Football
Punahou grad Taulapapa stepping up for Cavaliers




As a kid growing up in the close-knit community of Laie, Wayne Taulapapa never had to look very far for someone to emulate.

That was especially true when it came to the game of football. After all, the North Shore has proven to be a time-honored breeding ground of premier gridiron talent. And as far as ball carriers go, Mark Atuaia was arguably among the best to come ever out of the place.

Before he went on to play collegiately at BYU, Atuaia put together one of the most memorable individual seasons in the history of prep football in this state, when he churned out a then-record 2,377 rushing yards yards in just 10 games as a Kahuku senior in 1990.

Atuaia's multitude of achievements for the Red Raiders — he once ran for 350 yards and five touchdowns in a game and graduated as the state's all-time leader in career rushing yards — all took place well before Taulapapa was born, but the 2016 Punahou graduate heard all about Atuaia growing up. He's even watched a little bit of him on film.

"It's always nice to go back and watch those tapes of him and just what he was able to do," said Taulapapa, a junior tailback for the University of Virginia.

And for the past three years, Taulapapa has been able to learn first-hand from Atuaia, the fifth-year running backs coach for the Cavaliers.

"It's a blessing. I mean, seeing him and where he came from and to see him succeed at the level that he has succeeded (at) and currently is succeeding, it's just nice to always have that and have someone that I can relate to not only on the field, but off the field as well," said Taulapapa, one of three players from Hawaii on the Virginia roster.

The two others from the 808 state — junior Aaron Faumui (Kapolei '18) and sophomore Samson Reed (Kahuku '18) — are both defensive linemen. Like Taulapapa, Reed's hometown is also Laie.

"Growing up in Laie, obviously it's tough, but it's just nice to have that community-based background on the team as a coach (in Atuaia) and also Samson as a player," Taulapapa said.

He went on, "Everything that we do ties back to our roots and being from Kahuku, Laie, Hauula area, I mean, it's known for breeding football players and at the end of the day it is a football community and so to have those guys with me is an amazing thing and to be right under coach Atuaia, following his footsteps, trying to emulate what he did, that's just a blessing in itself."

Atuaia's influence, as well as that of offensive coordinator Robert Anae — a 1977 Kahuku graduate — and head coach Bronco Mendenhall were all pivotal in the recruitment of Taulapapa, who had verbally committed to the trio when they were at BYU.

However, Mendenhall was hired away from Virginia in December of 2015. Atuaia and Anae both followed and not long after that, so did Taulapapa, who signed with the Cavaliers in February of 2016.

"I think it was a huge factor," said Taulapapa, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Everything that they told me about UVA in general and the path that it would take and how tough it would be — it's something that reminded me of high school as well as I went to Punahou — but just being able to trust them as coaches and family as well, so it was nice being able to have that other offer from them and so I think just seeing that just made me really trust them as coaches as a family aspect and then also having coach Atuaia, who grew up in my shoes once and being able to follow what he's done, it was exciting for me to be under his wing," he explained.

However, before he would ever step foot on the Charlottesville campus, Taulapapa spent the next two years after graduating from high school in the Central American country of Nicaragua, where he served his church mission in the capital city of Managua. It was there that Taulapapa developed a deep admiration for both the Spanish language and the culture of Latin America.

"I just fell in love with the culture and the language, and of course the culture behind the language and it's something that I do every day now, especially with the classes that I take, they're all in Spanish — when it comes to business, I do it in Spanish, when it comes to politics, it's all in Spanish, or literature — and so I think that it's become a part of me and it's something that I choose to celebrate, the language itself and then also the culture behind it," Taulapapa said.

Taulapapa said the experience was an eye-opening one and has changed much of the way he views the world.

"So I think a lot of what we did was dedicated to our Heavenly Father, just preaching the word, but also a lot of service," he explained. "It's obviously a third-world country, a lot of things aren't as developed, but you truly get to understand the people and the way that they live, the way that their lives are and just trying to influence and also teach as much as I know."

It also proved to be mutually beneficial, Taulapapa notes.

"Truthfully I feel that I learned equally, or more from them. It was an exciting experience just to be immersed in the culture and the language and so at heart I feel part Nicaraguan and it's just something that I carry with me every day," he said. "It was one of the toughest things that I've ever done, but it truly developed me as a man, as a person, especially grow closer to Heavenly Father and God — and that's truthfully what I learned on the mission."

