On the day his Washington Huskies teammates made him one of six team captains, fifth-year senior defensive tackle Taniela Tupou went home, called his mother and wept.
He thought back to 2011, to Hawaii’s Big Island, to the three ultrastructured months he lived with his uncle — the 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls for seminary school, the household chores, the studying, the homework, the daily dedication to making straight-As and qualifying for college.
He thought back to two years ago, when Washington’s former coaching staff asked him to transfer somewhere else, their former prized recruit now buried on a crowded depth chart.
And so as he told his mom that now, in his final season with the Huskies, he would be a captain, “I broke down and cried and just thanked the Lord because it’s been such a long journey to get here to where I am today.”
The journey to the top of Washington’s depth chart was long enough. But getting to Washington in the first place required uncommon sacrifice.
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On Hawaii’s Big Island, Tupou’s uncle, Sam Kekuaokalani, scheduled his nephew’s every waking moment.
The structure and discipline were necessary. Tupou had signed a letter of intent to play for the Huskies after a standout career at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett, but he wouldn’t be going anywhere if he didn’t boost his grade-point average.
So for the final quarter of his high school career — March, April and May of 2011 — Tupou’s parents sent him to live with Kekuaokalani and attend Kealakehe High School in Kailua-Kona, where straight-As were required to qualify for college.
But Kekuaokalani, now Kealekehe’s head football and basketball coach, said that time was about more than just grades and football.
“We understood the overall plan was to get to the University of Washington,” said Kekuaokalani, who is the brother of Tupou’s mother, Kawai. “So we sat down and I basically told him I couldn’t care less if he goes to Washington. All I care about is the characteristics that he builds while living here.
“It was really challenging for him, I thought, because our entire day here, every day, is pretty much set.”
He’s not exaggerating. Each day began with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call for a 6 a.m. seminary class — Tupou is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints — after which he helped make breakfast for the family (Kekuaokalani has six children) before arriving at school by 8 a.m.
When the school day ended around 3 p.m., Tupou worked out with his uncle in the weight room until about 5:30, then shuttled from there to whatever church or family activity was scheduled for the evening, then helped make dinner.
He also had a list of chores, just like the rest of Kekuaokalani’s children: help clean the dishes, help wash the floors, help scrub the toilet, help clean the yard.
It wasn’t always easy, Kekuaokalani said. Tupou occasionally challenged the strict schedule, asking whether it was all really necessary. Was there really no time to hang at the beach? No time to see his friends?
Tupou said he even had reservations about moving there in the first place. But the lessons he learned in Hawaii are not lost on him now.
“I just listened to the counsel of my parents and my uncle,” Tupou said after Tuesday’s practice. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I was today.”
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Those three months tested Tupou’s resolve, but the purpose was served: He made the grades, and he made it into UW.
But he struggled to earn playing time during his first three seasons, redshirting in 2011 before playing sparingly in 2012 and 2013.
That’s when the coaching staff asked him to find somewhere else to play, a request he said was “pretty difficult.” So he brought the issue to his parents.
“My parents told me to stick through it and finish what you came here for,” Tupou said. “If that means not playing, then it means not playing and you get a college degree.”
So he stayed, and Steve Sarkisian left, and Chris Petersen represented a fresh start. And while Tupou still found playing time to be sparse behind seniors Danny Shelton, Andrew Hudson, Evan Hudson and Hau’oli Kikaha, he won the coaches over with his attitude.
It’s why defensive line coach Jeff Choate says Tupou’s teammates “would do anything in the world for him.”
“He’s not one of those guys who’s going to be upset if somebody else gets reps, or hang his head if he has a bad game or somebody else is playing well,” Choate said. “If we’re winning as a team, that’s the most important thing to him. Being a teammate is putting our unit and our team above his personal satisfaction, and I think that’s a hard thing to do. You have to really be unselfish. I think Tani gets that.”
But Choate is quick to note that “we’re not playing Tani because Tani’s a good teammate and a good guy. We’re playing him because he deserves to play.”
At 6-foot-2 and 288 pounds, Tupou’s size and strength weren’t necessarily an issue. But he struggled to get off blocks and needed to improve his finishing ability.
“He’s always been strong and powerful, but sometimes disengaging has been an issue,” Choate said, “and he’s really improved that part of his game.”
When several Huskies players were asked during training camp who they thought would take over the leadership roles vacated by Shelton and Kikaha, Tupou’s name quickly came up.
That’s especially true for third-year sophomore Elijah Qualls, who identifies Tupou as an important mentor. Qualls said Tupou helped him control his temper when he was younger, calming him when he became angry or defensive.
“In all honesty, man, Tani meant everything to me, because if he wasn’t here I don’t know if I’d have been ready for this job,” Qualls said.
“… He kind of told me not to take everything so personal, try to keep cool with things, and just sit there and look at everything as a whole and do your job and play for your teammates.”
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With the Huskies leading 49-0 in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s victory over Sacramento State, the Hornets threatened to end UW’s shutout bid when they lined up for a 48-yard field-goal try.
The Huskies’ field-goal block team concocted a wager: If one of them blocked the kick, everybody else had to treat that lucky player to a feast at Jack In The Box.
Sure enough, Tupou got a hand on it, and the Huskies posted their first shutout since 2013.
“I ate good that night,” he said. Tacos and supreme croissants flowed freely.
Tupou also saw time on offense, entering the game as an extra blocker in short-yardage situations, and on Myles Gaskin’s second-quarter touchdown run.
These moments are his reward for sticking it out in Hawaii as a teenager, for sticking it out at UW as a deep reserve, for all of the humility and patience he learned and practiced along the way.
And they are proud moments for Kekuaokalani, who said he’ll be at Husky Stadium for Tupou’s final home game against Washington State on Nov. 27.
“I hope I was able to help him in any way,” Kekuaokalani said. “He comes from good, parent teaching. I’m glad I was able to be a part of his life.”