“When you talk about that type of upbringing, every chance you get is your last chance. That’s the only way they approach it.” — Washington defensive-line coach and Waimanalo, Hawaii, product Ikaika Malloe
The dent in Faatui Tuitele’s chest is a daily reminder of his decision.
It might look, at times, like Washington’s freshman defensive tackle is suffering from a literal broken heart. When he flexes, or lifts his arm, an uncanny crater appears where his left pectoral muscle — the pectoralis major — used to be. He says that “the pec is so far detached from the bone that it’s already scarred up into a different area of my body.”
So, did Faatui make the right decision? And should it have been his decision to make?
The injury, to begin with, is fairly common in football. It occurred Sept. 7, 2018, during Saint Louis School’s rivalry game against Kahuku. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound Honolulu defensive lineman was attempting a pass-rush move when his left arm got caught behind his body. He torqued it violently in an attempt to free it and tore his pectoral muscle instead.
A doctor, unsurprisingly, recommended immediate surgery, which would then be followed by a five- to six-month rehab. Faatui would be fully healthy by the time he enrolled at the college of his choice the following summer.
But what Faatui heard was that his senior season — and his high-school career, for that matter — would be over. He’d have to watch Saint Louis attempt to win a third consecutive state title from the sideline — to ignore the gnawing instinct to push harder, to overcome.
So forget the odds; forget the expectations. Faatui wasn’t about to let his last chance slip away.
“A lot of people were telling me just to sit this one out, because it was my senior season and I had college already ahead of me,” Faatui told The Times last spring. “I understand. With a lot of people, it’s just hard love. They just want me to take care of myself. I thank a lot of people for their hospitality and their care for wanting me to do what’s best for myself.
“But at the time, during the season, I kind of just blocked everything out and focused on what I wanted to do and what I needed to do.”
Faatui needed to play; that’s what he told his parents. Through tears, he said he wasn’t going to let an injury define him; that the only doctor he believed in was God.
“Me and my wife, we told the doctor we needed a moment,” said Justin Tuitele, Faatui’s father. “We told him, ‘You don’t need to play this season.’ But he really convinced us.”
So they opted against surgery — and in doing so, conceded that he might never fully regain strength in his chest. The doctor told Faatui, according to Justin, that “if you want to be a power lifter, you’re not going to be a power lifter.”
OK. But what about a Pac-12 or NFL defensive lineman?
“If it were a full (pectoral) tendon tear it’s very rare not to have surgery, because you lose strength in the long term,” said David Chao, the former head physician for the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers. “Especially as an interior lineman, you probably need that strength to get off blocks and to wrap on tackles.”
He didn’t seem to need it at Saint Louis. Faatui — who also waited until the end of his senior season to start physical therapy, so he could focus on school and football — played in the Crusaders’ nine remaining games, leading Saint Louis to its third consecutive state title. He was named USA Today and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Defensive Player of the Year along the way.
And he did it all with a bulky black brace restricting his movement and protecting his injured pec.
“I made sure he was fine in that it wasn’t going to get any worse. We did whatever we could to tape it up and secure it,” said Saint Louis coach Cal Lee, who emphasized that he never considered sitting Faatui because the team’s trainers assured him the injury could not be damaged further.
“But he’s got that attitude that he wants to get out there and continue playing no matter what. I know he was hurting, but he still hung in there and played with injuries. Sometimes you’ve got to do that.”
Time after time, he did it. When he dislocated his elbow in a practice midway through his junior season, Faatui’s arm “looked like a noodle,” according to his father. The doctors made him listen to music so he couldn’t hear them pop his elbow back into place. He missed one measly game.
While he was playing with the pectoral injury, the powerful 300-plus-pound defensive lineman would sometimes need teammates to help take off his pads. “Sometimes,” he said, “it would push me to the point where I’d be crying on the bus.”
When asked if he’s ever seen someone play through that combination of injuries, the 72-year-old Lee said: “No. Not really. No. No.”