But it was while Taulapapa was on his mission that civil unrest filled the streets of Charlottesville, the site of a "Unite the Right rally" in August of 2017.

The rally was spurred by the controversial removal of a Confederate monument and led to clashes between group of protestors. Things turned deadly when a self-identified white supremacist deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors. One person was killed, 32-year old Heather Heyer, and 19 others were injured as a result.

Two days after Heyer's murder, the Cavaliers' football twitter account tweeted out a picture of the team's players and coaches sitting on the steps of the Rotunda building on campus with arms blocked in unity. That building — which was designed by Thomas Jefferson and inspired by the Pantheon in Rome — was the same one that protestors threatened to overtake just days prior.

Taulapapa said that that photo and what it represented had a deeper impact on him than the hate-filled images of the clash itself that were broadcasted across the nation and world.

"That picture of them coming together as a family, representing all people of our team, which I thought was a great thing," he said. "It made me excited to — not seeing those types of things — but seeing how the team reacted and how they were able to respond, continuing to show that motive of family and affect change throughout the community and so I was excited about what they were doing out here and to be a part of that, especially during these times, is an awesome thing," he expressed.

Taulapapa added, "As youth we're told to affect change and that's how you do it, with the closest people around you and so I was more excited to be able to help and affect change in that way."

As a freshman in 2018, Taulapapa appeared in seven of his team's 13 games, with most of his playing time coming on special teams. Virginia went 8-5 that season, including a 4-4 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In his sophomore season, Taulapapa started 11 of the 12 games that he played in and ran for 473 yards on 116 carries. His 12 rushing touchdowns in 2019 were the most by a Cavalier since 2010. He recorded three games with multiple touchdowns, including a three-TD performance against Florida State, when he punched in the game-winning score. The team finished 6-2 in ACC play last year and 9-5 overall, including 7-0 in home games.

Virginia has put together a 4-4 record (3-4 ACC) so far this season, which has been, well, different, to say the least.

For starters, Faumui — who started five games for the Hoos last year — was one of number of players to opt out prior to the start of the season. Reed has been sidelined with that has kept him out of games this season and then there's that pandemic that just keeps sticking around.

Taulapapa offered some insight into what playing through a football season in the midst of COVID has been like for him.

"I think that it's been a lot of work, truthfully, because we're dealing with different types of protocols especially day-in and day-out, just preserving ourselves, our bodies especially during this pandemic time. It's been a challenge, but at the end of the day our coaching staff, our doctors, our trainers, they've done an amazing job of keeping us safe, but also keeping us motivated throughout the whole process of the season and so I say it's been a challenge, but it's also been a learning experience," he said.

For Taulapapa — who stayed in shape over the summer by running the sand dunes near Kahuku Golf Course, something he was repeatedly asked about by local media in Virginia upon returning to campus in the fall — opting out of this season was never a thought.

"Truthfully, no. As much as I love this game, I don't think I could have sat out a whole year without playing, more specifically just my idea of being out on the field is just something that I love doing," said Taulapapa, who is listed at 5-feet, 9-inches tall and 210 pounds.

"So pandemic or not, I would have been out here no matter what and I'm just excited to continue to play and get the opportunity to play each and every week, each and every day."

Taulapapa was certainly ready to go for Virginia's season opener against Duke on Sept. 26. He ran for a career-best 95 yards on 16 carries with two touchdowns. He also caught a pair of passes in the 38-20 win over the Blue Devils.

However, the Cavaliers dropped their next four games — at Clemson (41-23), versus North Carolina State (38-21), at Wake Forest (40-23) and at Miami (19-14) — before a much-needed 44-41 win over North Carolina on Halloween night.

"We really needed to step up especially after that stretch of losing games and so once we got that win against a very good opponent, UNC," Taulapapa said. "That was a team we understood was a great team and coach Bronco just made sure to remind us of that each and every day, each week and I think once we started believing that, once we had that mindset we really changed it around."

Virginia followed up the win over the Tar Heels with a 31-17 victory over Louisville on Nov. 14 and then beat up on Abilene Christian, 55-15, a week after that in a non-conference game. However, just hours before it was slated to face-off with Florida State on Nov. 28, the game was postponed due to positive tests and contract tracing within the Seminoles football team.

