New Cougar Toki faced big obstacles off field

NO ONE IN Washington State's 2015 football recruiting class stayed loyal to the Cougars longer than defensive tackle Thomas Toki. The 4-star recruit, who pledged verbally to WSU back in December 2013, says it wasn’t always easy to fend off other suitors -- 21 of them, to be exact. But the stress of the recruiting process paled compared to the hardships he and his family have faced.

He prefers not to go into detail publicly, but his family hit hard economic times that reached a low point his junior year, he told on Wednesday after signing his letter of intent with WSU.

Toki tells his story matter-of-factly, without self-pity. Upbeat by nature, he manages to put a positive spin on the family's eviction from their home.

“It taught me a life lesson, that even though things don’t go the way we want them to go, we still have to keep fighting and keep going, because eventually we’ll get through it.

“Just look at us now. We’re in California and my parents have good jobs. We’re living better.”

Toki said a job offer for his father prompted the family’s move from the Seattle suburb of Kirkland to Mountain View, Calif., for his senior year. Toki was a first-team All-KingCo Conference pick in both his sophomore and junior seasons at Juanita. As a freshman, he made All-Wesco League South Division honorable mention while at Edmonds-Woodway High, north of Seattle.

Finances dictated the family’s move from Edmonds to Kirkland, Toki said. With money so tight and the ability to travel so limited when he was growing up, Toki said that factored into his interest in making campus visits to Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Oregon State and Colorado as signing day for letters of intent approached. Utah also pushed hard at the end.

Toki literally had his bags packed Jan. 16 for a trip that evening to Oklahoma State when WSU defensive line coach and recruiting guru Joe Salave’a talked him out of it. Toki had contacted Salave’a earlier in the week to tell him of his travel plans.


“Oklahoma State, they were recruiting me hard,” said Toki, who spoke by phone from Arlington, Texas, where he’s preparing to play in a prep all-star game Saturday against a Canadian squad (11 a.m., “They were sending me a lot of mail. They were sending me like 100 ‘mails’ in a couple days ... 500 letters every week.”

As it turned out, one more home visit from Salave’a with Toki and his parents was enough to offset 500 letters from Oklahoma State. The Cowboys came after Toki long after he became WSU’s first 2015 verbal commit on Christmas Eve of 2013.

“My parents wanted me to be loyal to Washington State ... (and) there’s no negatives that could describe Coach Joe,” Toki said. “Coach Joe is all about positives.”

Salave’a told that Toki was “raised right” and has “qualities you want in your kids.” Salave’a is well known for having qualities you want in your recruiters.

“The greatest thing about this recruiting process is, you get to build a relationship with the kids,” Salave’a said Wednesday night at the Cougars’ recruiting banquet outside Spokane.

“The biggest thing that you try to get across is integrity and communication. It was just a matter of visiting with the kid and the family and kind of going over the reasons of his commitment.

“In this day and age, something has to be said about your commitment and honoring your word. But it’s so hard in the age of social media and all the stuff that’s going on.”

Toki said he “stopped counting” after receiving 22 scholarship offers, including nine before he made his verbal commitment to WSU. rates the 6-foot-1, 307-pound Toki the 27th-best college defensive tackle prospect among high school seniors. Toki said eight Pac-12 Conference schools offered him a free ride.

“Everybody was just trying everything – tooth and nail – to get the kid over to their campus. I’m just glad it worked out,” Salave’a said.

Toki admits, “There were many times wanted to de-commit and go somewhere else, but I listened to my parents. I remember there were times up in Washington growing up where we struggled. I wanted to go back there and make a name for myself in a state that I struggled in.”

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TOKI, BORN AND RAISED IN BERKELEY, CALIF., said he moved to the Seattle area when he was 10. When he moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area last year and enrolled at prep powerhouse St. Francis, Toki said he deliberately avoided contacting head football coach Greg Calcagno.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it,” Toki said. “I wasn’t trying to be like the rest of those big-timers where they call the coach and be like, ‘Coach, I’m coming in, I’m a recruit’ and all that.

“I just wanted to show up my first day of practice and show what I’m about. I wanted to just walk in and be humble.”

Calcagno got wind of Toki’s pending arrival before he got his first look at the 17-year-old man-child (Toki doesn’t turn 18 until Aug. 31). Calcagno laughed when recalling the first time he saw his new nose tackle.

“I was a pretty happy guy,” the coach said dryly.

That remained true throughout the Lancers’ 9-4 season, which culminated in a Central Coast Section Division II championship (albeit no trip to the state playoffs).

“He’s a very strong young man, very good technically, and a good motor,” Calcagno said. “I think he’s going to do good things up there.”

St. Francis plays in the West Catholic Athletic League, which Calcagno describes as “probably the best (prep football) league in Northern California.” The WCAL has produced the likes of New England Patriots great Tom Brady, Pro Football Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and Dan Fouts and former NFL and Washington State players Troy Bienemann (a St. Francis alum) and Jason Hill. The name of former WCAL baseball star Barry Bonds may ring a bell, too.

Toki said the WCAL was “definitely” much better than the KingCo, with more top college prospects. Toki did not make one of the two all-league teams (he was honorable mention), which he attributes partly to a steady diet of double and triple teams. Also, Toki and Calgagno said Toki’s primary job was stopping the run in a run-oriented league, which helped limit his statistics (57 tackles, 3 tackles for losses, one quarterback sack). Calcagno said minor injuries slowed Toki at times.

“He was definitely a very good run stuffer,” Calcagno said. “In the Pac-12, I’m sure he’ll be able to get a few sacks.

“He’s a big, strong kid. Very, very tough to move.”

Toki, who made an unofficial visit to UCLA last summer, said he’s made “about six” trips to Pullman. He likes the small-town atmosphere (“I can focus better”), the education opportunities (“I’m going to major in business or maybe communications”) and the chance to play the Huskies every year (“They talked to me but never offered”).

“That was a slap in the face,” Toki said. “At the end of my sophomore year, I was thinking, ‘Why don’t I commit to Wazzu and whup some Husky ass?’ I saw lots of love (from the Cougars).”

Right to the not-at-all-bitter end.

“He’s going to be a good addition to our Cougar family,” Salave’a said.

“Wazzu’s got a bright future,” Toki said. “I’m glad I’m part of it.”

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