), Corbin (2016-18) and Devin (2018-19) to become Cougars.

Steve coached at Utah from 1994-01 before he took a similar job at BYU. That move back to Provo helped influence his sons, Bronson (2012-15), Corbin (2016-18) and Devin (2018-19), to become Cougars.

Steve stepped down as an assistant coach at BYU after the 2017 campaign. Meanwhile, Jeff’s sons, Isaiah and Jackson, decided to play for the Cougars. (Jason Kaufusi is currently an assistant coach at UCLA.)

But no matter what color jersey a Kaufusi is wearing, it’s always family over football.

“Football’s been good to us and we’ve been good to football. My brothers, we’re in contact every day, and my cousins Isaiah and Jackson,” Devin said. “My uncles played here, Jeff and Henry. Jeff loves hearing about the team right now.

“It’s something special coming out of the Utah program. It’s a brotherhood. It means something big when you see someone out and about with the drum and feather, a former player. They love giving back because Utah football gave them so much. It’s super special. I’m grateful to be a part of it.

“It starts with the family. My dad and Rich were both down south and the rest were at Utah,” Devin added. “Cheering-wise, my family is super happy that we’re able to play and go to school and get our education. My dad is done with coaching but he loves seeing us play. That’s all I can think about is my family. My family is super excited to come watch and support me.”

Devin said his dad, Steve, never forced his sons into football. They all were drawn to the game naturally.

“You think of a sports family, you think of parents that are hard on their kids. My dad was never like that,” he said. “We just love the game and we’ve been blessed with some talents and abilities to do it. We just pay it back.”

Switching from red to blue

When Devin decided to transfer from BYU to Utah, at about the same time that the pandemic hit, Isaiah told the Deseret News that he was “shocked” to hear the news.

Isaiah Kaufusi laughs with his cousin Devin Kaufusi after BYU opened football practice at the indoor facility in Provo on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Isaiah Kaufusi laughs with his cousin Devin Kaufusi after BYU opened football practice at the indoor facility in Provo on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Isiah said he was shocked when he heard Devin was transferring to the U., but supports his decision.

“To me, Devin kind of was ‘the BYU guy,’ you know? And so to see him leave was unfortunate. But he knows that I love him. He knows that in our family, football is so big. ... It’s been a huge part of our family,” said Isaiah, who finished his BYU career last season. “We’ve had cousins go to different schools. I think that we just support each other. Having Devin leave and go to Utah, knowing that was the best thing for him, I can get behind that 100%.”

Of course, Isaiah knows how it feels to jump from red to blue. He grew up as a Utah fan, his dad’s alma mater. But when BYU coach Kalani Sitake started recruiting him, Isaiah realized he needed to become a Cougar.

“I felt like I was guided to that decision. I love Utah and I love everything about the program. My dad loves it still. He has his ties to Utah,” Isaiah said. “I felt like I was guided here and coach Kalani. He’s taught me a ton. I’m grateful for that switch that I made because I wouldn’t be the man that I am today without Kalani and the program and the school and all the things that come with BYU.”

Devin started at BYU but decided to make the switch to Utah. He arrived on the Utes’ campus in 2020 weighing about 265 pounds as a defensive end. He’s tipping the scales at about 300 pounds now as a defensive tackle.

“In January, my joints were used to the growing pains of putting on weight. Right now, it’s been awesome,” he said. “I feel healthy with it. It’s fun to be the best version of me at defensive tackle.”

Isaiah is fully supportive of his cousin, though he plays for Utah.

 Maddie Hansen, University of Utah Athletics
Utah defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi (No. 90) looks on during a break in Utah-Weber State game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. After arriving to the U. from BYU weighing 265 pounds, Kaufusi is tipping the scales at 300 pounds now and has moved from defensive end to defensive tackle.

“He’s got a lot of potential. I’m really excited about him going to Utah,” he said. “They produce really good D-linemen and they have a great D-line coach and they have a great defensive coordinator and great head coach. I’m just really excited for Dev. It’s all love and he knows that. I’m just excited for him.”

And, of course, Bronson and Corbin have been battling for NFL jobs. They keep in close contact with their younger brother, who said he’s learning a lot at his new home.

“Everything here at Utah is run at a very high level, similar to the NFL. My brothers are doing that but I’m doing what they’re doing on a college level. They’re super grateful that we’re at a fall camp that’s firing at all cylinders and tough,” Devin said. “We stay in touch and talk about staying with it and focusing on your everyday goals. Outside of football, as brothers, they’re a big support there. I love them.”

‘Last year was not that fun’

While Devin felt that he’s been a good fit at Utah, things weren’t easy in 2020.

His former school, BYU enjoyed a special 11-win season. His new team, Utah, played just five games amid a truncated schedule.

“It was frustrating knowing that we were only 45 minutes away from a team that was playing 11 games and we got cut short to five games. But we knew we could only focus on each week,” Devin said. “It helped us to learn that lesson of focusing in the moment and getting better there. I think it’s helped a lot now we’re going for a full season here. We have that hunger. Last year was not that fun at all.”

Devin is hoping to make up for lost time in 2021.

“Coach Whitt talks about how we have a lot of guys that came back because they want a special season and they believe in this team,” he said. “The belief, that’s what Devin Lloyd has been saying to the team, ‘You’ve got to believe it.’ We’re all believing it. We’re hoping to win the Pac-12 and represent the Pac-12 in January.”

With help from the relatively new transfer portal, many athletes like Devin Kaufusi are getting a fresh start. He appreciates the game more than ever now.

 Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Washington State offensive lineman Brian Greene (50) tackles Utah defensive end Devin Kaufusi (90) after he picks up a fumble during game Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Kaufusi, who began his college career playing for BYU, comes from a long line of Kaufusis who wore either red or blue.

“You get these guys that have gone through a struggle for the love of the game. Switching environments and teams and staffs. It can get shaky and lonely out there,” Devin said. “But coming back into a team setting that has taken me in has given me the opportunity to elevate myself in all levels, as a player, as a son, as a friend. I’ve absolutely loved it.

“It’s been my greatest blessing this past year. I appreciate it and it makes me want to give more to this football team and to this program and then help out other guys. I’ve seen that with the other transfer guys, too. There are a lot of shoulders with chips on them. It’s all coming together for something special. I’m so excited to have a real season.”

Bigger than the rivalry

When Devin goes home to Provo, he sees his cousin, Jackson, and his other former teammates.

Devin’s love of football started at BYU. He remembers as a kid accompanying his dad to the BYU football offices as Steve dissected film.

“It’s cool to watch your dad do what he does at a high level,” Devin said.

And he loved watching his older brothers play for the Cougars. At first, he followed in their footsteps at BYU but eventually blazed his own path at Utah.

The Kaufusis have a long history of doing that, starting with Devin’s grandfather, Petelo, who passed away in September 2018 at the age of 79.

“My grandpa was a big BYU fan, always,” Isaiah said. “You could kind of attribute it to my grandpa, just sticking with it and everyone following.”

The Kaufusis have found a home in both programs. Yet they understand that family is bigger than the rivalry. When he thinks about the heated, intense, crazy Utah-BYU rivalry, Devin can’t help but feel gratitude.

“It’s been cool coming back here and seeing the influence of the Kaufusi family at the University of Utah,” he said. “It’s made me feel super grateful and humble. Not just from a football standpoint, but my dad’s family making the travel across the ocean to America.”

Little did anyone know at that time, way back in 1972, but over the course of several decades, the Kaufusis would become the first family of the Utah-BYU rivalry.

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