The Cavaliers were already in Tallahassee and preparing to depart the team hotel for the scheduled 8 p.m. Eastern kickoff.

"It was very frustrating. We worked really hard throughout the whole week preparing for Florida State, but like we said in the beginning, the pandemic is a tough thing," Taulapapa said, who expressed empathy for the Florida State players after they also had their game against Clemson the week prior postponed due to a lack of enough scholarship players, per ACC protocols.

"We're working hard and we know that their team was working really hard going into the game and it's unfortunate we're going through a year of hard times — it's not anything light to be talked about — so as far as how frustrating it is, I think as a team we kind of said that, you know, they wanted to play as well," Taulapapa said. "It's just tough."

But Taulapapa is one to always look forward, not back — a lesson he learned in his junior season at Punahou. In a year in which he ran for 1,171 yards and 20 touchdowns, it was the final carry of the season that left Taulapapa heartbroken.

With the Buffanblu trailing Mililani, 53-45, with less than a minute to play and his team's offense in the red zone, Taulapapa was stripped near the 4-yard line and the ball rolled out of the end zone for a touchback with 56 left. The Trojans were able to run out the clock and hung on for their first state championship.

Taulapapa finished the game with an incredible 36 carries for 260 yards and three touchdowns, but all he could think about in the aftermath was his fumble.

"It happened to be one of my best games I've ever played, but mistakes like that truly do come and you never really know what to do with it in the moment. But looking back on it, I think that it truly has taught me so much moving forward, dealing with heartbreak for something that I take very seriously and just learning to love the game in a different way," Taulapapa said.

"I'd say that that was definitely one of the biggest plays that affected me in my football career, but just understanding that it is a game and things like that happen," he said.

The episode — and the support he received from those around him during that tough time — has given Taulapapa a different perspective on the game he loves so dearly.

He explained, "Sometimes you look at it and then you think that it's the worst mistake in your life, but it's also a big lesson that I've taken every day, especially when I go out in the field, but truthfully it was one of the biggest lessons that I've ever learned, not only for the football field but just learning how to cope and learning how to get through things and learning how to keep moving forward when things go wrong and so I'd say that it's definitely been one of the biggest lessons, again not only on the football field, but in life as well."

But the final play of his junior season can hardly put a damper on Taulapapa's memories at Punahou. He was a sophomore on the Buffanblu's state championship-winning team in 2013 and was a three-time All-Interscholastic League of Honolulu all-star. Taulapapa also earned three All-Hawaii selections, including First Team recognition in both his junior and senior seasons.

"Truthfully I look back on it and I'm just grateful for the opportunity that I had to go to Punahou. I did my best with the challenges that they presented to me and I tried to excel — it's a great school academically. All the academic standings that I have are definitely because of Punahou and the things that they taught me," Taulapapa said.

"All these teachers would help me, they really wanted to help each student perfect their schooling studies, perfect their study habits and things like that and so going to Punahou was definitely a great opportunity for me to learn, not only how to do things within high school grounds, but also in college. There's a lot of things that I do here at the University of Virginia that stems or roots from my studies at Punahou and what I learned there."

Taulapapa, who was also a member of the track and field team even though he "wasn't really the fastest person," pointed out that his time at Virginia has somewhat mirrored his experience at Punahou.

"When it comes to football practice, I wake up early in the morning — definitely traveling from Kahuku to Punahou was a trek — and so along the same lines of that I feel like each and every day you had to fight to be at the top of your class but also at the top of sports and so I'm just grateful for the opportunity that Punahou presented me with to face challenges because truthfully, when you get out of high school, they are the same challenges (but) just in different ways," he explained.

Taulapapa has started all but one game this season, but has appeared in all eight contests. He has recorded 82 carries for 366 yards and four TDs on the year.

Virginia will host Boston College (6-4 overall, 5-4 ACC) Saturday at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.

"It's not easy going up against each other each and every day for two weeks straight without an opponent," Taulapapa said. "So when it comes game time I know everyone is gonna show out and really push the limits."

Kickoff between the Cavaliers and Eagles is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Hawaii time. The game will air live locally on FOX Sports Prime Ticket.



Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].


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