Line Latu is grateful to be alive.
If things had gone a little differently on the morning of June 6, 2021, the American Raptors fly-half knows that might not have been the case.
A few weeks prior on May 22, The Colorado XOs – Glendale’s newly formed crossover academy – had just wrapped up their inaugural season with a match against the Los Angeles Giltinis Academy side.
Latu, who was one of the only members of the XOs with prior rugby experience, was an integral piece of the team. He scored five tries in 10 matches to help the XOs secure a 5-5 record that spring, and played particularly well in the 33-31 loss to the Giltinis Academy on that Saturday afternoon. His performance caught the eye of the Giltinis coaches in attendance, and he received an invitation to attend a trial period to train with the Major League Rugby side with some of his XO teammates that summer. If things went well, Latu would be offered a contract for the remainder of the season.
“I think it was May when I first got a call after we played the LA Giltinis Academy,” Latu recalls. “Obviously, a few of their coaches were down here. I guess I made a good impression and I got a call about a week later. They wanted me out there the first week of June.”
Rugby wasn’t even a part of Latu’s plans in October of 2020. COVID canceled pro days and combines across the country, and that altered Latu’s plans moving forward. The former Eastern Michigan wide receiver was in San Diego staying in shape for whatever came his way when an opportunity presented itself at a touch rugby session.
“I was in San Diego training,” Latu explained. “I was trying to stay as fit as I could. I used to play touch in Oceanside and one of our former players, Jeremiah Kose, was the one that connected me to (American Raptors General Manager) Peter (Pasque). Peter told me about what he was trying to do and what the American Raptors were trying to build with a rugby team full of crossover athletes. I was intrigued by it because I grew up playing rugby. I’ve been around rugby pretty much my whole life. I wasn’t really doing anything so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was interested in it.”
Latu attended the first-ever RugbyTown Crossover Academy camp at Infinity Park in November 2020. Things went smoothly, and he made the decision to move out to Colorado, sign with the XOs, and pursue rugby full-time.
“It just felt good coming back to rugby,” Latu said of his decision.
You’d never know that it was Latu’s first foray back to the rugby pitch since his high school days. It didn’t take long to see that he had all of the physical tools and the knowledge to compete in the MLR. The Giltinis saw the potential and offered Latu, Gelen Robinson, and Shawn Clark an opportunity to come down to Los Angeles for a trial period.
“I was going to go home for a few weeks and it just so happened that they called me while I was home,” Latu said. “They really wanted me there for that trial week.”
Latu was home in San Mateo, California celebrating his brother’s engagement with his family when he got the invitation from the Giltinis. His brother was proposing on Saturday, June 5 and Latu was due to report to Los Angeles on Sunday, June 6.
“I wanted to be a part of that as much as I could,” Latu said of his brother’s engagement celebration. “That was the day before I was supposed to report which is why I left Sunday.”
Latu’s childhood friend Watson Filikitonga was also in San Mateo that week. Filikitonga was the Giltinis’ first-ever MLR draft pick and was home enjoying some rest and celebrating with the Latu’s family during L.A.’s bye week. Since Latu and Filikitonga had to report back to the Giltinis on Sunday, they decided to sleep at Latu’s house and make the trek down to Southern California together.
Latu and Filikitonga had a 4 PM meeting with Los Angeles Giltinis manager Kevin Battle, so the two got up at 4 AM to get ready to leave. They began the six-and-a-half-hour drive at 4:30 in the morning to ensure that they could make it to Los Angeles and get settled with plenty of time to spare before the meeting with Battle that afternoon.
Filikitonga had a cast on his leg from a fractured ankle he sustained in the Giltinis Academy match against the Colorado XOs that earned Latu a try-out with the club. It was the first time the two friends had ever played against each other.
“I was coming off an injury and they wanted me to get some game time,” Filikitonga explained. “We came down here and played with the academy side against Colorado. It was also a cool experience because we got to play against Line. I don’t think I’ve ever played against Line. We’ve always been teammates growing up.”
