Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Family Tradition

Between the 250 of them, the men and women who gathered at the swanky hotel ballroom in downtown Seattle knew everything about football a kid could ever hope to learn.

How to throw a tight spiral? That was the forte of the man of the moment, former Oakland Raiders quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, whose wedding everyone had shown up to attend that night in January 2008.

How to tackle a quarterback like Tuiasosopo? His cousins Simi Toeaina and Conan Amituana'i did that every fall Saturday as defensive linemen for Oregon and Arizona, respectively.

And how to fend off those would-be tacklers? Tuiasosopo's uncle John Tautolo, a former UCLA and NFL offensive guard, sure knew a thing or two about that.
As soon as the moment presented itself, Tuiasosopo Niusulu (Tui to everyone who knows him) and the rest of the teenage cousins there poured onto the open ballroom floor to show off the one skill that carried the greatest bragging rights at this family reunion.

Their display required plenty of footwork but no pigskin. They were dancing.
Break dances, freestyle hip-hop gyrations, even the Electric Slide, the youngsters busted out every move they could think of.

"Forget football. The macho thing is to be the best dancer, the one who has the endurance to last the night," said Violet Niusulu, mother of Tui, who is now an Idaho State freshman defensive tackle. "They don't go and pick a partner. They just storm the floor and dance. Forget the girls. It's on."

On nights like these, the fearsome collection of football talent that is Tui's extended family is nothing special. It's just family. It rarely registers in anyone's mind what an awe-inspiring melting pot of athletic ability is present.

Saturday and Sunday afternoons during the fall are a different story. Across the West, members of the clan gather in unison around television sets and in football arenas. For three- to four-hour blocks, nothing is more important than their kin on the field, the young men playing not just for the names on the front of their jerseys, but also for the ones on the back.
Niusulu. Tuiasosopo. Tautolo. Those are names that have graced media guides of NFL and NCAA teams for the past two generations.

Early in his teenage years, Tui found his family heritage so hard to live up to that he preferred not to speak of it. But as the years passed, he filled his broad Samoan frame and developed the blend of strength and quickness so many of his relatives also possess. By the end of his career at Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash., Tui was one of the state's most feared defensive ends. It became apparent to him then: His name was a blessing, not a burden.
"I'm proud of them and everything, but it's me doing my own thing," Tui said. "My mom didn't want me to get caught up in the name and hide behind the name. When I get on the field, I just play hard. I play with emotions, and I'll make my own name for myself."

As a child, Tui couldn't tell a linebacker from a lineman.

Until he was 9, he lived in Germany and Japan, where his father, Solova'a, was stationed with the United States Army. Because Tui towered over his classmates in school (he stood 6 feet tall in eighth grade until a football accident snapped his right leg and permanently stunted his growth), he preferred to man the center position on a basketball court.
The sight of Tui bouncing a basketball couldn't have been more foreign to Violet. And so she tried her hardest to educate Tui about the sport that ran in their blood and their relatives who spilled it on the gridiron.

There were his cousins Marques and Zach, both of whom would end up in the NFL like their dad, Manu. There were his linemen cousins Albert, Matt and Simi Toeaina, the first of whom would star at Tennessee while the other two brothers enrolled in Oregon. And who could forget his uncles Ray, Terry and John Tautolo, who all donned UCLA's blue and gold?

As an 8-year-old, Tui finally got to meet some of them when his family flew to California for his great-uncle's funeral. Violet made sure to introduce Tui to his uncles Mike and Titus Tuiasosopo, who both played at USC, the latter alongside future NFL star Junior Seau.

Tui thought: Junior who?

"I wasn't really at all interested in football," Tui said. "It didn't faze me or click in my mind that, 'Gee, I've got family who's doing great things in football.'"

Tui's attitude toward football shifted slightly once the Niusulus moved back to the United States in 1999. Exposed to organized football for the first time at his middle school in Washington, D.C., Tui realized he could be good at this strange game because his size allowed him to muscle people around easily. Just as importantly, his parents wanted him to give their family sport a try.

"I've got to obey my parents," Tui said.

Tui's interest was piqued further when his friends began peppering him with questions about his unusual name. A strong-armed, fleet-footed quarterback with the same name was electrifying crowds every Saturday at the University of Washington's Husky Stadium. Was Tui related to Marques Tuiasosopo?

Once, twice, he answered that question. Again and again, he said, yes, he shared the same DNA as that Tuiasosopo. Tui finally met his cousin again at their aunt Aima Amituana'i's funeral in 2001. She had died of a heart attack in the exit tunnel of the Rose Bowl, after watching Marques produce a world-class performance in Washington's win over Purdue in the bowl game.

That's when Tui knew: Football was in his genes, and it was some special genes he had.

"I could just tell," Violet said of her son's transformation. "Teenagers at the church were like, 'Hey, your cousin is so-and-so?' He hears his friends at church saying, 'Hey, did you see Marques play? Did you see that throw that he made?' And I told Tui, 'Those are your cousins.'"


Even before Tui showed up for his first football practice at Lakes High, coach Dave Miller had reserved a spot on the Lancers' varsity team for the newcomer.

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