Two years after being asked to leave the program by the previous coaching staff, Tupou is a team captain and a starting defensive tackle.
Protecting their shutout meant so much to Washington’s defenders on Saturday that they made a playful wager with their most vital commodity: fast food.
Whoever got a hand on Sacramento State’s fourth-quarter field goal attempt, they told each other, would be treated with an all-you-can-eat trip to Jack in the Box.
“So I ate good that night,” Taniela Tupou said.
It was Tupou’s right hand that saved the Huskies’ first shutout in two years, blocking the 48-yard field-goal attempt in the Huskies’ 49-0 victory Saturday. It was his belly that was rewarded, filled with tacos and supreme croissants.
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Tupou, a senior defensive tackle out of Everett’s Archbishop Murphy High, had much to celebrate after his first start at Husky Stadium, which came two years after UW’s previous coaching staff had asked him to transfer out of the program. At the time, with seemingly little hope of playing, he said the decision to remain at UW was difficult.
“I went home and I talked to my parents, but my parents told me, ‘Naw, man, you’ve got to stick through it and finish what you came here for. If that means not playing, then you’re not playing and you get a college degree,’” Tupou recalled Tuesday. “My parents said, ‘The only thing you can control is your effort and everything you put out there on the field, and one day it will show up.’
“And, sure enough, it did.”
It showed up all over the field Saturday.
Not only did he block the field goal that preserved the shutout, Tupou had one tackle for loss and one quarterback hit on defense and — the icing on the croissant — he played fullback during UW’s first touchdown drive, getting the key block that sealed the left edge on Myles Gaskin’s three-yard touchdown run.
“It was exciting — really exciting,” he said of playing on offense.
With UW needing to replace its entire defensive line from last season, coaches and teammates have consistently pointed to Tupou as the new leader of the group. When he went back home last month, he arrived with the best news yet.
“I got named team captain,” he said, “and I got home that night and told my mom and I broke down and cried. I thanked the Lord because it’s been such a long journey to get here to where I am today.”
Back in the spring of 2010, Tupou was one of the first recruits to commit to UW’s Class of 2011. But because of his poor grades, he needed a roundabout route to enroll at UW, moving to Hawaii to finish up his last term of high school.
On Hawaii’s Big Island, he lived with his uncle, the football coach Kealakehe High School, where Tupou would go on to earn his diploma. He credited his uncle and his parents for pushing him through.
“If it wasn’t for them,” he said, “I wouldn’t be where I am.”
In turn, UW’s young defensive linemen credit Tupou as the steadying force for the line.
“I had a lot of growing up to do … and Tani meant everything to me,” said sophomore Elijah Qualls, UW’s new starting nose tackle. “If he wasn’t here, I don’t know if I would’ve been ready for this job. …
“I used to have a temper when I was a little bit younger. I used to get mad, I used to get defensive, and he told me not to take everything so personal, try to keep your cool with things. … Tani, whether he knows it or not, is one of the biggest parts of my career so far.”