Jan. 28, 2010

By Greg Johnson
Champion Magazine

Between the lines, Will Tukuafu co-captained the Pacific-10 Conference football champion Oregon Ducks. But he has been a leader beyond those lines as well.

The 2009 Oregon football season was a perfect example of how student-athletes learn to deal with adversity and how they can bond when one of their teammates is going through hard times.

The Ducks opened the year with a 19-8 loss at Boise State. Afterward, tailback LeGarrette Blount punched an opposing player and a teammate and attempted to confront Boise State fans. It’s the kind of notoriety no student-athlete or institution wants.

The incident earned Blount a suspension, and he wasn’t reinstated until November 14. But while he was suspended from playing on game days, Oregon coach Chip Kelly allowed Blount to remain around his teammates.

During that time, Tukuafu (pronounced too-koo-AH-foo) asked Blount if he would like to join him on a trip across the street from the Oregon practice field to visit at-risk youths at the John Serbu Youth Campus, which serves kids who have run afoul of the law or who have problems with substance abuse.

Tukuafu considered interning at the youth campus over the summer but instead chose to intern with the company that constructed Oregon’s student-athlete academic center that was scheduled to open in December. Still, he stayed in touch with one of the counselors at Serbu, and it led to members of the Oregon football team making a difference in the lives of people in their community.

“I talked to LeGarrette, and we both rounded up a group of guys who were ready to go,” said Tukuafu, who started at defensive end for the Ducks.

Tukuafu said Blount talked with the youths about the mistake he made. In all, seven Ducks made the trip to discuss ways the young people could start turning their lives around.

“I’ve always been interested in helping at-risk youth,” said Tukuafu, who graduated from Oregon with a degree in political science in 2008. “I want to get involved in something like this later in life. I want to help kids who’ve had problems in the home or who’ve been sent away. Some have been released from detention centers and are trying to do the right things.”

Tukuafu said some of his teammates come from similar surroundings, so the audience was attentive.

“That’s why a lot of the guys were open to going over there,” Tukuafu said. “They understand the backgrounds these kids come from. Some of my teammates come from backgrounds very similar to the kids we talked to. They told them that they knew things weren’t going their way, but there were ways you can try to overcome it all and make the best of it. They shared their personal experiences.”

Tukuafu was the 15th of 16 kids (11 boys, five girls) in his family. He grew up in Salt Lake City, and coming out of high school, he signed a National Letter of Intent to play at in-state Brigham Young. He embarked on a two-year Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission and never competed for the Cougars. After his mission work in Jamaica, Tukuafu played one year at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. He sat out the 2006 season before deciding to play at Oregon in 2007.

“A lot of the players on my team understand that we are fortunate to be in the position to play at the Division I level,” said Tukuafu, who was named honorable mention all-Pac-10 in 2007 and 2008. “People look up to us. It’s a win-win situation because we get to help other people out also.”

Tukuafu, who has been married to his wife, Krystal, since February 2008, said he was raised to look out for others in his community. That philosophy was constant in his life.

“I was able to have a lot of role models growing up,” Tukuafu said. “I was fortunate. It’s fun having a big family with all my older brothers and sisters. I learned from them. It made for a great childhood.”
No matter what he decides to do later, helping improve the environment where he lives will always play a part in his life.

“You have to be a good person in the community,” said the 25-year-old. “It makes you even more of a successful person when you can be a leader off the field. My message is about doing the right things one day at a time. I told the kids at the youth campus to set a goal each day, and it will build habits that you can eventually structure your life around. It will make you a better person.”