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Tuinei's legacy lives on through wife Pono, extended family

The 15-year Cowboy and multiple-time Pro Bowler passed away 20 years ago this year, but his spirit is still tangible in Honolulu and beyond

HONOLULU — The water is home for Pono Tuinei. 

The wife of former Cowboys offensive lineman Mark Tuinei, Pono spends much of her days paddling off the shores of Honolulu, in a state of contemplation and reflection.

"It's a time where I can meditate... emptying the mind, so to speak, so that I can make way for all the positive."

Her husband Mark was a Super Bowl Champion with the Cowboys.  But years before that, he was an all-state athlete at the Punahoe School in Honolulu.

"Mark's first love was basketball," Pono explained as we sat with her at the Elk's Lodge just south of Waikiki.

In fact, Mark played alongside future president Barack Obama.

"Barry, they called him Barry at the time," Pono recalls, "said that 'Mark Tuinei taught me how to set a pick on the basketball court, and then went on to become an All-Pro left tackle for the Dallas Cowboys.'"

Protecting Troy Aikman's blindside, and paving the way for Emmitt Smith, Tuinei played 15 years for the Cowboys.  And as you might imagine, that has led to a family full -- and an island full -- of Cowboys fans here in Hawaii.

"Mark did good for you! Yeah, Troy?" Tuinei's sister shouted from the beach earlier this week. "That's why you look so good out there!"


One of the real comics on that early 90s Cowboys team, Tuinei never missed a chance to needle his rivals after a big win.

Former Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston still speaks to this day of seeing Mark as a big brother when they played together in Dallas. And they were together in January of 1993, as the Cowboys played the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

"There's a clip of [49ers offensive lineman] Jesse Sopolu saying 'that's right, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Candlestick Park!  Because they had held home field, and we were going out there," Johnson recalls, leading up to a title game the Cowboys won 30-20, to advance to Super Bowl XXVII. 

"So after the game, I see Jesse Sopolo chasing Mark Tuinei across the field and into the tunnel," Johnston said.  "And when I got to him, I said 'what was that all about, what was Jesse so upset about?'  He goes 'I walked up to him after the game and said 'hey Jesse, thanks for the directions to the Super Bowl!"

Pono remembers the winning well.  Three Super Bowls in the 90's, in California, Atlanta, and Phoenix. And then Mark decided on retirement after the '97 season. 

After his career with the Cowboys was complete, he planned to return home to Hawaii, to coach at his old high school.

"I can remember dropping to the ground, and just wailing," Pono says of what happened next. "It was horrific."

Tuinei was found dead in his car of an accidental drug overdose, outside his Plano home.

"He had a big heart," his sister Louise said through tears. "I see a lot of my brother in our children, and a couple of the grandchildren.  So, he's still here."

He's here in a major way, with generations of family members and friends carrying on his memory.

"He passed away in '99, and it just seems like yesterday," his brother Tom, himself an NFL player with the Lions, said of Mark. "And his legacy is real strong in Hawaii."

That legacy includes winners of the Mark Tuinei Scholarship, to attend the Punahoe School.

"We couldn't have had a better first recipient than Kapono Brown," Pono said.

Kapono, a paddling teammate of Pono, won the inaugural scholarship in 1996.

"It was an opportunity for me to go to Punahoe, that I wouldn't have had otherwise," Kapono said. "A lot of great teachers. A lot of great lessons.  And I think I'm better because of it."

WATCH:  Pono explains how Mark's legacy includes his scholarship and the encouragement of education.  Inside, information on how to donate to the Mark Tuinei Scholarship endowment.

But the real legacy of Mark Tuinei is Pono. Her spirit is unquenchable, two decades after her husbands passing.

"I've since learned, like the butterfly, there's gonna be some challenging parts to your life," Pono said. "And I'm going to, just like that butterfly, I'm going to blossom, and I'm going to bloom, and I'm going to choose beauty, and love, and kindness. And, the grief, yes, will be in my life... I think I'll have a lifetime of grief.  But with the amount of love that I'm surrounded by, and I'm fortunate to have, love conquers."

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