Click! Clack! BANG!
Pita Taumoepenu, 17 years old at the time, was supposed to be watching his younger cousin’s peewee-league practice. But the action erupting on the field behind him was louder, wilder, bigger and impossible to ignore. The local high school football team – boys his age – was beginning its own practice. He kept turning around to see what was happening.
Taumoepenu, the 49ers rookie defensive end, had just arrived in the United States. He was born in Texas. But when he was a few months old his mother sent him to Tonga to live with relatives who raised him until he was a junior in high school. At that point, he was taken in by an uncle in Provo, Utah.
He knew little English. He knew even less about football. In Tonga, the boys play rugby and cricket. He may have seen someone wearing a faded Joe Montana or Jerry Rice jersey there, but that was the extent of his exposure to the sport.
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Still, there was something about the action and sounds – Click! Clack! BANG! – that enthralled him. He soon found himself not just watching, but studying, the Provo High School team. He was new, but he wasn’t shy. A few days later, with the whole team present, he approached the coach and, with what little English he could muster, asked if he could join the squad. The response: laughter
“The coach asked me: ‘Have you ever played football before?’ ” Taumoepenu recalled. “I said, ‘Nope.’ He tells me, ‘Maybe you should go home and play some video games.’ Everybody on the team was laughing. They were laughing at me.’ ”
Work ethic rooted in Tonga
The island on which Taumoepenu grew up, Tongatapu, is the main island in the Tongan archipelago, which is about 3,200 miles east of Australia. At 100 square miles, Tongatapu covers the same area as the city of Sacramento. In their village, Taumoepenu’s grandfather grew taro, watermelons and pineapples, among other items.
Taumoepenu’s mother had run a cleaning company outside of Dallas. His father wasn’t around to help raise him, and she thought he’d be better off with her family – and amid scores of cousins – 6,500 miles away on a farm in Tonga.
“In our culture, if you’re even a cousin, you’re a brother or sister,” said Jeff Tuha, the uncle with whom Taumoepenu lived in Provo. “I could meet a cousin that I’ve never known before and he’s welcome to come live in my home. That’s just how it is.”
The televisions in the village picked up two channels. One was Tongan, the other an Asian network. Taumoepenu’s knowledge of English was limited to what he gleaned from the rap albums he and friends listened to and the movies – “Superman” and “Star Wars” were the favorites – they could get their hands on.
“I watched the movies and sometimes had no idea what was going on,” he said. “I just liked the action.”
But it would be wrong to think of Taumoepenu as simple or a rube.
He attended a Methodist boarding school in which math and science were emphasized more heavily than in U.S. schools. Despite rudimentary English skills when he arrived in Provo in 2011, Taumoepenu had an ACT score of 18 in a year in which the national average was 21.1. A year later, when his English had improved, he boosted his score to 28. At the University of Utah, Taumoepenu double majored in economics and sociology and earned the degrees in three years.
In Tonga, he also learned how to work. Children were expected to help out around the farm – mainly weeding crops; no herbicides are used – before going to school in the morning, and there was more work when school let out.
He brought that ethic with him to Provo.
On the first morning, Tuha looked around the house for his nephew.
“I was like, ‘Pita, come up and get breakfast!’ ” he said. “I couldn’t find him. I looked outside in the back and he had dug up all the weeds from one side of the fence to the other before anyone else had gotten up. He got up and weeded the back garden, just to show his worth. At that point, I was like, ‘This kid is not going to have any problems. He’s going to work hard.’ ”
Crash course ... straight at a QB
Taumoepenu didn’t end up going to Provo High, the school at which the coach had laughed at him. Instead he enrolled at rival Timpview High, a football powerhouse that had won the state championship the year prior and has produced Cowboys defensive tackle Stephen Paea, Ravens defensive end Bronson Kaufusi and Texans guard Xavier Su’a-Filo.
The team is coached by Cary Whittingham, who doubles as the school’s physical education teacher. About a month into the school year, Taumoepenu wondered why his P.E. teacher kept making him do extra pushups. “I thought, ‘Man, he probably hates me,’ ” he said with a laugh.
That wasn’t it. Whittingham immediately was struck by the new kid’s speed and began wondering how he could use him on the football team. Taumoepenu’s physique, however, was unimpressive. He weighed a little more than 160 pounds at the time.
“He came in pretty scrawny,” Whittingham recalled. “He was always pretty strong. But he also was pretty light.”
The first steps were introducing him to the sport and putting some meat on his bones.
“In my first practice, they made me put the shoulder pad on and the helmet and just kind of walk around the field and get used to it. It was so heavy!” Taumoepenu said, “And it was hard for me to see through that facemask. I came from rugby to football. It was pretty difficult at times. But I tell myself I can do it. And basically I just tried to stay positive.”
Taumoepenu got into a couple of junior varsity games toward the end of the season. Coaches were careful not to overload the fast and eager neophyte and they gave him the most simple assignment possible: tackle the quarterback.
It may have been too simple.
On one play, Taumoepenu blasted the quarterback as he was told, but did so well after the quarterback had thrown the ball. The act drew a penalty, earned Whittingham a stare-down from the opposing coach and led to the amendment, “Tackle the quarterback … if he has the ball.”
Another lost-in-translation moment came in one of Taumoepenu’s first games at Utah. He was supposed to be on the kickoff-return team but was on the sideline when the unit took the field. That brought a reprimand from the special-teams coach: “Pita, you’re supposed to be on the field! Don’t do it again!”
Later in the game, the kickoff-return team again was called into action: “KOR, get on the field! KOR!”
Again Taumoepenu didn’t budge. The coach grabbed him and said, “Get on the field! It’s KOR!”
Taumoepenu’s response: “I’m not on KOR. I’m on kickoff return.”
‘One thing that jumped off the screen’
But it was hard to stay mad at Taumoepenu, who was sharp, cheerful and, most of all, hungry to learn.
Between his junior and senior seasons he worked in the weight room for the first time in his life, his Uncle Jeff enrolled him in every football camp possible and – actually following the advice of the Provo High coach – he played Madden video games with his younger cousins, picking up the tenets of football along the way.
When football season rolled around again, he was 200 pounds and ready for action.
Taumoepenu had 25 sacks while lining up as an edge pass rusher, the final one ending a double overtime game in the state championship.
“He basically ran right over an offensive tackle and got the quarterback,” Whittingham recalled. “And that was the end of that game.”
The 49ers see the same possibilities Whittingham noticed when Taumoepenu first arrived in Provo.
General manager John Lynch said the 49ers would not have drafted him had they stuck with the same style of defense they had played in the past. The team’s new scheme, however, calls for a quick, athletic pass rusher called the “Leo” defensive end who is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback.
Taumoepenu – he now measures 6-foot-1, 243 pounds – might be a little small for the position, but his drive was clear on film.
“You need someone with great speed and you need someone with relentless effort,” Lynch said. “And that’s the one thing that jumped off the screen. He can run and he plays with his hair on fire.”
Lynch said the 49ers had targeted Taumoepenu in the middle of the sixth round. When he was still there at pick No. 202, they made the kid who didn’t know English, who didn’t know football and whose first attempt at the sport was comical, a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
Who’s laughing now?