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Power players who command respect are not one-dimensional. You can’t call yourself a power player if you’re good at one thing yet other things in your life are falling apart. Junior Tafuna is the poster child of what a balanced man looks like. Not only is he an award-winning defensive lineman on the football field, he is also a wonderful family guy and a great human being overall. In this episode of Power Players, he shares how his Polynesian family and cultural influence helped him become the superstar that he is on and off the field. Join in and give yourself a veritable masterclass on how to tackle the challenges of life in the physical, mental, spiritual, and family aspects.
Junior Tafuna Shares How His Polynesian Family Influence Helped Him Become An Award-Winning Defensive Lineman On And Off The Football Field
This is an interview with University of Utah football star Junior Tafuna. Thanks for spending some time with me. In this episode, University of Utah Football Star Junior Tafuna, a three-star recruit out of Bingham High School and a two-time state champion, was rated the number seven recruit in the entire State of Utah. He’s a second-team All-State invited to the Polynesian Bowl. He shares his life and extraordinary Polynesian family influences that led him to become an award-winning defensive lineman on and off the field.
As a new husband, he’s giving us an inside glimpse into what he did physically, mentally, and spiritually to become the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. He is an AP All-Pac-12 Conference second team. He earned Pac-12 Defensive Line Player of the Week against number 3 Oregon. He earned a spot on the Pac-12 academic honor roll, all in his first year back from serving an LDS Church mission.
Junior Tafuna, what is your number?
A sophomore from Bingham High School, the local talent out of Salt Lake City, Utah. I have some questions for Junior because he grew up with four siblings and an amazing family. His heritage is from Tonga, which tells you an awful lot about tradition. It shares with us the world of the ‘family is first’ mission always. It’s such an honor to have you in this program, Junior. I can’t wait to figure out what makes you tick, and why you are such a superstar at such a young age. Welcome.
I appreciate it, Dan. Thanks for having me on.
It’s my pleasure. Let’s go back to your childhood. I’m so curious about the factories we call families. In our culture, no other success can compensate for failure in the home. You are truly a family man. Not just as you grew up in your home but now as a newly married man, dedicated to your beloved wife and, hopefully, future siblings. You should have about 6 or 7 stud sons so that we can keep populating the youth football program for years to come. Take us back to your youth. What was it like growing up? What did your parents teach you? One thing your mom and your dad taught you.
The biggest thing my dad taught me was hard work. In our household, he was the only one that worked in my family. My mom stayed home and showed us how to do chores at home, which my wife can agree that I’m not very good at. Hard work for my dad. For my mom, respect was probably the biggest thing to my peers, elders, and anyone with leadership or authority. That’s one thing that’s helped me go a long way but has kept me headstrong along with my wife.
I’m sure there are a lot of fans who want to know the inside traditions and cultural coolness of the Polynesian world. Teach us about the Polynesian family and culture. You seem to always be about family and hard work.
I will start off with hard work. Every Saturday, in the Polynesian culture, we do chores together all at once. No one is doing nothing. We are all expected to carry our weight but lovingly. That’s one of the biggest things, and also, to always put your family first, as you shared with all your fans out there. Putting your family first and not doing anything that would hurt the family name or hurt yourself. As long as we respect and live by those traditions, that’s going to show people that we are Polynesian, but we embrace everything or try to embrace everyone as well.
When I played football and baseball up at the U, Coach Mack was my coach. He was the first one that initiated and started the Polynesian pipeline to Utah. Recruiting in the islands and taking on that opportunity of a lifetime to find young men with so much class and character that does not have to be taught once you get here.
When you come to Utah and the family feeling, the family culture of the Utah Football team, I hear rumors that it began to galvanize and solidify when we got the Polynesian culture and players to say yes to the recruiting troops. You came in and influenced the rest of the team in a way that other cultures and ethnicities have never been able to do, I don’t think, on any team. I’m not going to let that go until we try to milk it a little bit more. What did you learn from your mother? In the Polynesian culture, is mom the queen? Does everybody work for mom, even dad?
In patriarchy, mom was basically the patriarch of the family. Just like that, we followed mom’s directions whatever she gave. Whatever she did, we did. If we didn’t, you’ve got a little Polynesian love. I’m pretty sure you heard of that before. I hope you get back on the right track.
Did you go to Bingham High School?
Were you highly recruited coming out of Bingham High School?
Just a little bit. I’ve gotten offers from Utah and Oregon. I would say mostly West Coast. It was a humble beginning. I didn’t start picking it up until the end of my junior year when I was very happy.
