News staff writer
If you believe in signs from God - and UAB linebacker Jacob Tauanu'u does - then a T-shirt given to his father was the first indication of his college destination.
We'll let Tauanuu - a San Diego native - began the explanation. While I was in high school, my sophomore year, my dad, who is part of the Fellowship of Christian athletes, went to a camp in Santa Barbara," Tauanuu said. "His roommate while he was coaching there was a player from UAB. I'm not sure of his name but he was a receiver about four years ago. Before he left, he gave my dad a UAB football T-shirt."
His dad tossed him the T-shirt when he got home and it became Jacob's workout shirt. Neither had any knowledge of UAB's program but the T-shirt was comfortable and served a purpose.
Five years later, after Tauanuu graduated from San Diego's Helix High and spent one season at Grossmont College, UAB coach Neil Callaway came calling with a scholarship offer. On Saturday, Tauanuu - who is believed to be the first player of Samoan heritage to play football at UAB - will start for the third consecutive game at strong side linebacker when UAB plays host to Alcorn State in the Blazers' home opener.
"I don't have it anymore but I remember the shirt," Tauanuu said. "My faith is kind of what helps guide me. I figured that was kind of a sign that God was trying to get me ready, kind of trying to tell me where I was headed."
Tauanuu, a high school teammate of former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and San Francisco 49er quarterback Alex Smith, is still trying to figure out how he found his way across the country to a region where he never imagined living. From UAB's perspective it began with a phone call from defensive line coach Zo Costantini to old friend Junior Iakopo a few weeks after signing day. The two were college football teammates and roommates at UTEP and Iakopo currently works with the AIGA Foundation, which is a non-profit organization designed to help Samoan and Polynesian student-athletes find a way to play college athletics.
"We were looking for a linebacker and I tried to look at all the resources I had," Costantini said. "Once you build a Polynesian connection you can get a bunch of them. Usually they're very good players, very athletic, carry size on them and that's what we're looking for."
Soon afterwards, Iakopo sent game films to the UAB coaches and they soon targeted the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker.
"When I heard about it I was just kind of shocked, just to know that someone at the Division I level was looking to offer me," Tauanuu said. It also wasn't the only option. Tauanuu, who was a qualifier out of high school but didn't receive any scholarship offers, had one more year left at Grossmont College. His junior college coaches and some friends suggested that finishing his junior college eligibility and hoping for offers closer to home might be a better option.
"When I first heard Alabama, I wasn't really sure," Tauanuu said. "I had never been to the South. I had never been (past) Arizona. I didn't know what to expect. All I knew that there was high competition as far as football. I really think my faith in God kind of helped me take a step out and kind of take a chance and see what it's like here versus staying at home and being comfortable."
The adjustments he had to make were numerous. He can't walk in the next room and grab a hug from a family member. He can't walk down the street to visit with a family friend or spend time soaking in the Samoan culture.
But his first adjustment slapped him in the face about the time he stepped off the plane.
"I'd have to say when I first got here the humidity was the toughest,"
Tauanuu said. "California gets hot but the humidity is nothing like this. It felt like I was in a sauna the whole time."
His timing wasn't very good. His first summer workout with the team included the difficult task of running 40-yard sprints 60 times.
"The whole time (my teammates) were like `Man, you're going to die,'" Tauanuu said. "I was thinking in my head `I can do this.' I ran 10 of them and after that I couldn't breathe. I had to step to the side and kind of run them at my own pace. It was embarrassing but I knew I would get to a point where I would adjust to the humidity."
He obviously made the adjustment long before fall camp opened. Tauanuu began camp behind senior Stanley Lykes. He eventually moved to the top of the depth chart and has 11 tackles after two games.
"Being able to play at Florida State and Michigan State, in such atmospheres like that, I never really saw myself playing at that level. Just being there and seeing I can play with these guys and compete, it's always fun."
He's also enjoyed teaching his teammates about the Samoan culture and learning the ways of the South. But said he's here to stay - at least for the next three years - but there's one thing he'll never quit missing.
"I miss my grandmother's cooking," Tauanuu said.