Home Of The Big Mac
Nov. 1, 1999
by Brian Beaky
Finding senior Husky defensive end Mac Tuiaea is easy - just look for the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Samoan with the smile from ear to ear.
Needless to say, he stands out in a crowd.
However, to truly see Tuiaea - to know him for who he is, not just for what he can do on a football field - one must learn to look past the imposing physical appearance, past even the engaging smile and the twinkling eyes, and take a trip east across the Cascade Mountains, to a place where the grass grows tall, the linemen grow taller, and something is most definitely in the water.
Our first clue as to the old-school nature of West Richland, Wash., comes from the sign outside of town reminding us to "Dismount and Lead Horses," a window into a slow, easygoing time when everybody knew everybody, and being neighbors was practically like being family. Driving through West Richland, we pass by the legendary West Richland Golf Course which, on a given day, entertains as many deer, raccoons, and other forms of wildlife as it does golfers.
We've heard of Tuiaea's (pronounced TOO-ee-eye-AY-uh) exploits on the course, of his wild swings and unpredictable shots which are about as likely to land on a back porch as a green. It is with humor that we note the athletic struggles of a man who last year earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors following a season in which he posted career highs in tackles (43), sacks (5.5), and tackles for loss (13). So good were Tuiaea and teammate Jabari Issa, a first-team All-Pac-10 selection, that when head coach Rick Neuheisel first saw film of the two in January, he immediately scrapped Washington's traditional eight-man front in place of a more attacking-style three-four defense, which would free Tuiaea and Issa to the outside of the line, thus allowing them to better use their quickness and athleticism to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
"This defense could be excellent," Tuiaea says. "This is one of the most athletic defenses I've seen since I've been here. My dad always said, 'Offense packs the stadium, but defense wins games.' You don't lose a game by letting the other team score zero."
Joe Tuiaea, Mac's father, can be credited with more than just Mac's outlook on defense, he is probably responsible for his size as well. The younger Tuiaea can hardly speak two words about his parents without bringing up their home cooking.
"Dad is the meat specialist, and my mom comes in with the salad, potatoes, maybe some pasta. They work well together," Mac says. Mac has taken their lessons about life, football, and especially cooking to heart. He considers himself an amateur chef, which, in a house of four Husky football players, can mean spending a lot of time in the kitchen.
"I do a bit of cooking, yeah," he says. "I'd say I'm definitely the best cook in the house. I like to make big roasts and potatoes, or chicken and rice. I think it's worth it to put in the time to make yourself a good meal. "
Maybe more of his teammates should take Tuiaea's advice to heart. Along with drinking milk and eating well, Mac credits weightlifting and hard play for allowing him to play in all 33 games over his three-year career entering this season, a record that is put into perspective when it is noted that he is the only Husky to do so, despite playing one of the game's most physical positions.
"I think that comes from just playing hard the whole time," he says. "If you play tentatively, things happen TO you, instead of you doing things to other people."
Tuiaea's hard play has not gone unnoticed. Many writers have called Tuiaea and Issa "the best defensive tandem in the Pac-10," and the two are determined to give 100 percent in their senior campaign. Issa has already earned preseason All-American honors, which means that defenses will likely focus on him, leaving Tuiaea one-on-one with offensive linemen, a situation in which he can use his quick mind as well as his quick feet.
"You really need to be thinking all the time out there," Tuiaea says. "I try to keep the offensive lineman guessing. If I go inside one time, I'll go outside the next. When I was younger, I would go through the motions more, but when you get older, I think you take more time to have plays thought out before you execute them."
This is not to say that Tuiaea was not as devastating a pass rusher when he was younger as he is now. While at Hanford High, in the shadow of the Hanford Nuclear Power facility (note to self: possible source of gargantuan linemen), Tuiaea was a four-year starter in both football and basketball, earning all-American honors in the former, and all-City honors in the latter. After a senior season in which he amassed 47 tackles and six sacks, Tuiaea joined the stellar 1995 Washington recruiting class that included three current NFL players, quarterback Brock Huard (Seahawks), offensive lineman Olin Kreutz (Bears) and wide receiver Jerome Pathon (Colts), not to mention current Husky starters Lester Towns, Gerald Harris, Kurth Connell, Jermaine Smith, and Marques Hairston.
After red-shirting in 1995, Tuiaea made his first start in the 1996 season opener at Arizona State. He has not missed a game since, and has started all but three, establishing himself as as much a part of Husky gameday as the flotilla or "Bow Down to Washington." Tuiaea played well in his first game, assisting on three tackles while faced with constant double-teams at the nose tackle position. The following week, however, in a 29-17 win over BYU, Tuiaea erupted for three and half sacks while making BYU's offensive line look no more formidable than that of Ellensburg High, a team Tuiaea had similarly dominated in high school.
"That game really gave me the mindset that I could play," Tuiaea says. "As a true freshman, you're still trying to figure things out, but after that game, I really felt set and comfortable at the collegiate level. I never really doubted myself, but that was like a coming-of-age for me."
The senior has most definitely come-of-age over his three-year career, and looks at the 1999 season as a way to write his name in the books of Washington lore.
"I want to be remembered as a guy who came out and gave it all," he says. "When you come in as a freshman, you dream about being one of the legends of this school. Steve Emtman, D'Marco Farr, Dennis Brown - those are the guys I admired growing up, and to be mentioned alongside them is something I would love to achieve."
Tuiaea will talk all day about legends, but not numbers. Rather than set statistical goals, he takes the approach that if he gives 100 percent on every play, and wants the team to win, that individual numbers will fall in line. It's a mature attitude from a young man who in April will likely bring that maturity to an NFL roster, if all goes right this season.
Whatever happens, Tuiaea will always return to West Richland, where country music plays on every station, the neighbors are always out on the porch, and a free drop is given if your drive on 18 should happen to find a raccoon instead of the fairway. It's a place where your ego can never become too large, at least not larger than yourself, if the linemen are any indication.
Our guess is, it's something in the water.