Your junior in high school you started playing football?
No, I didn’t. Sorry. I didn’t start getting offered until the end of my junior year, which was very humbling.
You won the State Championship at Bingham in your sophomore and junior year. In your senior year, time ran out but you didn’t lose against American Fork. I’m curious. You were second-team all-state in football your senior year. We both know how political that can be sometimes, especially if your team doesn’t end up at the championship. They don’t get as many players selected. You come out and are the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
Tell us what happened after high school graduation when you were, not to diminish, second-team all-state. That’s still pretty good. As a three-star recruit, you would think that you might be overlooked a little bit. Obviously, you are saying, “I was a lot better than the accolades in the awards showcase.” Tell us what happened after your senior year of high school.
After my senior year of high school, after that happened and I had that news, it was a little discouraging, but I got to respect that there were also other great football players out there as well, which there were at that time, and they deserved that. After that, I went on a mission, and then that taught me a valuable life lesson to have the bigger man in the picture. I came back for my mission and married my beautiful wife, and that set my ten toes on the ground. I was coming back in getting that mission body. Coming back, I was dying in the workouts. You should have seen me. I was like a pig out there.
Where did you serve your mission? Is it for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Yeah, I served in Cape Verde.
That’s on the West Coast of Africa. These small islands that’s literally to the left of Africa.
Do they speak French? What did they speak there?
They spoke Portuguese, and their native language was Creole.
You could have served in Louisiana as well. Next time we go to the Sugar Bowl and whip on Alabama, maybe you can translate for us with all the fans in Louisiana who are complaining about how good we are.
I will do that. I will get some gumbo down there too.
You got it. You come back from your mission. Did you already have a scholarship? Had you already signed at the Ute by the time you came back?
Yeah, I signed at the Utah right on the signing day, and then I came back. It was crazy because I got back a week from the mission, and then they brought me in the next week. Trust me, pushups and jogging out there in Africa won’t compensate.
How tall were you when you came home, and how much did you weigh?
I weighed 225 and was 6’3”. This is still the same.
Had you slotted as a defensive tackle, or were you more of a defensive end with that body?
I was actually a linebacker. They came in and told me, “You are going to play linebacker.” I was like, “I’m a D-End, Defensive End. Let’s see how it goes.” I went out COVID year. We are on the scout team trying to get used to the pass rush because that was still very new to me so that was a little challenging. I would come home and complain to my wife. I was like, “I’m trying all these things. What do I get to do?” I went and did that to spend a scout team on that first COVID year, which was a blessing. It helped me hone my technique.
Were that five games in 2020?
Yeah, just five games and a lot of practice during that time. I’m grateful for that time because I was able to develop, trying to hone in on the technique that they were teaching me. I was like, “I’m going to be a defensive end. Heck yeah.” The next minute I found out, “We are moving you to D Tackle.” I found that out, and I remember I was like, “I will go in and do whatever is better for the team.” I’m grateful that the coaches believed in me for that and everyone that believed in me. Especially my wife is a big reason why it worked out because there were times when I was about to give up because it was different. The trench is a different game.
When I played up here at the U, I came out of high school 6’3”, 172 pounds. State 100-yard dash champ. I was recruited as a wide receiver DB. In the first two summers after high school graduation, I grew 2 1/2 inches taller and gained 87 pounds. I went from your apparent starting strong safety, which is what I wanted to play. The Kenny Easley from UCLA, from the days when he was 6’4”, about 225, and could run.
To third-string defensive end with no roommate for two or days, almost on the verge of quitting, like, “What in the world?” It sounds like we have something in common. “I finally decided I was playing football, not for girls, not for my family or my friends. I was playing it for me. It didn’t matter where I played. I just wanted to be on the field.” Is that what you started thinking?
Yes, that’s literally what it was. I remember that COVID year, I was like, “How come I’m not traveling?” I was being delirious in my head, “I’m going to come back to the mission or I’m going to get on the field?” It didn’t happen, and it hurt. I remember my wife. I would cry thinking about it but it’s definitely a humbling experience. It’s what I needed to go through to get where I am now. I’m grateful for that experience.
You are such a specimen. How much do you bench just for the fun of it?
I don’t even like to talk about numbers.
For the record, he is a stud-muffin hunka burning love. He’s chiseled. He’s unbelievable. I wanted to bring that up, Junior, because when we go into the gym on purpose, we create discomfort. We, on purpose, spend more time and put more weight on the bar. When we leave, for some reason, most people don’t want that discomfort in their real life.
