Photo courtesy of Adam Finkle

Broad-shouldered, cherubic-faced filmmaker and founder of fashion label Soulpro Tony Vainuku finds himself on a journey powered by ambition and creative thirst—a legacy from his Polynesian heritage.

Vainuku's first documentary, the six-year project In Football We Trust, is set to air on PBS next year. The film follows Polynesian football players from Hunter, Bingham and Highland high schools who hope to lift their families from poverty by being drafted by the NFL.

Vainuku survived the collapse of his own football ambitions at Highland High, but witnessed the destructive effects of the Polynesian community's intense pressure on a cousin, a highly touted linebacker, who stumbled on the all-or-nothing path and succumbed to drugs and jail.

"He was the next Junior Seau-type guy," Vainuku says, referring to the 1990-2009 NFL standout who committed suicide after retirement. A post-mortem found Seau suffered from brain trauma.

"My cousin never had a job his entire life. His family had brought him up to play football," Vainuku says. "It was like he was the meal ticket, the savior. He inspired the movie. I found kids that were in his same situation using football to make it."

Vainuku created a series of video portraits called Soul Profiles to launch the Soulpro clothing line in 2011. He designed the line's cranium-shaped logo, marked by small stylized bubbles that symbolize ideas drifting off into the universe.

Even Vainuku was surprised at how fast his gear, sold through temporary pop-up shops, went viral.

Musicians, actors and a roster of pro athletes (Utah-connected NFL stars, the Baltimore Ravens' Haloti Ngata and San Diego Chargers' Eric Weddle are sponsors) quickly gave the brand cachet, and partnerships with companies like Utah's Skullcandy headphones have launched Soulpro on a meteoric rise.

His approach has been validated by copy cats. Increasingly, other flash-retail booths are joining his mixed martial arts events and concerts at The Depot in Salt Lake. Vainuku's social-media marketing has reached a far-flung audience ranging from hipsters to soccer moms, with orders pouring in from countries as far away as the Philippines, New Zealand and Holland.

"I thought people were going to look at drawings of the shirts and think we were crazy. But the meaning behind the brand ['Passion is purpose'] has always stood for itself and everyone just bought into it."

Vainuku's ambition may no longer be the NFL, but the drive is still there as the neophyte multimedia entrepreneur learns by trial and error.

"I'm impatient; we'll fix it as we go. I'm never satisfied, always hungry for more," he says. "Soulpro represents living a life worth dying for."

Back>>>Read other stories from our October 2013 issue.