Tautofi finds soft landing spot after hard life in Hawaii project

The opposing offensive tackle grabbed Desmond Tautofi by the face mask, snapping the helmet off his head.

Tautofi, who lived in a Honolulu housing project and thought getting into fistfights was as natural as the sun rising over Diamond Head, knew what to do next.

Football, Tautofi thought, was never a way out of his dangerous neighborhood anyway. His grade-point average always hovered close to 2.0, and he figured those excited college recruiters calling his number were wasting their time.

But that view changed after Tautofi did what came naturally, delivering an uppercut to the offending offensive tackle, igniting a brawl in what should have been a meaningless 2009 preseason scrimmage. Tautofi was kicked off the team, transferred to another Hawaii school, then realized what he needed most was to leave the Islands.

"I thought to myself, 'If I stay here, I can never get out of this dump,' " Tautofi said.

He left for Las Vegas, often called Hawaii's ninth island. His brother David, who played football at UCLA, and an uncle live in the valley and are involved with the Calvary Chapel Christian School worship team.

Tautofi enrolled and was forced to concentrate solely on academics after he was ruled ineligible for sports because of Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association transfer rules.

Most college recruiters either forgot about Tautofi or lost track of him. Not Bobby Hauck, who signed him last year as part of his first recruiting class at UNLV.

Tautofi, a 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle, grayshirted last season, enrolling at UNLV in January, and would probably redshirt next fall under normal circumstances. But the Rebels need help up front, so he has a good chance to play. And he's already showing the potential to become a force on the defensive line.

On one play in a recent spring practice, Tautofi spun inside from his assigned gap to tackle running back Dionza Bradford. It was a risky move that could have resulted in a big gain, but Tautofi guessed right.

"I've seen him do three or four of those," defensive tackles coach Michael Gray said. "I like that. I can work with that. We can challenge him."

Tautofi speaks candidly about what led him to UNLV.

His Honolulu neighborhood was rough. People were afraid to park their cars there. He joined a gang at age 12, though it was more like a fight club than a fierce, Los Angeles-type gang because members didn't carry guns.

But the despair was just the same. Tautofi never thought his grades were good enough for him to play college football, even if Notre Dame and every Pac-10 Conference school other than Southern California came to see him at his Hawaiian home.

"Going into his senior year, he had the most attention I've ever seen," said Clint Onigama, the coach at Kaimuki High School. "We've had several players recruited in the past, but not on the level of Notre Dame."

But not being able to play football his senior season made attending college a distant dream.

That seemed especially true when the NIAA ruled he couldn't play at Calvary, making his transition to the private religious-based school more tenuous.

He settled in, making friends and feeling accepted. More important, he earned an A average.

"I was worried I wouldn't fit in with all these kids because they're good," Tautofi said. "I always thought Christians were always good. I guess I thought wrong. Everybody makes mistakes."

Now Tautofi is getting a chance he thought would never come. He left Hawaii and found his own piece of paradise in Las Vegas.

He sometimes thinks about what his life would be like had he stayed.

"It scares me, but it scares me in a good way to do better and work harder on the field and off the field."

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.


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