Bill Hass on the ACC: `Fearless and Flawless' Motto Spurs Duke Linebacker Tauiliili
Oct. 2, 2008
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - It's not unusual to hear a football player described as having a "warrior mentality."
That description fits Michael Tauiliili, a linebacker for Duke who leads the ACC in tackles at 11.5 per game and ranks sixth nationally. It's the way he has always approached the game - "fearless and flawless" is his motto.
But it's only in the past few years that Tauiliili has come to understand why he's that way, and it has to do with part of his heritage. He's half Samoan, on his mother's side, and he is learning to appreciate all that means and how it manifests on the football field.
"The work ethic from an athletic standpoint is pretty consistent," he explained. "I've heard nothing but good things from different coaches who have coached Samoan players - the work ethic, the warrior mentality that always makes you want to work harder in what you do."
That work ethic and mentality are two of the reasons Tauiliili (pronounced tau-ee-lee-ee-lee) is a leader on a Duke team that has jumped to a 3-1 record under first-year head coach David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils play their first road game of the season Saturday at Georgia Tech.
"I can't imagine a linebacker anywhere playing any better than when he's playing for us," Cutcliffe said. "He's playing with a ferociousness and a lot of energy, which as a defensive captain is contagious for the rest of our group. He is truly a fierce competitor.
"His intensity level in practice is tremendous. He's really bought in to what we do, to the conditioning, to the intensity of every play. It's just right up his alley. I think people saw his commitment to the conditioning and that has made a big difference to our team."
When you have played three years with little to show for it in the win column, there's nothing to lose by trying a new approach, even when it's demanding. Instead of dreading the work, the players look forward to it.
"The attitude throughout the team about practice and even conditioning is a more proactive one," Tauiliili said. "We look forward to practice; we look forward to conditioning because it has been instilled in us even in this short period of time.
"We can see with this early success what our hard work has done. But now we also are learning to deal with this success while still continuing to stay hungry when we come to work on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday."
Tauiliili has always made an impact on Duke's defense. He has started 37 of the 39 games Duke has played in his career and led the team in tackles two of his three seasons. But this year he's not the same player he was the first three seasons. Cutcliffe said the linebacker has transformed his body "from a 250-pound butterball to a 230-pound athlete."
To be more specific, Tauiliili said he's 229 pounds now, down from 249 when Cutcliffe came in. He still gets to the ball as much as ever.
"Without that extra 20 pounds I feel more agile and able to make those plays where I was a step behind last year," he said. "I just feel better running from sideline to sideline."
Although, at 5-11, Tauiliili doesn't have the prototype size for a linebacker, he fits well into the college game.
"We're in a day and age where our game is spread out all over the field," said Duke linebackers coach Jim Collins. "It's not the old football we used to play where you could basically line up in the hallway and play the game. Speed is a great thing in our game.
"Michael doesn't have great speed but he has well above average speed and plays well in space. He's done absolutely everything we've asked him to do since we got here in January. He's done a great job of transforming his body and getting it in shape to do the things we've asked him to do. He's played all but three snaps in our four games."
Cutcliffe said Tauiliili "packs a really great punch" despite his size. His field coverage has translated into an interception, two fumble recoveries, two caused fumbles and a couple of quarterback pressures. And, of course, all of those tackles.
"He's an excellent leader, a very instinctive player," Collins said. "As far as sheer effort during the game and playing hard, he plays as hard as anybody I've ever coached (in a career of more than 30 years). He plays the game with a passion and has a lot of fun doing it."
When Tauiliili came to Duke from Houston, his name was Michael Brown. He made first team Freshman All-America and was the ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year. When he went home for Christmas after that season, he made an important decision to change his name.
"My dad is African-American, my mom is Samoan and I fully embrace both sides of my race," Tauiliili said. "I have a lot of pride in my Samoan side now, but that's one thing I didn't have when I was younger, I didn't really understand what it meant. My mom tried to educate me about my heritage and I didn't really embrace it like I thought I should now."
The decision was made, with the approval of his mother and some aunts, to take the name of his great-grandfather, Tauiliili, a high chief in Western Samoa (now known as the independent state of Samoa). Eventually the family moved to American Samoa, an unincorporated U.S. territory. His mother moved to the U.S. before he was born.
American Samoa is where football is played (rugby and cricket are the main sports in Samoa). As Samoan families moved to the United States and became established, particularly on the west coast, many players of Samoan heritage became prominent NFL players, including Troy Polamalu, Junior Seau, Manu Tuiasosopo and Mosi Tatupu. Other Samoans have gone into professional wrestling, including Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
Tauiliili admires the Samoan spirit toward family, the way they seek out other Samoans who move into a neighborhood in the U.S. He has visited American Samoa twice, but the last time was before he entered high school. He is eager to return and find out more about his culture and his great-grandfather.
"My mom's mother was his daughter," Tauiliili said. "You learn new things every day about the family heritage; it's never a completed process. I really desire to go back. I still have a lot of family out there that I haven't seen in years."
Until he has the chance to revisit his Samoan roots, Tauiliili will channel his warrior mentality into helping Duke complete its best season in years.
"It means the world right now," he said of this season's success. "This is what you dream of as a high school senior looking forward to college. It took a little time and we had some growing pains as a team and as a university, but I can confidently say it was worth it, all the hard work.
"I'm a firm believer in everything happens for a reason. It feels so good to be a senior and leave my mark on this program. These new coaches do a great job of motivating this team and the seniors say `We've got to lay it all on the line, this is our last year.' So that's what I do day in and day out."
That has always been Tauiliili's nature. Even through the times of losing 25 straight ACC games (a streak snapped with last week's 31-3 victory over Virginia), he said the idea of transferring or quitting never crept into his mind.
"I wanted to make sure that I was giving my all, regardless of if we were winning or losing or whatever the situation may be," Tauiliili said. "Things can always change, and as soon as you start to give up you might not be ready to take a chance on certain plays in a football game."
While Tauiliili admits the idea of playing in a bowl game has crossed his mind (the Blue Devils need three more wins to become bowl eligible), he's not about to say that Duke football has "arrived."
"We have to keep in mind that we still have a long, long way to go," he said. "We can't for one second be content with what we've done to this point. What we've come to learn under coach Cutcliffe is that we just play with unbelievable effort and an endless pursuit of excellence for 60 minutes.
"When the dust settles, we look up on the scoreboard and if we've done the things we needed to do and we've worked on throughout the week, those things will take care of themselves."
In the remainder of his college career, Tauiliili will continue to play the only way he knows.
"I live with the motto of being fearless and flawless," he said, "so I just fly fearlessly to the ball and try to be as flawless as I can in my assignments.
Spoken like the great-grandson of a high chief.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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