And what about Malloe? Has he ever seen a player persevere through a torn pectoral tendon?
“No,” he said. “No. Never seen that.”
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Faatui’s decision — his painful, perhaps misguided perseverance — might seem relatively unprecedented. But it’s also unsurprising, if you understand his perspective. He was raised in Mayor Wright Homes — one of Hawaii’s largest, most notorious and least habitable projects. He shared a three-bedroom apartment with 11 family members; his neighborhood was infected with poverty and crime.
Faatui’s childhood provided daily examples of pain, toughness and persistence. So, no, he felt like he couldn’t surrender; he couldn’t stop.
For better or worse, Faatui’s background was baked into his blood.
“I believe I do carry that pride and the sense that nothing’s going to bring me down, because I know what it’s like to be from the bottom,” Faatui said. “When I got injured I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to let this little injury take me out for the rest of the season, because I know that many people have it worse than I do.’”
But which version of Faatui Tuitele will take the field in the Pac-12? Will he be the player who was ranked as a consensus four-star prospect and arguably the Huskies’ most coveted recruit in the 2019 class? Who 247Sports national editor Brandon Huffman said “was 290, 300 pounds and moved like a 240-, 245-pound defensive end”? Who college football’s blue bloods — Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC, you name it — all courted?
Or will he be something less?
It’s fair to wonder if Faatui’s football ceiling has begun to buckle — if his body is bound to break.
“That always occurs in my head every day when I go to (physical therapy). I think to myself, ‘Was it worth it?’” Faatui said last spring. “There are, of course, some times when I think to myself, ‘Did I really have to fight through the season?’
“There’s doubt here and there, but all in all I don’t regret playing through and not getting surgery because I know I was still able to push through.”
Added Justin Tuitele: “Every day, even now, I still think about it. I try not to dwell on that. I always try to ask my son how he feels. Today he just came back from his therapy. ‘How you feel?’ He says he’s getting stronger. He feels good.
“But it’s always going to be in the back of my mind. Man, did we make the right decision?”
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You could ask Washington’s coaching staff the same question. After all, in Faatui’s final two seasons at Saint Louis, he suffered A.) three torn ligaments and a dislocation in his elbow, B.) a separated shoulder and C.) a torn pectoral muscle — all on the left side.
When it comes to investing in his football future, is that pattern of injuries a problem?
“I don’t see it as a problem,” said Malloe, who played safety and linebacker at UW from 1993-96. “I think as long as his work ethic fits what I think it does, he’ll be fine in terms of re-gaining strength (in the pectoral).”
There’s also a remote possibility that Faatui could still have surgery, which would wipe out his freshman season in Seattle altogether. When asked to address Faatui’s immediate future last month, Malloe said that “we won’t really know until he gets up here, but I think he’ll be strong enough to compete and all that type of stuff. But really I don’t know.”
For what it’s worth, Faatui told The Times on June 18 — the day he flew from Honolulu to Seattle — that “I’ve been feeling really good lately. I’ve been just working on it and rehabbing it, and I can’t say it’s 100%, because it can never be 100% again. But it’s where I want it to be.”
Likewise, Faatui is where he wants to be — at the University of Washington. He made it from Mayor Wright to the mainland, with three letters — MWH — etched in bold black ink like a billboard on his back.
Tuitele used to scribble those same three letters on the tape that held his pectoral brace in place. He said that “I took a lot of pride in writing that MWH on top of my arm every day. I like to show people that this is where I’m from, and I’m not afraid to tell you where I’m from.”
This story is about that brace — what’s in it, and what’s on it.
When his injury held him back, his inspiration pushed him forward.
“I’m representing my family,” Faatui Tuitele said. “I’m representing other kids who are from Mayor Wright Housing and all the housing projects here in Hawaii. I’m representing more than just myself. I carry that burden on my shoulders with pride.
“It’s not something that I look down upon at all, man, like, ‘I’ve got to do this or do that.’ I want to do this for my people and my family. That’s what really keeps me going every day.”
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