Dontae Keys can’t imagine the sorrow.
Few people can.
Keys’ teammate, FIU Panthers center Api Mane, lost his mother, Siusavaii Mane, to liver cancer in March. She was 61.
Mane had left the University of Kansas’ football team toward the latter stages of the 2020 season in order to care for his mom in East Palo Alto, California, 10 minutes from Stanford’s campus.
Two months after his mom died, Mane got his father’s blessing to return to school, taking a scholarship offer from FIU.
But Api’s father, Atama Mane, died suddenly two weeks later, suffering a heart attack. He was just 62.
It hasn’t been easy, but Mane, 24, has carried on at FIU, and he is on pace to earn a bachelor’s degree in general studies in December.
“I look up to [Mane],” said Keys, who starts at right guard. “With that amount of loss to my family, I don’t know that I could still come out here [to practice].
“But Api comes out every day with a smile on his face and great energy. I’m proud of him. We’re roommates, and I always have my door open for us to talk.”
Mane said he has quickly grown close to his new teammates.
“They’ve been here for me this whole time,” Mane said. “They check up on me, asking me to go eat with them or just hang out.”
In fact, every week, FIU offensive linemen go to Wingstop to watch “Thursday Night Football” while demolishing dozens of wings.
On game days, they try to demolish defensive linemen, opening holes for star running back D’Vonte Price while protecting quarterback Max Bortenschlager.
Saturday, FIU (1-2) will visit Central Michigan (1-2), and Panthers coach Butch Davis said he is counting on veterans such as Mane and Keys.
“I like their leadership,” Davis said. “They’re helping the younger linemen, but they are also doing well in their individual performance.
“It’s good having Api here because he was a starter at Kansas. He’s a physical guy — big and strong.”
Mane, a 6-3, 335-pound senior, played 12 games for Kansas in 2019, starting twice. Last year, he started five of Kansas’ first six games before leaving the team due to his mother’s illness.
At FIU, Mane said offensive line coach Joel Rodriguez was “very understanding” of his family situation.
Shortly after arriving at FIU in May, Mane won the Panthers’ starting job at center, beating out Julius Pierce.
But, in a sign of how tight the bond is among FIU O-linemen, Mane — unprompted by reporters — spoke highly of Pierce.
“We clicked right away,” Mane said of Pierce. “I would ask him what we do on certain plays. He would ask for help on certain techniques.
“Julius is really improving.”
Besides Mane and Keys, FIU’s other starting linemen are left tackle Miles Frazier, left guard Sione Finau and right tackle Lyndell Hudson Jr.
Mane said his football hero growing up was ex-49ers center/guard Jesse Sapolu, a native of Samoa who went on to become a four-time Super Bowl champion and a two-time Pro Bowl player.
“His body size is similar to mine in that we’re not the tallest,” Mane said. “We don’t have the longest arms, but we manage to outsmart defensive linemen.”
Mane said he is thrilled that one of his teammates is Finau, who is of Tongan ancestry. There is a connection in the cultures.
“It’s how we’re raised — very disciplined and hard working,” Mane said. “In our culture, religion is big.
“On the islands, doing chores and hard labor is a part of it, getting our muscles up and toughing up our skin.”
Mane, the youngest of four brothers — including one sister and two brothers — said his post-football goal is to become an academic counselor, “pushing education to Polynesian minority groups.”
In the meantime, even with all the tragedy he has endured, there’s one bit of great news in his personal life.
“I’m engaged,” Mane said happily. “I talk to her every day. She’s in my ear about everything.”
Mane’s fiancée is Fatai Eke, a Tongan from California.
“I love Tongans,” said Mane, assuring there is no rivalry there. “Tongans are good people. Samoans are good people, too.”