What you are saying is, mentally and emotionally, you had to go to a mental and emotional gym, create discomfort to strengthen and push you to where you needed to be mentally tough enough. You need to get your emotional intelligence to catch up to your physical fitness. That’s what allowed you to step into that defensive tackle role and become a starter.
If you are going to give advice to a young high school kid who wants to play D1. What most parents forget about is that when you are in little league, you don’t dream about playing in the NFL. You dream about playing in a high school. The high school players become the stars and the superheroes of the young kids. In high school, I don’t remember ever dreaming about playing in the NFL. I wanted to wear that Ute jersey. I wanted to play on that field.
Once you get into D1 or college levels, you change your focus. What advice would you give to parents who have kids in high school who dream about playing college football? What would you say to the kids who need to prepare themselves, not just physically? Anybody can work hard and strengthen their body. What you are teaching us is that it’s about heart, mind, mental toughness, discipline, and character.
To the parents that are trying to help their kids get to that level.
Just to love practice, maybe? That’s kind of the rep that you have. You love to practice. You have a smile on your face during practice.
Yes, I do. It’s a love-hate relationship sometimes. To parents, I would say, love your kids. Keep encouraging them. Build them up and never bring them down. That’s the biggest thing that’s helped me.Love your kids. Keep encouraging them. Build them up and never bring them down. Click To Tweet
Did you want to play football, or did your dad want you to play football?
It was my dad. It was definitely their dream for me to play football, and then that kind of went. I was like, “I’m going to play football.” He told me, “You are going to play in the NFL.” I was like, “Yes, it’s my dream.” It has been in my mind instilled ever since I was young, which is crazy. It has been crazy to see it from a new point of view of how things can be taught.
I played defensive end. I remember in high school when I was a receiver, I played defensive back too but I went to a quarterback-receiver camp, and it helped me become a better DB. Did the time that you spent trying to learn the swim and all these outside pass-rush moves as a DN help you once they moved you inside?
Yes, most definitely. I was still gaining weight at that time. I came back 225, gained 25 pounds, and it’s probably 250. All the footwork and technique, the hands that Coach Powell was teaching translated over to a defensive tackle. Since I wasn’t the biggest or strongest, I had to be twitchy. That carried on to twitchiness, and I still try to keep that. Now, I’m 50 pounds more. I’m about 300 sitting over here. It helped.
For those reading, twitchiness means he’s way agile. If you could see his body as I can, I always judge an athlete by the size of their ankles. When you have massive muscle structure in your cut like you are, and your ankles are still that sprinter look, you know you are twitchy and agile. You’ve got some quick moves, and you are all that in a bag of chips.
I’ve watched you a lot, and I noticed your pass rush extremely. You are famous for the bull rush. You are famous for stopping the run and plugging the A or B gap. I love watching you when you have to pass rush from that inside lineman position because you are twitchy. Let’s talk about personal relationships. Something that always intrigues me is how an offensive lineman can keep jumping offsides when he knows the snap counts too, and he keeps jumping offsides.
With all due respect, having been there and then having been in the stands, most of the time, generally speaking, you would think that there’s something going on in his personal life. He can’t focus. He forgets his assignment. Would you agree that you got to get it right at home before you can get it right at work and on the field?
Yes, that’s definitely true. If you get things right at home, you will be okay at work. I agree with that. It’s 100% correct.If you get things right at home, you will be okay at work. Click To Tweet
What advice would you have with the single guys or married guys on the team who seem to be struggling a little bit? Did you get any secrets on resiliency or rebound rate?
I like to go back to Coach Buha. You guys know him as Bishop. I remember he always told me, “Once you are married, it’s your wife that comes first.” I took that to heart because during that time, we were in our first year. Marriage is not always going to be perfect. You know it’s going to be rough at times. The biggest thing that men can do is that their wife is always right. I’m a young cat saying this. It’s true. I’m still learning too. You choose her, and everything will be okay. I feel our wives have their heads on straight more than their husbands.
That spills over into you as a leader on the team. I would suspect that when you see someone who’s down, you have more natural empathy because you understand the significance of listening, unconditional love, forgiveness, rebound rate, and all those things that you learn from your beloved Olivia.
It carries on. When mistakes happen on the field, you are not quick to shut them down like, “What are you doing?” My first reaction is always, “I love you still. Don’t worry about that. Next play, we are going to be okay.”
