MJ Tafisi was terrified.
On Oct. 12, 2019, the redshirt freshman linebacker attempted a shoulder tackle and dropped to the turf, laying on his back near the 30-yard line. His teammates knelt in prayer. At Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Tafisi was transferred to a backboard and carted off the field — while raising his right arm to give a thumbs-up sign — in the third quarter of Washington’s 51-27 road win over Arizona. He was immediately transported to a local hospital, diagnosed with a significant stinger and cleared to fly home with his team.
But in that moment, Tafisi admitted, “I didn’t think I was going to see the field again.”
It’s easy to understand why.
Tafisi — a 6-foot, 230-pound sophomore from West Jordan, Utah — says he lost sensation in his shoulders and neck “for three or four months.” Initially, he struggled to complete a 5-pound bicep curl.
But as the nerves in his shoulders fired, feeling returned.
And Tafisi never lost faith.
“He honestly never had a deep depression — like a down point — when he got injured, which is kind of surprising, because a lot of people can get into that position,” fellow UW linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio said. “But from the very beginning, he was like, ‘Well, I’m going to come back sooner or later.’ He always had that uphill climb. He’s been super resilient in that aspect.”
Added Tafisi: “It was tough at first. What really got me to go through it was my brothers. A lot of people talk about the brotherhood that we have over here, and that’s what kept me going. With all the hard work they were putting in, I wanted to be ready when they needed me.”
Now, Tafisi is needed.
After finally being cleared to participate, he played in all four games last fall — registering a sack against (appropriately) Arizona, before being named special teams player of the game in a 24-21 comeback win over Utah. And this summer — after inside linebackers Josh Calvert, Miki Ah You and Will Latu all left the program — Tafisi was counted on to be a more consistent contributor.
Though inside linebacker Ulofoshio and fellow sophomore Jackson Sirmon have cemented themselves as starters, Tafisi, redshirt freshman Daniel Heimuli and second-year freshman Carson Bruener could each make an impact Saturday against Montana.
Nearly two years after the injury, Tafisi said he does “feel faster, quicker. My strike timing is much better.”
And, perhaps most important, he feels physically prepared to play.
“We have a drill called 9-on-7, and they were in I-formation (earlier in fall camp),” he said. “The lead blocker, the fullback, came downhill and I threw my whole weight against him. That was me also testing if I could take it or not. I hit him, felt really good, and after that hit it made me feel like I could do it more and more.”
Added UW defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Bob Gregory: “The confidence is the biggest thing. I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence and speed. He knows he’s going to play on Saturday. I think he’s a really good linebacker right now. He’s improved quite a bit.”
That improvement is particularly important for a unit that ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (161.25 yards per game) and seventh in opponent yards per carry (4.54) in four games last fall. Plus, considering Heimuli suffered a knee injury of unknown severity last month, UW’s inside linebacker depth might be in a precarious position.
On that subject, Gregory said Wednesday that “if we keep our guys healthy, like every team in America, I feel good about (our inside linebackers). I think Daniel (Heimuli) is playing well. Junior Tafisi is playing very well. Young Carson Bruener is stepping up. I feel good about those guys, and certainly Eddy (Ulofoshio) and Jackson (Sirmon) as well at this point.”
Of that group, Tafisi — the soft-spoken sophomore — is hoping to speak loudly Saturday.
Where once he was justifiably terrified, he’s hoping to become the terror.
“I’m so proud of him, for one,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said last week. “I still remember the play down at the University of Arizona. Some things maybe just come in blessings, where we had this kind of off year last year and we were able to just kind of get him back to full strength. He only had to play in a minimal amount of games, and then he had this offseason to get stronger and really recover from that injury and build confidence through spring football that he can go hit somebody and not be hurt.
“Now here we go into a training camp, where he’s played extremely well. Extremely well. He’s right there. With what he’s put on tape, he’s going to be playing a lot. He’s going to be rotated in there with the starters. So I’m so proud of Junior (Tafisi), and I’m excited. He’s got his best football here to come.”