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BY Gerald Nicdao
In the waning moments of the No. 8 Cal football team’s season opener against Tennessee, on second and one inside Bears territory, fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou snuck out of his stance as a pass blocker. Quarterback Nate Longshore looked around and found the 6-foot, 253 pound junior in the flat. Ta’ufo’ou then was met by three Volunteers defenders, only to rumble past them for a 15-yard gain and a first down to continue to bleed the clock in what eventually became a victory for Cal. It wasn’t surprising for Ta’ufo’ou to get that pass from Longshore. Or that he was effective in shedding three tacklers. The thing about Ta’ufo’ou was that he was not expected to play in that game at all. He had sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in a scrimmage two weeks before—ironically on that same play that he ran successfully against Tennessee. “Will’s just a tough kid,” says Jim Michalczik, the team’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. “To come back as quickly as he did, with the effort he put in the training room to rehab it, is just phenomenal.”
Ta’ufo’ou was supposed to be out between three to six weeks, but finished his rehab in just two weeks. To say that he did not want to miss the game against the Volunteers would be an understatement. “My motivation was play in the Tennessee game,” says Ta’ufo’ou. “It was going to be a big game. It was our season opener at home and I didn’t want to miss it. That was the main thing that kept me going.” On that fateful Thursday afternoon in August, the Bears started practice with a scrimmage. Coach Jeff Tedford called the play in which Ta’ufo’ou was to run out into the flat and look for the swing pass from Longshore. Ta’ufo’ou caught that pass just as he did against Tennessee, but this time could not get past a defender, as safety Bernard Hicks tackled Ta’ufo’ou—coming in hard on his left leg. Ta’ufo’ou’s left foot was planted in the Memorial Stadium turf and his knee bent inward, stretching the ligaments in his knee. But Ta’ufo’ou didn’t think much of it. He was more concerned with his quad—Hicks’s helmet hit it dead on—which hurt pretty badly. What Ta’ufo’ou found out later was that he had sprained his MCL, and that he might be out for up to six weeks.
“I thought I was just sore,” says Ta’ufo’ou. “I didn’t think I hurt my knee, but when I tried to get up, my leg was kind of wobbly. It wasn’t until I talked to the trainers and did some tests when I found out that my knee was pretty bad. My quad hurt more than my knee.” What worried Ta’ufo’ou even more was the fact that he was penciled in to be the starting fullback for Cal, after sitting for two years behind Chris Manderino and Byron Storer. This was his shot. It was his turn to block for Justin Forsett and company. It was his turn to pick up the blitz. It was his turn to eat up those tough, short yards. But all of that was in question when he injured his knee. “I guess I was also thinking about how this was my opportunity to start,” says Ta’ufo’ou. “The timing of this thing that happened—the timing just wasn’t good at all. I asked myself, ‘Why did this happen at this time?’”
But after two weeks, everyday spent in the trainer’s room with ice on his knee, Ta’ufo’ou made his return, running the ball twice against the Volunteers—on both occasions gaining first downs—and catching that inevitable pass. And Ta’ufo’ou wasn’t the only one happy to have him on the field. “When he was hurt, there was a little bit of worry among our coaches because he’s such a big part of our offense,” says Michalczik. “He’s not a household name, but to us in the coaching office, he’s an important key.” One of those runs against the Volunteers kept a drive alive, which eventually resulted in a Cal touchdown to give the team a 28-21 lead. Even though he didn’t get any touches against Colorado State, Ta'ufo'ou was back in the starting role, making blocks that probably went unnoticed by many. Such is the life of a fullback.
“The yards the fullback gets are not the flashy, pretty yards,” says Michalczik. “They’re kind of the ugly yards, but all of a sudden it’s a first down. That’s what you count on him for.” Ta’ufo’ou was surprised that he saw playing time against Tennessee, and that Tedford and the rest of the offense had enough faith in him to call his number three times.
But playing at a position that rarely sees the ball, a fullback has to make the most of the touches that he gets. “I was actually surprised they called that play, considering the fact that I didn’t start that game and I didn’t know how much I was going to play,” says Ta’ufo’ou. “When he called the play, I was like ‘Are you sure you’re going to call this play?’”
Tedford was sure and Ta’ufo’ou made a sure catch.