Alabama linebacker Henry To’oTo’o used the words “legacy” and “tradition” this week to describe the storied “Third Saturday in October” football rivalry between the Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers. Those words might be said of his faith as well — a faith To’oto’o learned from his parents but now owns for himself.
Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) and Tennessee (5-0, 2-0 SEC) will battle Oct. 15 in Knoxville. Both teams head into Neyland Stadium unbeaten and ranked in the top 10, with the Associated Press putting Alabama at No. 3 and Tennessee at No. 6 (see other polls here.)
The last time Tennessee beat Alabama was in 2006, but the Volunteers are a formidable foe this year for an Alabama team that has struggled yet found ways to win.
To’oTo’o knows the importance of the rivalry as well as anyone. He started his college career at the University of Tennessee in 2019 before transferring to Alabama in 2021.
“You guys already know my journey and where I started,” To’oTo’o told reporters Oct. 11. “It’s going to be a huge challenge [at Tennessee]. They’re a great team. It’s going to be a great environment … big rivalry game, tradition-wise. This tradition runs deep, so I’m super excited to be able to uphold that tradition and that legacy of Alabama football.”
To’oTo’o, a senior, has 33 tackles and a sack this season. Last year, he racked up 113 total tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble. But while accomplishments on the field are part of his journey, another part involves his faith, which he said was a big part of why he left California after high school to play in the South.
Growing in Christ
“I’ve always been surrounded by family,” To’oTo’o said in July during Night of Champions, a pre-season Fellowship of Christian Athletes event at Northcrest Baptist Church in Meridian, Mississippi. “I always had my mom to call, my dad to call, my aunt, my siblings. I wanted to go so far away that I couldn’t call anybody because being able to separate yourself from the people you love the most is when you grow the most.”
“Being able to find who you are in times of need is when you find yourself in Christ,” he said. “It’s something that I wanted, and it’s a challenge.”
To’oTo’o, who is Samoan and Tongan, grew up in a large family in Sacramento, California. He has seven siblings but grew up with cousins who were like siblings — part of his family’s Polynesian heritage. The fourth oldest, To’oTo’o said he felt a responsibility for those younger than him, which wasn’t always easy because of difficult circumstances in the community.
“There’s a lot of gang violence,” he said. “It was a rough neighborhood where I grew up. So for me to be here … sharing my spiritual life, the things that I’ve been through to get here, it’s such a blessing.”
He credits his parents and grandparents with instilling spiritual values in him and his siblings from a young age.
“My parents did such a great job of teaching me and my siblings the gospel and the Bible,” he said.
Growing up, To’oTo’o said football wasn’t really his thing, but his dad pushed because he saw football as a way to get an education. To’oTo’o soon fell in love with the sport and excelled at it.
“I like hitting people without getting in trouble,” he joked.
He played at the national powerhouse De La Salle High School in Concord, California, where he earned 2018 First-Team MaxPreps All-America and USA Today All-USA California Team honors. As a senior, he helped lead De La Salle to a 12-1 record and a state championship appearance. The star running back finished his senior high school season with 489 rushing yards and three touchdowns and was one of the top five linebacker prospects in the country.
Recruited by several colleges, including Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oregon and Florida, To’oTo’o chose Tennessee.
As a freshman in 2019, he started 12 games at linebacker and recorded 72 tackles, which ranked second among SEC freshmen and fourth among FBS freshmen. As a sophomore in 2020, he started all 10 games at weakside linebacker and led the Vols with 76 tackles and 10 tackles for loss, which was tied for fourth in the SEC.
In January 2021, he announced he was entering the transfer portal and landed at Alabama.
During his first season at Alabama, he earned All-SEC Second Team honors from the conference coaches and led UA in tackles with 113. He was named Outstanding Defensive Performer by the UA coaching staff along with Will Anderson Jr., Jordan Battle and Phidarian Mathis.
To’oTo’o returned to the Capstone for his senior season and is the Tide’s signal caller on the defensive side of the ball. He leads the team in tackles with 33 so far this season.
Being far from his biological family, his football family is an important part of his life.
“My football family’s always there for me,” he said. “You know, we sit there and grind with each other every single day through the workouts, through the meetings and all of that. So it’s such a blessing to be able to have two families.”
He admits football is on his mind almost constantly, but he does take time to go to Bible study and credits his Bible study leader and teammates Jaylen Moody, Deontae Lawson and Bryce Young for helping him stay grounded in faith during difficult times.
To’oTo’o also tries to remember his blessings — “being able to wake up, simply put on clothes … eat some good food, have a roof over your head.”
Another important part of his faith life is morning prayer.
“It all starts when you wake up,” he said. “If you wake up with a mindset with God, the Heavenly Father, on your mind, then you’re going to go through your day and carry yourself as if He’s watching. You’re going to remember the sacrifice He made for you and realize that His love for you is infinite.”
‘He’s there with me’
When he gets down, To’oTo’o said he tries to “recognize and realize that He’s there with me.”
He knows Christ’s love is infinite, and that’s what he reminds others when he talks to them about faith: “We’re never too far away. He loves us unconditionally.”
To’oTo’o said he learned that the hard way. As a college freshman on his own for the first time, he sometimes found himself doing things he knew he shouldn’t be doing.
“It was when I was furthest from Jesus … I found myself down and out … disappointed in myself,” he said.
Going back to the basics of faith helped. Now he tries to let people know he’s a follower of Christ and seeking to follow His example.
And no matter what the scoreboard says week in and week out, To’oTo’o says he remembers that Jesus’ love is the only lasting thing.
“A football team … a baseball or tennis team, the job you work — everything’s going to come to an end,” To’oTo’o said. “But Christ’s love is infinite. He’s never going to leave your team. He’s always going to be by your side through any decision you make.”
Watch the full video of Night of Champions here.