Heffernan has seen a lot of good football players come through the Sacramento region at Burbank High. He says the 6-3, 280-pound Tapa is downright special.
He's played defensive end, 3-technique, nose guard -- he's played everywhere on the defensive line. He was double- and triple-teamed this season. And you can't block him."
But Tapa about a year and a half ago almost blocked himself out of a college education and the chance to play big time college football.
RIGHT AFTER HIS junior season ended, Tapa was driving a car with an older cousin as the passenger. The cousin ordered him to stop at a liquor store. Tapa didn't know what was about to happen. The cousin robbed the store. Tapa was scared and he hoped silence would make it go away. The cousin was arrested and Tapa soon was too. Tapa admitted his role and spent six months in Sacramento County Juvenile Hall.
"It was real tough," Heffernan told Cougfan.com. "When he got out, I told him that he almost made me move on and stop coaching football here... I told him, 'Do you know how many people you let down?' And you could just see it on his face...it really hit him like a ton of bricks. But you could also see the light bulb come on, and that hey, that's never going to happen again.
"He's getting that second chance -- he understands the responsibility he has to be a good citizen up there and to give it the best he's got up there at Washington State."
Heffernan, Tapa's teachers at Luther Burbank, his probation officer -- they're all in agreement, says Heffernan: Tapa is a great person who made a big mistake.
"He is a better person than he is a football player, and he's a special football player, I'm going to miss him," said Heffernan, his voice rising. "Someone asked me (during recruiting), do I trust the young man? Well, I trust that guy with my kids' lives. That's how much love and trust I have for that kid.
"If I didn't trust him, I wouldn't have him over to my house with my family, with my young kids... I would have no problem leaving my kids with him and saying, 'Ngalu, watch my kids I've gotta run out for a while.' He is family."
Tapa was named first-team 2013 all-class California All-State by USA Today, and first-team All-Metro by the Sacramento Bee. The Bee's longtime preps beat writer, Joe Davidson, says Tapa is the most dominant defensive tackle he's seen in 30 years of covering high school football.
"Some schools dropped him," said Heffernan. "But Washington State did their due diligence, they looked at every aspect of the case and talked to all the parties involved. They took it up to their administration to get everything checked off. And once they got the okay they offered him.
"And once it came out that the circumstances weren't maybe what people thought, I was surprised more schools didn't come back. But I think it also all happened for a reason. I think for him Washington state is a great, great place to be."
TAPA'S PATH TO Washington State began when they received his sophomore tape, says Heffernan. WSU graduate assistant Dave Lose knew the Tapa family well. And then Joe Salave'a went to work.
No coach wins every recruiting battle but once Salave'a gets in the recruiting trenches on a Polynesian prospect, it often ceases to become much of a battle, even for a prospect who shows up as well on film as Tapa does.
"Coach Salave'a and Ngalu have bonded and have a connection that is pretty unique," said Heffernan. "Ngalu is really excited about the opportunities Washington State is giving him, that they didn't give up on him after he got into trouble... he's very appreciative of that."
Tapa's parents came to the State from Tonga. Mom, a minister in a local church, was also a big factor, said Heffernan. As far as she was concerned once the decision was made, that was it. And, once she and Tapa's dad met Mike Leach and Salave'a, they were no longer interested in what anyone else might be selling. They were, Heffernan says, very comfortable in sending their son up to the Palouse under the Washington State coaching staff.
BEFORE HIS run-in with the law, the entire Pac-12 was looking hard at Tapa. So were Alabama and other SEC schools. But the arrest and six months he was out of sight changed all of that - while Tapa was in juvenile hall, other 2014 prospects were out drawing interest and offers during the camp and combine season.
Arizona, Colorado, UCLA and others eventually came back in, says Heffernan, but that more schools had likely filled up by that point probably helped WSU.
"Recruiting is a weird deal," said Heffernan. "This kid is the top, or at least one of the five top d-linemen in the West. And back then, he's not getting as much interest as I thought he would. But I think once the trouble happened, that really changed things. All of the Pac-12 schools were coming around, everyone was trying to get in. But once that deal happened it turned some people off."
COUGFANS MIGHT see more of the Tapa name in subsequent recruiting classes to come.
Tapa's dad is in the construction and landscaping business and Heffernan says Tapa has spent a lot of time with dad, helping with the hard work – busting up concrete, digging trenches, etc. So have Tapa's two brothers, Class of 2016 prospects Leki and Liku.
"I had them over at my house… Ngalu and his two brothers were helping me do some yard work and it was not fun and it was not easy," said Heffernan. "But those kids showed up every morning. Ngalu's willingness to work and work hard.. he's doing it now, even though he's not at Washington State yet. He's doing extras, he's getting himself ready to go. He's running every day, he's lifting.
"And he's also still helping Dad, tearing up the concrete."