Heading into his senior season in 2010, the future seemed bright for former USC standout Christian Tupou. As a junior in 2009, he appeared in 13 games, starting at defensive tackle in all but two, picking up 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He received All-Pac-10 honors and won both the USC co-defensive Lineman of the Year award and the Bob Chandler award, given to the team's most exceptional underclassmen in terms of leadership, courage, tenacity, discipline, loyalty and high standards of morals and values.
But everything changed for Tupou at USC spring drills.
"I was out there doing the usual stuff, things I'd done a thousand times before," Tupou said after Chicago Bears OTA practice today. "I'm not sure exactly what happened. I remember that suddenly I went down. The pain was considerable and I knew immediately that things were serious."
A medical evaluation revealed torn ligaments in his left knee, which forced him to sit out the entire 2010 season. His efforts in rehab, as well as his sideline encouragement, resulted in Tupou winning the USC Courage award and the Co-Lifter of the Year award.
While the awards were, and still are, quite meaningful, all Tupou wanted was to have the opportunity to get back on the field.
"Football is my passion, something that I've loved all my life," he said. "That one year out was so incredibly difficult. My brother, Fenuki, who is with the Eagles, encouraged me all the way, as did my teammates at USC. I was determined to return and I eventually did for the 2011 season."
But Tupou's medical issues resulted in a lack of interest from NFL teams during the 2012 draft.
"It got to the point where I would have played for anybody: Arena [League], IFL, NFL, even pick up games in the park. It was so important to me that somebody saw my potential and took a chance."
Tupou's phone never rang last year so he continued his studies in political science, while continuing to work out on his own.
"I'd been in a top-tier program at USC so I understood exactly what was required to get my body into pro football shape and to keep it that way," he said. "I'd always enjoyed the routine of working out, so that part was not a burden for me. But the mental aspect, that was more difficult. Again, I'd say that my passion for the game kept me going when a sensible person would have given up hope. I guess I'm not that sensible when it comes to achieving my dreams."
Tupou's efforts paid off in the form of an invite to the 2013 Combine.
"'Yes!' That's what I was thinking," he said. "At last I have a chance to show these guys that I'm back. They need to talk to me and see in person what I can do."
Yet once more the draft came and went without that all important phone call, a weekend that Tupou now characterizes as "difficult." But things turned around shortly after the end of the selection process, when he finally heard from the Bears.
"I was thrilled. I've never been further east than Nevada, or maybe Salt Lake City, but I was willing to go anywhere. And to be chosen by the Bears, a team with such a great history and such skilled players? What a wonderful opportunity. I was, and am, thrilled."
Now he spends his days shadowing fellow Pac-12 alum Stephen Paea, whom Tupou says is not only talented but "incredibly patient with this 24-year-old rookie." Tupou respects the NFL learning curve but believes a solid foundation is in place as a result of his five years at USC, one of the top programs in the nation, which should help in his bid to make the final 53-man roster as the club's fourth defensive tackle.
So what does Tupou feel he brings to the Bears?
"A fierce will to win and a strong work ethic," Tupou said. "I'm good with my hands and have quick reactions. I'm a big guy at 6-2 but I have good agility and speed. But I'd say my greatest asset is my passion. I've played for so many years and I've loved every minute of it. It was almost taken away back in college but now I'm back. To have this opportunity at this time in my life is such a gift. I'm going to do everything I possibly can to let the Bears know they made the right decision."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.