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  1. Bucs

Take a ride with a big Bucs lineman who lived in his SUV

TAMPA — He didn't live in a van down by the river.

Let's get that straight.

He lived in an SUV down by the beach.

"Not homeless, just a choice," Stevie Tu'ikolovatu said with a smile.

Tu'ikolovatu — "Stevie T." to Bucs players and coaches who gave up trying to pronounce his name last weekend at rookie minicamp — is a big man (340 pounds) with a bigger dream: playing in the NFL. The former run-stuffing Utah defensive tackle and USC graduate transfer was selected in the seventh round of the draft by the Bucs.

Tu'ikolovatu ("Too-ee-kolo-vah-too") has an oversized story. He is one of seven children born to Leilani and Viliami, who moved to Salt Lake City from the Pacific nation archipelago of Tonga. Leilani is a librarian. Viliami is a vehicle mechanic for a large company. Stevie Tu'ikolovatu is 25. He served a two-year Mormon mission in the Philippines.

Bored yet?

Tu'ikolovatu has dreams even beyond football. He and his wife, Kalo, want to set up senior living facilities. Tu'ikolovatu is working on his master's in gerontology from USC; he has three online courses remaining to earn his degree. Gerontology is the study of old age and the process of aging.

Bored yet?

This story will never get old.

And now let's hop in the car.

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Stevie and Kalo, who were married in 2015, were praying at the Salt Lake Temple in February 2016. Kalo served her mission in Paraguay.

"Steve told me I think we need to move because he got a really strong impression about USC," Kalo said. "When we get an impression, when the Heavenly Father tells us to go, we have to go."

The problem was that until Tu'ikolovatu was officially enrolled at USC, NCAA rules prohibited the school from giving him benefits, such as housing. But he wanted to get out to Los Angeles to begin working out. So, away he went, no real plan.

He wound up sleeping in his car. For two months. His idea. Eventually, his parents delivered his mom's 2004 brown Chevy Suburban to Los Angeles. They didn't know their son would use it as an apartment. That story only came out after Tu'ikolovatu began playing for USC. He won the school's defensive player of the year award in 2016 and was named defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl after making eight tackles.

Back to the car ...

"I wasn't a hundred percent comfortable in there," Tu'ikolovatu said. "Kind of squeezed. But I took the back chairs out and was able to fit in there a little better."

Three weeks into his life on the road, Kalo, who had initially stayed behind in Utah to keep her job to save money, joined her husband. Double occupancy.

"It was hard being apart," Kalo said.

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There was no "apart" in the Suburban. They piled blankets and pillows in the back of the SUV. They hung shower curtains inside to block the sun. They bought two small fans. They had an ice cooler and a garment bag for laundry. Home, sweet home.

The happy couple frequented the beaches and beach parking lots. Steve's favorite was Manhattan Beach, because of the boardwalk and the grass hill he worked out on in the mornings. Kalo liked Imperial Beach. There were fire pits. They would shower at night at beach facilities. In the morning, Kalo dropped Steve off at USC and looked for work. Then came dinner.

"Steve has skills," Kalo said. "He seriously knows how to survive. He made a barbecue grill out of foil and wood."

"That was all material from Dollar Tree," Stevie said.

"We'd get strips of steaks and hot dogs and cook on the beach," Kalo said.

"It was normal in a lot of ways," Tu'ikolovatu said. "We went to church every Sunday. But no one had any idea we were living in the car."

Kalo said. "We'd visit friends and they'd see the blankets and ask us, 'You're not sleeping in that thing, are you?' We'd say no, of course not."

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Tu'ikolovatu could have stayed with teammates. He had friends and relatives in Los Angeles.

"I don't like to bother people, make a hassle," Tu'ikolovatu said. "I'm kind of independent. I also understand that when you have struggles, there are also lessons."

They knew they weren't truly homeless. Kalo did volunteer work at Los Angeles' "Skid Row," where the homeless lived in tents or on the street.

"We had the car," Kalo said. "When we traveled around, we met a lot of people sleeping in cars and vans. We weren't alone."

Tu'ikolovatu grew up in a crowded home. Maybe squeezing into a car wasn't a big deal.

"It teaches you not to be selfish," he said. "It teaches you not to take life so seriously. It teaches you how to love."

Back to the Suburban ...

"I miss the car," Kalo said. "There was always something to do, meeting new people, making new friends."

"I don't miss it at all," Stevie Tu'ikolovatu said with a smile.

They plan to have a big family.

They bought a Land Rover.

We have no idea how many it sleeps.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or 813-731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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