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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tatupu made mark from Samoa to New England

By Dave Reardon

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 25, 2010

A friend six years behind Mosi Tatupu at Punahou told me a story yesterday.

He and another small sixth-grader were messing around with the blocking sled at Alexander Field.

Tatupu noticed them, and went out of his way to walk up to the boys.

Jaws dropped, eyes became anime eyes. Mosi Tatupu wasn't just a high school senior at their school. He was The Supreme Being.

"You guys gonna play football?"

The starstruck boys nodded.

"You gotta get good grades you know, you gotta do good in school. How's your grades?"

They answered half-truthfully, "Good." (Couldn't disappoint Mosi.)

Their hero spoke to them a few more minutes, but that part is what my friend remembered.

A year later, Tatupu was at USC, a member of a national championship team.

Six years later, Tatupu was in the second season of his long NFL career and my friend — still not a very big guy — was starting for the Punahou varsity and getting ready to matriculate to college.

Would he have done well in school and made the football team without that encounter? Maybe.

The point is Tatupu, who died Tuesday, was much more than a great athlete. He made solid impacts on people other than unfortunate kick returners.

Other Samoans played in college or the pros before him, but Mosi Tatupu was the first to earn mainstream name recognition (even on The Simpsons).

Part of it was his talent, part his personality and part longevity and timing (Tatupu was on the national scene nearly two decades ... and USC and the Patriots, like now, were on TV a lot).

Geography figured in also. Before Tatupu's arrival, more New Englanders thought Samoa was a girl scout cookie than islands in the Pacific. They'd never seen anything like Mosi Tatupu.

And they loved him, everything about him. His on-field grit and his off-field grin. He loved them back, becoming famous for giving in the Boston community.

He was known for special teams, but when given the ball he could do the job, too.

Even in the snow.

On Dec. 12, 1982, the Patriots beat the Dolphins 3-0 with a late field goal by John Smith. He had a snowless area from which to work because Mark Henderson drove his plow over it right before the kick. That's what folks remember.

But New England was in position to win due largely to Tatupu — the only effective offensive playmaker that day, with 81 yards rushing on 13 carries.

Why was a Samoan from Hawaii such a good runner in the snow? Maybe the experience of those ILH mudbaths at Honolulu Stadium. If anyone thought Pacific Islanders couldn't play in bad weather, they didn't after that.

Mostly, though, Tatupu was known in the pros for stellar special teams play.

And as a great blocker, he paved the way for backs like Charles White and Craig James. But he also blazed the trail for plenty of island players — for generations to come.

He almost turned down USC, but his future father-in-law, Clarence Garcia, wouldn't let him.

Linnea Garcia-Tatupu remembers what her dad said.

"What an example you will set. Your islands need someone to follow, and they will follow you."

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