This story originally appeared in Cal's Kickoff Game Progam on Sept. 27, 2008.
By John Sudsbury, California Media Relations
Effective leadership on the football field comes in many different forms. There are the fiery leaders exhorting teammates throughout games. And the emotional firebrands in the locker room, belting out impassioned speeches. Then there are the more quiet types of leaders, players like California senior fullback Will Ta'ufo'ou.
Ta'ufo'ou is not an in-your-face screamer. He is a polite, mild-mannered young man, who simply works as hard as anyone on the team, exudes toughness throughout the season, and loves to lower his head and smash opposing defenders any chance he gets.
Ta'ufo'ou has gone from a talented walk-on running back to a potential NFL Draft pick at fullback in his five years in Blue and Gold. The 5-11, 253-pounder has never had a run for negative yardage and has never fumbled the ball. And more importantly, he has embraced the crucial role of the Cal fullback - he blocks with ferocity and intensity that makes opponents cringe.
"Will is vital to our offense," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "The fullback plays such a big part in our run game. And Will combines intelligence and instinct for the game with his very physical play. Along with the tight end, our linemen and receivers, it's a complete effort to run the ball, and Will is instrumental at the point of attack."
His success on the field is a clear example to emulate, but his toughness has become the stuff of legend around Memorial Stadium.
"Will is the toughest player I have ever coached," running backs coach Ron Gould said. "He has played through injuries every year and never complains. He just puts his head down and goes out and does whatever we ask him to do."
Last season, Ta'ufo'ou suffered injuries to his posterior cruciate ligament and his medial collateral ligament while adding the always-dreaded high-ankle sprain, as well. Any one of those injuries alone can often shelve players for many weeks, if not an entire season. Ta'ufo'ou missed just two games.
"It all comes from the work you put into it," Ta'ufo'ou said. "I don't enjoy being off the field. If I'm hurt, I'm going to do everything in my power to get myself back on the field."
His success and toughness on the field make him a perfect example for younger players, despite his downplaying of that role for himself.
"I think all of the seniors are leaders," Ta'ufo'ou said. "Everybody has a different role; everyone partakes in leading the squad. I think a big part of it has to do with the young guys accepting our leadership."
The fullback position is frequently under-appreciated in football, but as Cal fans know, the Bears have produced some good ones under Tedford's watch - and the NFL has noticed. The Kansas City Chiefs' Chris Manderino and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Byron Storer are both former fullback teammates of Ta'ufo'ou's at Cal. And both showed the same selflessness and toughness that is becoming a fullback tradition for the Golden Bears. It is likely that Ta'ufo'ou will have the opportunity to show his own style to the pros next spring - even if that style is simply power running through the defense.
"As a fullback, I don't think there are many styles of play," Ta'ufo'ou said. "It's all downhill, physical play. You have to be strong, mentally tough, and also physically tough. You have to be a hard-nosed player. You're almost an offensive lineman, but with a little spotlight because you get to touch the ball sometimes. You have to be a tough player."
Since being a standout high school tailback at St. Francis High School - he was the Catholic Athletic League Player of the Year in 2003 - Ta'ufo'ou has learned to appreciate the nuances of blocking, as well as the rewards of opening holes for the likes of Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett and Jahvid Best, who gain all the glory accompanied with long runs and touchdown sprints.
"I have really come to appreciate blocking," Ta'ufo'ou said. "I like the feeling of opening up the hole for a running back, getting a huge block to spring a big run. Over the years, I have been able to appreciate that more and more. The feeling of getting a good, clean block - pancake them or pop their helmet off, whatever. A big hit, something that's going to change the play."
Ta'ufo'ou burst onto the scene in the 2006 Holiday Bowl, filling in for Storer, the all-conference standout who had broken his arm in the final regular-season game. While fans fretted about losing their rock at fullback, Ta'ufo'ou wreaked havoc on the Texas A&M defenders, helping both Lynch and Forsett to 100-yard rushing games in the big Cal win.
Now a known commodity, Ta'ufo'ou forever endeared himself to Cal fans in the nationally-televised season-opener against Tennessee in 2007. With Cal leading late in the game, at a point when some players may ease up to protect themselves, Ta'ufo'ou took a short screen pass from Nate Longshore and turned upfield. An unsuspecting Volunteer defensive back was soon separated from his helmet by a punishing direct hit from the fullback, who finished the play with a 15-yard gain, and another first down.
"It's always exciting to make big plays to uplift your teammates," Ta'ufo'ou said. "To be honest, I don't even really remember what happened on that play until I saw it on film. On the field, I heard the cheering, but I didn't even feel it, it was just something that happened."
With his big blocks and crunching hits adding up, Ta'ufo'ou is finding it bittersweet to be entering his last season of college.
"It's kind of crazy, but it's also exciting," he said. "Five years is a long time. I'm excited it's my last year, but I'm kind of sad because of all the friends I've made here, the coaches I've met. It's going to be over after this season. My best memories will be the running back meetings. I've had the chance to be in those meetings and on the field with a lot of great running backs, Marshawn, J.J. Arrington, Justin. It's always entertaining being in those meetings with Coach G and those guys. There's never a dull moment."
While his on-field effort is exemplary, Ta'ufo'ou is by no means one-dimensional. He is also a true leader due to his effort and success in the classroom. An honor student, he earned his degree in sociology in May and is currently working on a master's degree in education.
Ta'ufo'ou credits his maturity on and off the field to his parents, his coaches and his time in Berkeley.
"My parents have been there from day one, supporting me and guiding me to where I am right now," he said. "Here at Cal, Coach G is another important person who has helped me to mature as a person. I've changed in school and in sports. I've been able to mature here. I've become a man. I came in as an immature teen, and I think I'm leaving as a mature person who's ready to help society in whatever I do next."
But before he leaves, Ta'ufo'ou plans on putting a few more big hits on opponents, hoping to open up many more holes for Best and the rest of his running back partners. Whatever it takes to help the Bears get another "W," rest assured that big Will will be in position and ready to go.
"I want to play to my best ability and reach my full potential," he said. "My main thing is that I want to win. I don't want to go through a season like last year; I want to be able to learn from last year."
Leaders aren't always the ones who yell and make themselves noticed; leaders are often the ones who don't yell, but still get noticed. Guys like Will Ta'ufo'ou, Cal's quiet leader.