Filikitonga’s cast prevented him from driving, so he hopped in the passenger seat while Latu took the wheel.
The two jumped on the 101 and headed south for Los Angeles. 30 minutes into their drive, something caught Filikitonga’s eye.
“We were just driving and out of nowhere I hear Watson say, ‘Look at that car!’” Latu remembers. “I didn’t even get the chance to look because the car right in front of me swerved out of the way because there was a car in front of us that was sideways in the barrier.”
Despite avoiding the first car, Latu and Filikitonga became the final car in a three-car accident that occurred when a Toyota Corolla heading north on the wrong side of the highway collided head-on with the Toyota Camry that was traveling one car in front of the two friends. The driver of the Coralla did not survive the crash.
“At the last second the car in front of us made a hard right turn and we didn’t have time to react,” Filikitonga recalls. “There was already another car in front of us and we hit it.”
For Filikitonga, the entire accident happened in slow motion.
“It’s crazy that they say that life flashes before your eyes,” Filikitonga said of the crash. “It was only five seconds long but that five seconds felt like a minute. I remember hitting the car and closing my eyes. I remember that impact, then there was a second impact, and then the third impact is what stopped the car when we hit the wall.”
Once the car came to a complete stop, that’s when instincts and adrenaline kicked in. The first thing that went through Filikitonga’s mind was to get out of the car.
“I just remember seeing smoke coming out of the car,” Filikitonga said. “At the time I didn’t know that that was normal due to the fluids burning off, but I watch so many movies that I’m thinking the car is about to blow up. I just remember using my cast to kick the door because it wouldn’t open.”
Once out of the car, Filikitonga crawled around to the driver’s side to help Latu get out. With Latu out of the car, the two friends made their way to the barrier before Filikitonga made the decision to go back into the car to retrieve his phone to call for help.
Filikitonga remembers feeling pain down his back and into his pelvis after kicking the door open. After the ambulance arrived, the pain from the crash really began to set in.
“After that, the cops and the ambulance came and they asked us a bunch of questions,” Filikitonga remembers. “I just kept thinking, ‘What the hell just happened?’ I was just in shock. A few seconds after that is when the aching started to come and I couldn’t breathe.”
Filiktonga and Latu were transported to a nearby hospital where Filikitonga learned that his spine was misaligned. The extent of Latu’s injuries wasn’t known yet, but he knew that his left foot was not quite right.
“I was trying to tell them that I thought something was wrong with my foot,” Latu said of his hospital visit. “They were like, ‘I’m not sure. We don’t see anything on the x-ray. We see that your pinkie toe is dislocated.’ They put that back in place.”
But the condition of his foot was not improving after he was discharged. It wasn’t until three days later that he received another call from the hospital instructing him to come back in.
“I knew there was something wrong with it,” Latu said. “I could barely walk on it. It was hard to stand on it. Then I got a call around three days later saying I needed to come back to the hospital because it was worse than they thought.”
Latu had fractures in four of his toes on his left foot. He would need surgery to repair his middle toe. Both Latu and Filiktonga were going to be away from rugby for the foreseeable future. Latu would not have the opportunity to complete his trial with Los Angeles, and he wouldn’t have the chance to be a part of a Giltinis team that won the Major League Rugby championship in 2021.
“I guess I was kind of frustrated,” Latu said of the circumstances. “I really wanted to be in L.A. It would have been a great experience to learn from Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper. I talked to Watson a few times about it. From him learning so much, I was just excited to get there.”
But that sense of frustration didn’t last long. While that would’ve been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Latu was just happy to still be alive.
“For maybe that first week I was a little bummed about it, but at the same time, I just realized that I was grateful to be alive,” Latu said. “It didn’t really mess with me mentally. I’ve just tried to get back as fast as I could and not look back really.”
For Filikitonga, though, the accident did mess with his head.
“It took me a while to get back in a car,” Filikitonga said. “Especially the passenger seat. When I got back to L.A., my roommate (Giltinis wing) Ryan James, he had to drive me to practice. I remember sitting in his passenger seat, just freaking out. When he would stop, I would grab onto something. It took me a while to get comfortable.”
