DURHAM, N.C. – Michael Tauiliili is a firm believer in the saying ‘Leave a place better than how you found it.’
With a combined record of 2-33 in his first three seasons in Durham, Tauiliili was determined to help turn things around and leave the Duke football team in a better place when he left. The senior captain entered the 2008 season as the returning three-year starter at middle linebacker. With a new coaching staff guided by head coach David Cutcliffe, Tauiliili emerged as a leader for a Blue Devil squad that went 4-8 in 2008, while he was honored as an All-America by three different organizations. The four wins were more than his other three years combined and is something Tauiliili can be proud of.
Looking back, the Houston, Texas, native knows he has been a part of the turn-around for the Blue Devils.
“I think this season started out really well from a team perspective,” said Tauiliili. “We hit a couple bumps in the road, but showed we could fight through adversity with our win at Vanderbilt. It was a great experience to go through this year with the guys I’ve grown up with in college, and to have an individual year like I had was just the icing on the cake.”
“The experiences here with my teammates and our new coaches – I hate that I don’t have another year with them – did a lot for me.”
Looking back at a career that saw plenty of individual recognition but not necessarily the results he may have hoped for, Tauiliili is confident that his class, the 2008 seniors, will be remembered for righting the ship going forward.
“Our 2008 season was definitely a big tribute to the coaching staff,” he said. “I wanted to build a bridge for the younger guys to walk down, and I think they definitely know what my class has been through here and what we finished with. I think the younger guys will certainly reap the benefits of the foundation we laid down.”
Tauiliili led the Blue Devils in tackles (140), interceptions (4), pass breakups (5), quarterback pressures (5) and caused fumbles (3) as a senior. His 140 tackles were an ACC-best and matched the eighth-highest total for a season in the Duke record books. He added 13.0 tackles for loss and one fumble recovery on his way to first team All-ACC honors while finishing third in the voting for the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award. Tauiliili and the Blue Devil defense held opponents to fewer than 10 points on three occasions for the first time since 1976.
Tauiliili had the chance to extend his season one more game when he took part in the 84th annual East-West Shrine game in his hometown on Jan. 17, helping the East to a 24-19 victory as the captain of the squad. Following the game, he was named Defensive MVP after registering a game-high 13 tackles, with the East defense stopping the West three times inside the 10-yard line to hold on for the win.
“It was a great experience to be able to play in my hometown of Houston and to represent Duke University on that stage,” said Tauiliili. “It was a great opportunity for me to meet a lot of different guys that I’d heard of and who’d heard about me, and just to put Duke on the map.”
Though he didn’t necessarily expect to earn the role as captain, Tauiliili noticed immediately he had the potential for leadership there. He embraced the chance to be vocal and take charge of situations when given the opportunity.
“Throughout the week [leading up to the game], I just played my game, was vocal, and as a middle linebacker I had to take control of the huddle several times – I think the players and coaches noticed that,” he said. “People tended to gravitate toward me, so when our coach announced me as captain I was honored. To be a leader you need to be able to relate and talk to people, which comes natural to me.”
Having already received his Duke degree in December, Tauiliili has his sights set on the next step – a possible chance to show pro scouts what he can do at the next level.
“Right now I’m training for the NFL combine and pro day, so it’s been different,” he said. “There are a number of tests you need to be ready for, like speed and strength, so I’m just trying to be ready.”
“Growing up, playing football since I was six years old and watching the NFL, it’s always been a dream of mine. It’s still surreal that I’m living this right now, and I think it was a big step to play in the Shrine game. I’m just trying to continue to work hard.”
At Duke's annual awards dinner, Tauiliili was named the team's MVP and received a captains’ award.
Though most of his memories may come on the football field, that’s not all he will take away.
“It’s been great,” he said of his time at Duke. “It’s really the people that made my experience what it was – memorable and something I will cherish forever. Being able to graduate from this elite university is something I’ll always have and nobody can take that from me. The networking and everything that goes with a Duke degree is amazing, so I know it won’t stop here.”