That helps you rebound. If you got double-teamed, you didn’t drop down to a knee and plug the hole, and they ran up the touchdown. How do you overcome that and forgive yourself? How do you rebound for the very next play?
What I like to do, I would say, “Next play.” If you see me make a mistake on the field, I will literally go agile. It’s something that Coach Ellis taught me. When he played, he was like, “Whatever time I made a mistake, I just did this. Next play.” I’m carrying that over. It’s funny because I did that again in Oregon State. I forgot to pop a gap over, and they hit it right there in the red zone. I got the first down or something. I remember looking over the side. I was like, “Don’t worry. I’m good.” I will say, “Next play,” in my mind and keep playing like it never happened.
Did you have any kind of a specific workout that you went through when you came back from your mission? When I got home from my mission, I got home on a Thursday, reported on Sunday, and reported two days on a Monday.
That’s rough. I know how you feel.
Trust me. I bent over to pull up my socks and thought, “What else can I accomplish while I’m way down here?” It was tough. Do you remember the routine you followed? Many times, we get discouraged because we are always focused on the destination instead of enjoying the journey. That’s why it complimented you. Your reputation is that you love to practice.
Coach McBride, for those of you who are fans, one of the things I love most about him that made my experience playing football at the Ute so amazing is that he made practice fun. He made sure we loved to practice. Why do you love to practice? How do you equate that to pushing yourself? What specific routine did you have to get back in shape, start gaining weight, and do all the things you needed to do?
The routine I had since I got back was to respect the process. You were talking about process, and it sounds cliché but respecting the process and doing what the program has in hand for you to do. Whether it’s the workouts or the shakes you are going to drink. I try to follow that and obey. I knew that if I did it at one point, it was going to help me gain the body mass or the strength that I needed. That way, I could be able to compete for a spot or even get on the field, which was my main. What I want to do is put on the jersey and dress up. If I wasn’t going to play, look back in the stand and see if my wife was there. Honestly, diligence to where you want to go and believing in yourself. That’s the biggest thing.
It’s interesting how you made the All-Pac-12 academic honor roll. Congratulations. I point that out because you’ve got to be the same off the field as you are on the field. I’m old, and I look back and say that the folks that I respect the most are not one-dimensional. They are not buffed in the gym, and they have their families fall apart and aren’t making an income. They are making a lot of dough, they are way obese and out of shape, and their families suffer. They’ve gained the whole world and lost their soul.
You epitomize the poster child of the balanced man, your physical, mental, and spiritual. Talk about the significance of that in your life. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I want you to teach the young cats how important it is for you to keep all four of those involved. Balanced at the same level, physical, mental, spiritual, and family.
I’m still not perfect at it but it is a process. You can’t have all things be great at once. It’s that you have to be flexible in all of those aspects. At least try because if you are lacking in one, it’s going to lack in all of the others. The biggest thing I would say is that it’s not all about you because you got other things in your life. Once you make it all about you, that’s when everything is going to fall apart.
Personally, I learned that. Once you start getting your relationships right, getting your spiritual life on point, and doing all the things as best as you can. Whatever you believe or whatever your religion is, it’s going to fall in place. I believe that’s how it always is going to be. You do good things. Good things are going to come. When you start to do bad things, don’t expect good things to come. It’s not how it works.
With Ty Jordan and Lowe going down in the same year. Were you part of that team, or was that before you came on board?
It was right when I got there. I was able to meet those two, see them, and be a part of what happened and what went down.
As a fan, in the fourth quarter, we’ve gone through all that. They bring out the giant drums, and you got everything. Every gimmick, every kind of song around the country. All of a sudden, you created that video tribute that puts football in perspective. As you pause, at the end of the fourth quarter, regardless if you are ahead or behind, where did your mind and heart go when you stand there in reverence, paying tribute to your teammates?
I think about my own family. It goes down to the people I love. With that tribute, it’s amazing. I’m glad we have that because it creates peace of mind. Whatever the game situation is, it calms the heart and gets you going. Let’s play for something bigger.
That it’s more than just about football, I get emotional thinking about what it does to the other team, too. I’m sure you were so focused on looking at the big screen with your teammates. From my vantage point, to look at the other team, every single team, there are always 6, 8, or maybe 10 guys who leave their team huddle, face the big screen and pay tribute as well.
As a fan and as a former guy of the Crimson Club Board of Directors, we take great pride in making sure that when people come into our stadium, they know that we are Utes. They know what we stand for. It’s a game. It’s important to win. Even more important than that, it’s about the vehicle that turns boys into men like you and into superstar champions. I honor you.
