Before he was the 6-foot-2, 273-pound defensive lineman being courted by Utah, Oregon and Wisconsin, he was a sophomore searching for a way to have an impact at his newest school with his newest program, the Highland Rams.
After spending his freshman season at Brighton High School on a special permit, Tonga had to face the news delivered by his parents that he would be changing schools. He would be moving to Highland to be closer to his mother's place of work to ease the commute.
"It was really hard at first," Tonga said. "I really didn't want to leave my old school. It was hard leaving all my friends behind."
To compound the difficulty, Tonga's transfer request to suit up for the Rams was denied by the Utah High School Activities Association.
A promising start to a now flourishing high school career was derailed temporarily.
"At the time, with kids, if they were denied, they couldn't even practice," Highland coach Brody Benson said. "They could be out with the team, but they couldn't practice."
Pita Tonga did not practice with his new team. He watched. He walked the sidelines and offered a squirt of water.
"That will take a lot away from you," Benson said.
Tonga stepped onto the field at Highland with added motivation a year later when eligibility was no longer an issue. Not to necessarily prove anyone wrong, but to prove to himself he could overcome a year of not playing football.
He had to get back into shape.
"It was bad with running with pads on and with the hitting," Tonga said. "I did miss the hitting, though."
Tonga progressed and overcame early season mistakes. It was clear to Benson and others that the youngster they saw pacing the sidelines would be a superb addition to an already talented defensive line that featured Michigan commit Bryan Mone and run-stopper Cody Hilborn.
"He's like the masterpiece of our line," Mone said. "He's the end. He creates sacks. He's a beast."
Tonga's rise shouldn't be shocking. His father was a middle linebacker at Utah. Mom played basketball. Uncle Filipo Mokofisi starred with the Utes as a defensive end. First cousin Filipo Mokofisi is a freshman at Utah this season. Former Highland star Nate Orchard comes back to his alma mater to work on technique with Tonga.
"Utah has always been part of my family," Tonga said. "It's always been the school I wanted to go to."
So when the offer came, he took two weeks to think on it. He took a week-and-a-half before committing five weeks ago.
"I knew it was going to come," Mone said with a big smile.
Benson said there's good reason for Tonga's rapid ascent on the field. Tonga, who was voted by his teammates as one of four team captains this season, is described by Benson as a "gym rat" and a "quiet leader."
Tonga allows his play do the talking.
"When the big fellas are in and drawing double teams," Benson said, "it means that Pita is single-blocked, and he should never be blocked by a single blocker."
It's a rarity.
"It's kind of like a mini-me," Mone said.
While his position at the next level remains up in the air Benson said he could envision Tonga getting up to as much as 295 pounds and remaining lean and athletic and playing anywhere on the Utah line Tonga's immediate and far away future includes a spot on the defensive line, waiting for a snap to destroy a play.
"There's something special about the line," Tonga said. "All my family members play defensive positions, so defense is something that's been ingrained in me."
Year • Senior
School • Highland
Position • Defensive, offensive lines
College commit • Utah