Zion Tupuola-Fetui may be the best toe-wiggler in the world.
He’s also a pretty good pass-rusher.
Or at least, he was. The sophomore outside linebacker from Pearl City, Hawaii, exploded onto the scene in four games last fall, compiling seven sacks and three forced fumbles (while leading the country with 1.75 sacks per game). He was named an All-Pac-12 first-team performer and a second-team All-American by both The Athletic and Walter Camp.
On April 15, in a video published on UW’s social media accounts, Tupuola-Fetui said, “It’s definitely a prove-it year, and we’re coming in with our heads screwed on tight. We’re ready to put in the work. We’re going to keep being dawgs, and we’re going to show you the result on the field. We’re not going to do any type of talking. We’re going to let our pads do the talking. That’s what I always live by. So I’m just amped, man. I wish the season started next week.”
Instead, it almost ended.
The next day, during a scrimmage drill in UW’s sixth practice of the spring, Tupuola-Fetui crumpled to the turf without being touched. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound pass-rusher with dyed golden curls said Wednesday that “I thought someone had stepped on me mid-play, and I was getting back up. I felt fine. I went to walk on it, couldn’t. That’s all there was to it. Even as they took me off the field I thought, ‘They’re going to tape it up and it’ll be fine. Maybe it’s just a little stinger or something.’ But I came to the realization coming into the training room, ‘I don’t need an X-ray to tell me that’s something’s off.’”
Tupuola-Fetui tore his left Achilles tendon. His recovery timeline was listed as 6-10 months.
On the six-month anniversary of the injury, he made his season debut against UCLA.
“At first they were telling me maybe (I’d get back for) the bowl game,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m not OK with that.’ So I personally circled Oregon (on Nov. 6), and I beat that, too. It’s just blessings. I’ve got a great staff behind me and great brothers supporting me. It wasn’t as difficult a process as it could have been, with all the support I have — family, friends and everyone I have here in Washington.”
Of course, the support was steadfast.
But all the family and friends and teammates in the world couldn’t wiggle his toes.
He had to do that — and so much more — himself.
“The only thing I could do in the splint (at first) was wiggle my toes,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “I was like, ‘All right, I’ll be the best toe-wiggler in the world.’
“I just kind of told myself, ‘PT (physical therapy) never stops.’ So I was at home doing the whole PT through and through again. If I’m watching TV, I’m doing PT. If I’m doing homework, I’m wiggling my toes. It was just a drive to get back onto the field. I love these guys, and I don’t think I have the strength to stand on the side for a whole season. So I’m just thankful.”
On Oct. 16, before the homecoming game against UCLA, that gratitude engulfed him. During the “Dawg Walk,” Tupuola-Fetui crossed the field on a repaired Achilles tendon, arms linked with his teammates, tears streaming down his face.
“In the moment (of the injury), nothing is promised, and it felt like it was getting taken away from me,” Tupuola-Fetui said Wednesday, eyes misting once again. “For me to come back on that six-month mark and to play with this team, it’s just … I’m thankful. I was looking at (playing) one game this year the day I got hurt, and now I’m sitting here with seven.”
Sure … but should he be?
Considering UW’s underwhelming 3-4 start, some have wondered whether “ZTF” should have sat out the season, to protect what could be a prosperous (and financially lucrative) NFL future.
It’s certainly been a prove-it year, in more ways than one. He wants to prove he can still play.
“I feel like I’m protecting my future by not sitting out,” he said. “I’m trying to be a sports broadcaster, so I feel like I know the ins and outs of the draft process. I know I can improve wherever I’m stationed on (draft) boards, and you do that by playing. Do I have NFL aspirations? Yes. But how you get into the NFL can dictate the rest of your career. So I would like to put myself in the best possible position to do so.”
Through two games, and limited opportunities, he’s putting himself in position. “ZTF” registered seven pressures in 10 snaps against UCLA, then recorded his first sack of the season in the 21-16 win over Arizona — shredding right tackle Paiton Fears before lassoing Will Plummer to the turf.
“It felt like a relief (to get the first sack), because I didn’t get mine against UCLA,” he said. “Even though I only played 10 plays, I was in on 10 pass-rushes. So that’s 10 failed attempts at a sack. It was relief and a way of me being able to show that I’m still here.”
He’s still here.
And he looks healthy.
So much so that when Tupuola-Fetui finished off the Arizona sack, he sprinted to the sideline, then leapt clear over the Husky bench.
For the first, and final, time.
“I definitely got a list of about 40 individuals who told me, ‘Never jump over a bench.’ Like I said, I don’t know what you guys are talking about,” he joked, denying the hurdle ever happened. “But it’s duly noted. It’s duly noted.”
That explosiveness is also duly noted by NFL scouts.
He may be the best toe-wiggler in the world.
And an even better pass-rusher.
“(The doctors) said the only thing that could be affected (from the surgery and recovery) was my explosiveness,” said Tupuola-Fetui, who took on triple-teams against Arizona as well. “I was like, ‘My explosiveness? I’m an outside linebacker. I literally have to get off the ball every play.’ So I trusted the process, but I also kind of went out on my own and made sure to work on that explosiveness.
“I think that’s what you’re seeing — just that combination of the work I put in by myself and with the staff combining to, in my opinion, make me a better player today.”