“He is playing at a high level, playing as well right now as Calvin Barnett played there last season,” said defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer earlier this season.
Word is that the Dallas Cowboys, already sporting five former Oklahoma State players, would like to find him in blue and silver.
It's been quite the trip for Hautau. He's a quiet individual with long flowing hair coming out of his helmet that is as recognizable for Oklahoma State fans as Troy Palamalu’s hair is in Pittsburgh. Hair is important to Hautau with an emphasis on cleanliness.
“Pretty much every morning you have to put it up," explained Hautau about his daily regime. "You have to shampoo it, conditioner, and do it like four times a day. I do because especially to make sure my hair smells good, both in the game and after the game or practice. Sometimes I think that’s all I do is make sure my hair smells good before and after the game and during the game as well. Other than that, I have been growing my hair out for six and a half years now.”
It may be what the hair represents. In those six-and-a-half years, he has been growing his mane as well as his character, what he stands for and what causes his teammates to gravitate to him.
Hautau was born and raised in Salt Lake City. He is first generation American after his family came from Tonga. For those unfamiliar with the culture, it is one that is heavily based on family, pride, and toughness. Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy had several players of Polynesian decent in his first few years of leading the program at his alma mater. The experience coaching those players caused him to hire a former player as well as a young Tongan coach named Beni Tonga.
“I was actually coaching at Snow [Community College] and Ofa was there and he and his brother was there," Tonga said. "I had recruited them to Snow. I not only recruited them, but I’m related [distant cousin]. Our families have been long time friends, not here, but on the island."
Ofa's brother, Saile, is a 6-1, 340-pound defensive tackle who plays for Oregon State now. The fact that the other OSU is also orange and black has made it easy on the two big brothers to share clothes.
“It is way easy and yes, I do wear a lot of his things,” Ofa Hautau admitted. “I have some of his gear here with me this semester.”
Hair and gear are still trivial when it comes to adding up the importance of Hautau to the Cowboys. Gundy received a good idea of what the Hautau family was about when he and defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements made their home visit in Salt Lake City to see Ofa and his large family including Ofa's mother, Totoa, and his father, Lomani.
“When he first stepped into my house, my parents gave him water and gave him food to make sure he felt at home,” Hautau said. “Not only that, but he was pretty well known too.”
Gundy, who has told the story often because it is one of his favorites from the recruiting trail, said Hautau's grandfather seemed especially enamored with him. It may have had something to do with the 2007 rant, something Hautau's grandfather remembered as the large family was all gathered is a fairly humble size home. Gundy said he remembered was how happy the entire family was, happy to be together. He also remembers how Ofa’s mother was apprehensive about him being so far away from home -- something he mentioned when Hautau decided on Oklahoma State.
“When he visited here a couple weeks ago, he was convinced this was the school for him,” Gundy said on Signing Day. “It was just the matter of him breaking away for a couple of years from home. But he's a very physical, strong body to put inside. Has really good lateral movement and his motor runs well. Great personality. Will bring a lot to our team.”
“I had to talk to them for a while,” Hautau said of his parents. “Eventually, they were okay and they told me that I should do what I wanted to do. “I mean, it was a big difference. At first, I didn’t get the offers that I needed -- Utah State, Utah, Hawaii -- the offers that I needed. When it came down to it, I had to choose Oklahoma State to be at the place I needed to be away from all my gang because of my struggle.”
Tonga, who was in the process of moving to Oklahoma State as a player development specialist, felt Gundy’s message to the Hautau family was what allowed it to happen.
“I think what coach Gundy said that if there was a family emergency then he would get to go home,” Tonga added. “I think that made his mother feel better. Also, coach [Joe Bob] Clements had coached Polynesian players before at Kansas State and that helped. He understands the Polynesian household.”
Understanding Hautau actually goes even deeper -- perhaps all the way to the roots of that long hair that flies out of his helmet at Boone Pickens Stadium. Hautau grew up in a tough neighborhood and attended a tough high school, East High School in Salt Lake City. As he was entering high school, many other students were finding ways to transfer to other schools. His brother went to Skyline High School, a newer school in a more affluent area. Ofa showed loyalty staying at East and playing for head coach Brandon Matich, who was looking to revive the tradition there. Staying loyal to his neighborhood and his school very nearly got Hautau a ticket out of football and a potential college education and into prison in Utah. Staying loyal to East High and Matich was also his ticket out of the trouble he was falsely accused of.
An excellent series on Matich and East High School football written by Trevor Phibbs and published in The Deseret News documented what happened. Hautau was arrested in the spring of 2010 and was facing a 20-year prison sentence after being accused of assaulting a convenience store clerk during a beer run. Hautau was accused of being in a gang, and under Utah’s RICO Act prosecutors could tag on charges of racketeering to those accused of committing crimes that are part of an organization like a gang. Phibbs' story tells of Matich seeing his standout player cuffed in an orange jump suit, which didn’t match what he knew about Hautau. It wasn’t something the young man he had grown to love and admire would do.
“I asked if I could see the surveillance tape,” Matich said in the story written by Phibbs. “I don’t know if it was even legal for me to watch it."
"As if he was preparing for an upcoming game, Matich robotically studied the footage of three assailants, masked in blue bandanas, violently robbing the station," Phibbs wrote.
“I must have watched it 100 times,” Matich told him, sharing the tape with teammates and coaches for confirmation. “It wasn’t him.”
Matich reiterated his positions in a courtroom in Hautau’s defense.
In fact, he's now playing at a level that not only attracts the NFL but causes coaches, teammates, fans, and even the son of the head coach to admire his play. After the opener against Florida State, Gundy came home and asked his youngest son, Gage, what his favorite play was from the Cowboys' close struggle with the top-ranked Seminoles. Gage said he liked Hautau because of the hair and he was impressed with the hustle of the 300-pound-plus player.
“He thought it was great how Ofa chased him down all the way to the goal line for a big guy,” Gundy said at his news conference after the opener. “And that’s a good point. That just kind of exemplifies who we want to be as a football team.”
“I have gotten a lot better since last year,” Hautau said of his evolution as a football player. “Coming in as a new player and a transfer, I knew what to expect but I have gotten a lot bigger and a lot stronger and gotten my mind right.”
Hautau had eight tackles and a sack in his first season backing up Barnett. Numbers never tell the story of a defensive tackle, who has the job of tying up blockers and making things easier on defensive ends and linebackers, but in his senior season Hautau was well on his way of tripling or better his numbers from his first season. Numbers also don't reflect the impression Hautau has had on teammates.
“He is all business on the field, but he is coming out of his shell a little bit,” Spencer explained. “He’ll come in and laugh a little. He is a legit tough guy and he commands a lot of respect in that locker room. If you had to go to war, really had to go fight for your life, then almost every one of those players in that locker room would want Ofa with them. He has that respect from his teammates.”
The hair may identify him, his culture says so much about him, his football ability is impressive, but for Ofa Hautau, it is his spirit and attitude that make him who he is.
“I love playing next to [James Castleman] and I love playing for my teammates,” Hautau said of his fellow senior defensive tackle. “That is what I think about before every game, before each play -- that I want to play very hard for my teammates. They are and this place is special to me. It is in some ways my home.”
Oklahoma State can feel very good that Hautau thinks of Stillwater and the Cowboys’ campus that way because home is a special word for him. The next home on his journey could very well be farther from Utah while playing in the NFL.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE WINTER 2014 ISSUE OF GOPOKES MAGAZINE