As we wind down, let’s talk about your routine on game day. How do you get fired up? I always use, in my interviews, the example of Michael Phelps, the amazing Olympic swimmer. He has his headphones on before he dives in the pool, breaks a world record, and we find out he’s listening to rap or some classic rock. What do you do to get ready for the game?
To get ready for the game, I like to review the call sheet or the plays that we are running for that day. To go out there and know that I am mentally prepared and physically prepared. I start tuning down. As you said, I get my headphones on the whole day. Keep a calm demeanor. We treat it like we are going to war because that’s what it is.Keep a calm demeanor. Treat the game like you are going to war because that's what it is. Click To Tweet
What kind of music do you listen to in your headphones?
I have three different playlists. One is called June’s Game Day Hop Music. One is June’s Game Day Classic Rock Music. One is June’s Game Day Reggae Music. Depending on how I feel that day, I would base those playlists. I would try to tip one song like Thunderstruck. If I hear that one, I feel like hell on wheels. That Thunderstruck gets me going. All of that goodness gets me going, even country. Mostly, Classic Rock is what gets me going for game day.
Last question. If you were stranded at home, Olivia was nowhere to be found, and you couldn’t go over to mom’s good cooking, what’s your favorite food? What would you default to cook yourself if you were by yourself?
There are a lot of favorite things, but I would say my favorite food got to be cheesecake.
It’s one of my four food groups too. Good call. We are not talking steak and veggies. We are talking cheesecake, four different flavors.
It really is cheesecake. I love a good cheesecake. I remember one time we went to Costco, we put the cheesecake in the fridge and went, “We could have a pizza today.” That was when I was getting weight. I still love it to this day.
Let’s wind down our time here. My interview is with Junior Tafuna, one of the fine young men on our team. How can we get in touch with you? How can we help you with the NIL? How can we make sure you don’t jump to the NFL at the end of the season? You’ve had such a phenomenal year. We need you for two more years. Talk to us. How do we get ahold of you? How do we support you as an individual in the name, image, and likeness world?
Honestly, keep coming to the games. Follow me on social media. I’m not asking too much, but keep being the loyal Ute fans you are. I love you, guys. Keep making that stadium rock and keep standing up on your feet, third down jump. Let’s get it.
How do we get ahold of you on social media?
Follow me, @JMTafuna58, and then from there, we will keep in touch to see where I’m at. You will see my beautiful wife, see my beautiful dog as well too, Sophie and Olivia. See my little family.
Thanks. That’s an amazing interview with Junior Tafuna. It’s Tongan for Maui, King of the Water or something. I don’t know what I’m going to say to you. Thank you so much for joining us. You are one of the great superstars on our team.
About Junior Tafuna
TAFUNA QUICK HITS
- 2022 Pac-12 All-Conference Second Team.
- 2021 Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
- 2021 AP Pac-12 All-Conference Second Team
- 26 games played as a Ute, 24 consecutive starts.
- 2022: Started in 13 games, contributing 26 tackles (2.5 TFL), one interception and two QB hurries.
- Season-best six tackles in the Homecoming victory vs. Oregon State.
- Contributed five more stops in the game at No. 18 UCLA.
- First career interception highlighted a three-tackle day vs. Southern Utah.
- Logged his first pass breakup of the season at No. 12 Oregon.
- 2021: Saw action in 13 games on the season, starting at left tackle in the final 11 contests.
- Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
- Recorded 33 tackles (5.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) along with a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.
- Put up a career-high nine tackles (1.5 TFL, 1.0 sack) against Arizona.
- Had four tackles that included a 12-yard sack against No. 18 Arizona State.
- Recorded three tackles (1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) against No. 3 Oregon in the regular season, earning Pac-12 Defensive Line Player of the Week.
- Logged four tackles in the second game of his career against San Diego State.
- First career fumble recovery came at Oregon State.
- Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll.
- 2020: Did not see action.
- Three-star recruit out of Bingham HS, rated the No. 7 recruit in the state of Utah.
- Second-team all-state as a senior in 2018.
- Invited to the 2019 Polynesian Bowl.
- 64 tackles (1.0 sack) and an interception as a senior in 2018.
- 74 tackles (1.0 sack) and an interception in 2017.
- Bingham HS won state championships in 2016 and 2017.
Personal: Son of Mau and Timote … has four siblings … served an LDS mission in Praia, Cape Verde … full name Timote (Junior) Maile Tafuna.