“There’s a fire. I feel it” | Eli returns for 3 years in Blue and Gold – Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The simple passage of time has given Tui Eli the opportunity to find both the positives and silver linings in his life over the past 14 months.
It’s things like planning a wedding and marrying Tiana, a childhood friend, earlier this month. She was visiting family in Hawaii, Canada, and Polson, Montana, a place she now calls home.
However, it was certainly still frustrating how his 2021 season ended with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. If you remember, on December 5 of that year, Eli competed for the Western final but was then suspended and, as the club’s only unvaccinated player, could not attend the 108th game of the Gray Cup in Hamilton. Due to government travel policies and Canadian Football League mandates, he was unable to accompany the team to the tournament. Eli chose not to get the COVID-19 shots, calling 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 himself to the game, having signed a three-year contract with the Blue Bombers.
“It was a nightmare to be suspended from your dream team and cut from your team that day,” Eli said when reached by bluebombers.com in Montana. “I couldn’t travel, that was the last deal. My fiancee and I prayed about it and made a decision and this is what came out.
“However, many good things have happened since the suspension, including engagement and marriage. One of the things that really reassured me in all of this was Coach O’Shea…he really was there for me every step of the way. He wanted to see me play in the Gray Cup, but we both resigned ourselves to the rules and mandates of the CFL and the government. With that we had to go.
“I have my opinion on things, but those were the rules. They had to do what they had to do, but there were many friends who showed me that they cared about my decision and respected it, even if it wasn’t what they or anyone really believed. However, that respect is something that really struck 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 the island of Upolu in Western Samoa, while Tiana’s father is a chief in Samatau , just a few kilometers away on the same island.
The Blue Bombers had kept in touch with Eli for much of 2022, but his decision to retire from the game was a spiritual one.
“The Lord told me to be quiet,” he said. “I prayed with my wife and Montana was where we were called. At that time, we both knew what we were doing, what we were supposed to be doing, and where we were meant to be. That was confirmation throughout the season, even though it was really hard to watch from afar and not be out there. But for all the victories and triumphs the Bombers had during the season, I supported them from afar.”
The return of Eli further strengthens the depth of the club’s offensive line. A fourth-round pick of the Blue Bombers in the 2019 CFL Draft, he was an accomplished player at the University of Hawaii, having twice been named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award for -tallest center in NCAA football.
The team has already signed new agreements with pending free agents Pat Neufeld, Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, and returns with Canadians Geoff Gray, Chris Kolankowski, Liam Dobson, as well as import tackle Drew Richmond and Tomoya Machino, global tackle.
Veteran center Michael Couture remains the only pending free agent.
In addition to traveling and getting married, Eli said he also took odd jobs and worked for Door Dash and Uber Eats while doing home renovations and coaching the offensive line at Ronan High School with his father. Plus there’s this: his year away from football only increased his desire to return.
“There is a fire there. I feel it. There’s still a lot there,” he said. “You can talk to my wife – the fire is still burning for me. It’s interesting, throughout my football career – from high school to college to the Bombers – my passion only grew. When I joined Bombi after a few years from college after college, I felt that burn again. And until the suspension, the fire burned and burned. The suspension happened, when I was at the peak of my passion for the game. So it was… different he didn’t play football for a year. But she didn’t go. It’s something I feel deep down and I can only do as the fire describes.”
Furthermore, the club signing him to a three-year deal following his decision in 2021 and his suspension at the end of this season have made him even more hungry to return.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It is a testament to the coaching staff and all the players and managers in the dressing room. It is very much a family. It’s not your normal dressing room or the usual organization when you go in there – it’s something special.
“Whatever went into their decision to bring me back – my band, my character, whatever – it’s more testament to the dressing room they have.”