Pearl City senior Zion Tupuola-Fetui became one of the first players from Hawaii to take advantage of new rules that allowed him to sign his National Letter of Intent early, putting his commitment to Washington in ink on Wednesday morning.
If you were to tell him he would be in this position a year ago, he probably would have laughed.
“I wouldn’t believe you,” he said. “Not for a second.”
The towering defensive end and outside linebacker, who projects to play the BUCK linebacker spot at UW, always dreamed of playing college football. He certainly looked the part as a junior, standing 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds. However, with no scholarship offers at any level heading into 2017, some doubt started to creep in.
Then everything changed on Feb. 18.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was thinking, like, ‘am I good at football?’ But then it came full circle once I got that first call,” he said.
Tupuola-Fetui was lounging in his room on a Saturday when he and UW defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe were on the phone. The two chopped it up for a few minutes, and Malloe suddenly gave him the offer he worked his whole life for.
“I have a vivid memory of that day. I knew that I had to call him. I was chilling in my room during the weekend. I called him, he picks up and we’re just talking and talking. Then he said ‘we like what we see’ and then he offers me over the phone,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “I just started tearing up because it was my goal throughout my whole football career. For it to come to fruition was crazy.”
Once the Huskies offered, football at the next level no longer seemed like a pipe dream to Tupuola-Fetui. Hawaii came calling a few days after, then Oregon State followed. By the time his senior year at Pearl City started, he had eight schools to choose from.
After an eventful spring and summer, Tupuola-Fetui ceased to fly under the radar. Even with the added pressure, he thrived in his senior year for Pearl City, earning Honolulu Star-Advertiser first team All-State honors as a menacing presence at defensive end. He even caught two touchdowns and held punting responsibilities for the Chargers, who finished second in the OIA’s second division.
Tupuola-Fetui whittled his top three down to Washington, California and Vanderbilt, and was set for a live commitment during Jan. 20’s Polynesian Bowl at Aloha Stadium. He made the trip up to Nashville in late November and said he truly enjoyed his official visit with the Commodores.
But during his official visit at Washington two weekends ago, he decided that there was no point in waiting. Somebody else could take his slot on live television next month. He committed on Dec. 9 while he was still in Seattle and shut his recruitment down.
“It’s crazy because I didn’t go up there planning to commit at all. I was just able to see the players and see the culture that coach (Chris Petersen) had brought,” he said. “I knew that’s just where I wanted to be. It was my third time there and I really could feel that I could call that place home.”
Having eight offers appealed to Tupuola-Fetui, and he appreciated each one, but Washington’s initial offer was the genesis of the entire process. They were the college coaches who saw greatness in him before anyone else.
“My goal was always to get to college and I know I love football. For football to be my vehicle to college, it’s just a dream come true,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “I didn’t see myself playing like that but for them to see that potential in me, it caused me to see that I could play at the next level as well.”
Tupuola-Fetui’s signing day was a true family affair on Pearl City’s campus, as generations of family members gathered to celebrate his accomplishments. Pearl City coach Robin Kami was among the crowd and he gushed with pride as this boy that he knew since his Pop Warner days turned into a sought-after prospect right in front of his eyes.
“He worked so hard these last four years to get there, not only on the field, but off the field,” Kami said. “He does community service, he’s a good role model to everybody. He went from a young boy to adult through all these years and he came a long way. It’s a big thing for him and his family. They raised him the right way.”
With the recent success of Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, another Pearl City product, Kami is at the helm of a program that college programs may want to pay close attention to, and earlier. Unlike Tupuola-Fetui, Ta’amu didn’t garner any offers in high school and opted for the New Mexico Military Institute for two years.
“It’s good for our program. Like I tell everybody, if you have good academics and you’re a competitive player, it doesn’t matter what division you play in. They’ll find you,” Kami said. “Hopefully with Jordan and Zion, they’re role models for our guys and they’ll encourage our kids by showing that you can believe.
“I really believe that there’s a college out there for every player. Not only for a football player, but for a student-athlete. Just keep your dreams alive and keep on working hard for it 100 percent. There’s a college for everybody.”
Tupuola-Fetui’s long term goals at Washington include a degree in communications with an eye on a sports broadcasting career. But for now, he has an entire semester at Pearl City to hone his craft. He vows to use that period to “put in the work” ahead of his time in Seattle, a city he would have never imagined himself in until recently.
“It’s no Waikiki, but it’ll do,” he joked. “Nah, it’s real nice. It’s got a good vibe to it. I know in my heart that I made the right choice not only for me, but my family.
“It’s just a blessing to even have the opportunity.”