Vai Peko’s phone kept ringing and ringing. It wouldn’t stop.
As soon as one call went to voicemail, a text message would pop up. The senior defensive back at Idaho State was consumed with homework, so he tuned out the ringtone and vibrations.
Finally, at around 1 a.m. on March 6, Peko looked at his phone. The next few minutes changed his life.
“I had a text from my dad saying, ‘Call me ASAP,’” he said. “Right when I was about to call, I got a call from my aunt. She said that my brother was gunned down, had been in the hospital and didn’t make it.”
Peko’s brother, 21-year-old Shailo Leafa, had been shot and killed in the parking lot of a strip mall in Harbor City, Calif., near Los Angeles.
Police officers said they have found no motive for the shooting and no suspects or vehicle information was available.
“No one saw anything,” Los Angeles police Lt. Eric Holyfield told the Daily Breeze.
The family is left to pick up the pieces of a life ended too soon. For Peko, that means hitting the football field harder and with more energy than ever before.
“I have a lot of motivation right now,” Peko said. “I usually just come out here and do my thing for my family, but right now my season is dedicated to (Leafa). I want to play hard for him and I want to do anything I can for him. I’m not going to stop.”
Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer hasn’t seen a dropoff in intensity or ability from Peko since the tragedy.
“Vai doesn’t let his personal stuff come down the ramp,” Kramer said. “A lot of us deal with all sorts of family issues that can impede our progress day in and day out. He’s done a nice job of staying within himself. He’s a good student, but it has interfered with an ongoing part of his life because he can’t change what has already happened.”
Peko’s laser-focused eyes began tearing up when he discussed his memories of his brother.
“He was a really good basketball player. I was trying to get him to play again,” Peko said. “He was going back to school and had enrolled when the tragedy happened.”
Leafa played one year at Fresno City College. He and former Idaho State point guard Tomas Sanchez were teammates and good friends, according to Peko. Leafa was a 6-foot-2 point guard who led his varsity basketball team to the L.A. City Division II title while earning player of the year honors his senior season.
Peko missed a number of workouts with his Idaho State teammates in March to return home to Los Angeles for the funeral. In honor of his brother, the family held a basketball tournament.
“(We) separated into five teams to play and did our best to remember Shailo,” Peko said.
The tournament ended with Peko holding a tangible reminder of Leafa, one that he doesn’t plan on giving up.
“My team actually won,” he said. “I got the trophy.”
Peko was in Los Angeles for Easter as well. Even before his brother’s death, he enjoyed being with his family. Now their time with one another carries a special meaning.
“We’re always together. There’s not a weekend when we’re not together,” Peko said. “There’s hardly a day when we’re not all together. We’re with each other every holiday and we make time for each other. We are together right now to fill this hole in our hearts.”
With a mere three days of spring practice remaining, Peko is focusing on football. When it ends Saturday, Peko’s push to honor his brother’s memory will continue over the summer and into next fall.
“I’m not going to sit here and grieve,” Peko said. “I’m not going to keep my head down and feel sorry for myself on the field just because something happened in my personal life. I’m going to use it as motivation.
“I’ve been through a lot. In high school I was doubted many times. I use all the negatives and turn them into positives.”