Filikitonga returned home to San Mateo for a month before making the trip back to Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles, his days consisted of a lot of physical therapy and several trips to the chiropractor. His recovery process moved along much quicker than anyone expected – something that he attributes to the care that the Giltinis provided to him – and he was cleared to play rugby again in early October.
Latu’s recovery took a bit longer. He had his first surgery to insert a pin into one of his toes in July, and another in September to remove the hardware. Not only was Latu not able to try out for the Giltinis, but he also missed out on the ninth annual RugbyTown Sevens tournament, and was unable to play on the American Raptors’ tour of Uruguay in November.
Despite missing so much rugby, Latu never hung his head.
“From my perspective, he’s handled it really well,” Filikitonga said of Latu’s attitude. “The biggest thing for him was missing out on rugby. Especially for someone who could’ve had the opportunity to be on that L.A. team and have the experience to win an MLR Championship. To miss out on that, to miss out on Rugby Town, to miss out on playing on the Uruguay tour, I think he’s handled it really well and I think he’s more dedicated than ever now.”
Latu was still able to travel to Uruguay and be around the team, and his positive attitude during his rehab has been something that has caught the eye of his teammates.
“If he’s gotten down, I haven’t seen it,” American Raptors forward Tre Smalls said of Latu. “He’s always had that confidence to be able to come back and be better.”
“He definitely didn’t have a bad attitude at any point during his recovery even after the accident happened,” American Raptors forward Chase Stehling said. “He kind of took it as it was. He knew it was something that he couldn’t necessarily control. He didn’t beat himself up about it.”
That positive attitude is something that Filikitonga credits to Latu’s family.
“Line comes from a great family,” Filikitonga said. “Especially his mom. His mom is a neighborhood mom. She takes care of everybody. He has a great support system.”
Latu has worked like a madman to get back on the pitch. Whether it’s eating right, working out, or playing touch, Latu has done whatever he can to get back as fast as he could.
“Every chance he gets he’s been trying to get better,” Smalls said. “Every single day. I’ve seen him do rehab, eat right, and practice, practice, practice. He’s playing touch as much as he can just to get back to where he was. It’s just a testament to him. He’s very dedicated, and it’s pretty motivating actually.”
He wasn’t cleared to play rugby again until December. When the Raptors take on OMBAC in San Diego on Saturday, it will be the first time Latu’s played in a rugby match since that fateful match against the Giltinis Academy that spurred the opportunity to join L.A. over nine months ago. Playing in a match will be the final checkpoint in Latu’s recovery process.
“It was a long process but I’m fortunate to be back out there again moving around a little bit,” Latu said of the process. “Just being out there at practice it feels good and everything, but especially after the long weeks we’ve been having, sometimes I get home and I’m like, ‘I need to lay down and not move.'”
Not that he needed any, but Latu’s had some extra motivation to get back on the pitch with the Raptors this season. Latu has recruited several of his childhood friends – including Filikitonga – to the Raptors’ roster for the 2022 season. The ability to get paid to play a sport and live together is something they’ve dreamed about since high school.
Latu, Filikitonga, Adagio Lopeti, Mikey Grandy, and Sione Finefeuiaki have been friends since high school and played football together at San Mateo Junior College before going their separate ways. Even though their athletic careers have taken them all to different parts of the country, the idea of playing together again has always been in the back of their mind. The opportunity to join the American Raptors made that dream a reality.
“That’s one of the main reasons why I came,” Filikitonga said of his decision to join the Raptors. “I could have had a trial with Rugby New York and NOLA Gold, but once I found out they were coming, I didn’t even bother going anymore.”
“When we were back home in high school and in junior college, we used to always talk about playing at the same college and living with each other. Then this came around. This is something that we always used to talk about. The fact that a lot of them are here is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’re really a tight-knit group.”
Fortunately for Latu and Filkitonga, they were still around to see their dream become a reality.