Oct. 23, 2006
by John Sudsbury, California Media Relations
[This story originally appeared in the October 21 issue of "Kickoff," the official California game day program]
The top word used to describe California senior defensive end Nu'u Tafisi is motor, or more specifically, non-stop motor. The native of Samoa has used his relentless dedication to football and the attitude of a perfectionist to transform himself from an unrecruited, under-sized defensive lineman into one of the top defensive ends in the Pacific-10 Conference.
At 6-2, 265 pounds, Tafisi nearly always gives up size to the offensive-line behemoths he battles each week. Yet each Saturday, he continues to make plays. Last year, he was an All-Pac-10 performer in his first year in Division I-A football. This year, he has continued to raise his game, and to earn the respect of his teammates.
"When I think of Nu'u, the first thing that comes to my mind is non-stop motor," said senior linebacker Desmond Bishop. "He is a combination of athleticism, speed and strength, all in one. He reminds me of Sonic the Hedgehog, just a ball of energy waiting to erupt. He is a great player with a great attitude. His work ethic sums up his character."
The under-sized Tafisi repeatedly bangs himself against his opponents. Maybe the first rush does not get through, and maybe the second doesn't either, but before long, those big offensive linemen wear down, and then Tafisi feasts on quarterbacks and running backs.
Or even on opposing punters. Last week at Washington State, Tafisi broke through the protection and blocked a Cougar punt, recovering the ball on the five-yard line to set up the Golden Bears' first touchdown. For the season, the quiet lineman has 17 tackles and is tied for the team-lead with 3.5 sacks.
"His success is a product of his hard work, his dedication and his work ethic on a daily basis," Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said. "He plays with such great energy and a great motor. You have to block him the whole game because there's no quit in him. He's going to just keep bringing it until he's finally going to get there. It's very difficult to leave him one-on-one because he plays so hard."
Despite compliments from everybody around him, Tafisi evaluates his own game on the gridiron with one surprising word: sloppy.
"I am still learning techniques from Coach [Ken] Delgado," Tafisi said. "He has given me a lot of good ideas about how to play football, but I need to improve on it more, that is why I say sloppy. Not sloppy in a bad way, but sloppy in a good way."
Delgado, the Cal defensive line coach, does not agree with Tafisi's "sloppy" assessment, but he understands where the attitude comes from.
"Part of the reason why he plays so hard is because he's a perfectionist," Delgado said. "He is never happy with the way he plays. That's why he plays with so much energy. He is never satisfied. All the great players have this internal anxiety that they are not doing well or not doing well enough and that drives them to push themselves very, very hard."
Perhaps Tafisi's background contributes to the "sloppy" thoughts. While most college football players have been told for much of their lives that they are stars who will soon be in the NFL, Tafisi took a much different path to becoming a collegiate star.
Born in Samoa, Tafisi and his family moved to Utah in 1995 when he was 14 years old. The following year, he debuted on the football field. However, he was already a junior in high school. He graduated at 16 years old with limited football credentials and no football aspirations. Instead he worked full-time in general construction for two years to save money for his LDS mission, for which he returned to Samoa in 2001.
"My mission was a fun experience for me," Tafisi said. "I learned a lot about myself; it gave me the opportunity to grow as a person, spiritually and physically. It also helped my discipline. It has helped me with the stuff that no one knows about, the behind the scenes work."
After two years serving in both Western and American Samoa, he returned to the states, debating his next step. With the urging of his older brother Moe (pronounced Mo-eh), his mind returned to football. As a Mormon, BYU appealed to him, but his gridiron resumé did not appeal to the Cougar coaches.
A friend of Moe's worked as the defensive line coach at Mt. San Antonio College, a junior college in Walnut, Calif. That friend, Iona Uiagalelei, and the Mt. SAC staff welcomed the energetic lineman and before long, Division I colleges were calling. Tafisi earned Junior College All-America honors, tallying 59 tackles with 16 sacks and 23 tackles for loss in 2004. He was rated as the No. 3 junior-college defensive end in the nation. To California's benefit, the Bears were an early caller.
"Even in junior college, Nu'u did not quite fit the defensive end profile," Delgado said. "But we liked what we saw and we were the first Pac-10 school to be serious about him. We offered him early and that made a very good impression on him."
The early scholarship offer was not the biggest deal-maker for Tafisi. It was Delgado's approach.
"Cal was always in the back of my head," Tafisi said. "You make decisions from your feelings. For me, I am very religious, I use my faith to guide me in the choices I make, and when I met Coach Delgado, that just sealed it for me. He was honest; he never told me I was going to start, not like other coaches. He told me Cal would give me an opportunity."
So he arrived in Berkley, 4,755 miles from Samoa, in 2005 and took that opportunity and worked it with every ounce of his strength and determination. Well-liked and well-respected by teammates and opponents alike, he is a key to the Golden Bears' defense which has helped Cal climb into the top 10 in the nation. In addition to the all-conference honors from 2005, he is on the Watch List for the Hendricks Award as one of the top defensive lineman in the nation, which makes for a much stronger resumé than he had back in 20001 when BYU turned him down. A resumé for the NFL perhaps?
"I don't know about that," Tafisi said. "I know I am under-sized for that. It would be nice. I have the desire just like every other person. If it happens, it happens; if it doesn't, it doesn't."
A typical Tafisi answer to a question about himself and his abilities. However, scouts see it differently.
"He does not have the classic size," one NFL scout visiting Memorial Stadium recently said. "But he doesn't stop; he has that motor. It's amazing. Put him in the right defense and he could definitely help a team."
NFL or not, Tafisi is on track to earn his social welfare degree in May, his primary goal is to turn his considerable energies to helping children find better lives.
"I love working with kids," he said. "After growing up in the Islands and coming here to the states, I would like to give the same opportunity to the younger generation in the Islands."
With his work-ethic, his faith and his background, Tafisi has what it takes to be an amazing role-model for children anywhere in the world. And with his non-stop motor, even the most rambunctious kid will have trouble getting away from Tafisi.