What a Long, Strange Trip for Taulealea

At first glance, rookie free agent Samuel Taulealea doesn't seem to have the makeup of a prototypical defensive tackle. His long hair flows over a thoughtful smile, and he laughs freely. When asked about a thick scar that wraps around his right wrist and forearm, he tells the tale of when he was a teenager, and he was diving with his father of the coast of Hawaii, shucking shellfish with a knife.

A barracuda, nearly four feet long, saw sunlight flash off the blade of the knife and tried to take it, removing a chunk of Taulealea's arm instead. For someone playing a game – and position – predicated on raw aggression, the expected follow-up might be a story of grabbing the fish and wrestling him to shore and on to a dinner plate.

"It was my fault," Taulealea said at last weekend's mini-camp. "I was in his territory. Barracudas are naturally curious creatures, and they are attracted to shiny objects. We used to find an empty cigarette box, pull out the foil from the box and put it on a hook, and catch them that way. He wasn't doing anything unnatural. He was behaving the way he always does in his natural habitat."

This is the thinking of a man whose possible career relies on fighting with the opponents' biggest offensive linemen from the snap of the ball to the whistle at the end of each play?

That Taulealea earned a contract with the Cowboys, and an invitation to this summer's training camp, is the culmination of an unusual odyssey.

A native of Waialae, Hawaii, Taulealea said he didn't like football growing up, and had no interest in playing the sport, instead harboring dreams of becoming a professional surfer. A coach saw him playing rugby, and convinced him to play for the St. Louis (Hawaii) High School team that also included future NFL players Dominic Raiola and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. Taulealea became the anchor of the defensive line and started his college career at the University of Colorado, where he set the school record by squatting 710 pounds. After three years with the Buffaloes (he played two seasons after his redshirt year), academics cost him his final year of eligibility.

He spent the year coaching youth football, until he got a call from a former Colorado teammate who also had left Boulder and had resurfaced at Concordia College in Montreal, Quebec. He asked Taulealea if he still wanted to play, and convinced him to finish his college career north of the border. Taulealea said he immediately fell in love with the game again, and hoped for a call from a Canadian Football League team – "I thought I'd get a look from Hamilton or Montreal," he said – a call that never came. He returned home to Hawaii, figuring his football playing days were behind him.

But after a second year away from the game, he got an invitation to play this season in NFL Europe with the Berlin Thunder. Not allocated by an NFL team, his season basically served as an audition for the entire league, and based on his statistics, Taulealea seemed the unlikeliest player to get a call. He played six games, registering just eight tackles. He also got hurt twice. Five plays into his first game, he hyperextended his left elbow. Later in the season, he suffered a grade-1 sprain of the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his right knee. Despite his massive physique (6-foot-1, 340 pounds) and strength, NFL teams shied away. The Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins – each of which had shown interest in Taulealea – backed off. But the Cowboys felt comfortable with his health, and his potential, and offered him a contract.

His arrival at Valley Ranch represented a reunion for Taulealea with Dallas offensive lineman Andre Gurode, a former teammate and close friend when the two played at Colorado. After heading to Canada, however, Taulealea lost touch with Gurode. ("I didn't even realize ‘Dre' was here," Taulealea said. "We were pretty tight in Boulder – we did some real damage at some all-you-can-eat buffets around town.")

Gurode said the gentle demeanor Taulealea shows off the field contradicts the kind if player he is.

"He's a great player," Gurode said. "He plays real low to the ground, and he's one of those guys who goes real hard until the end of every play. He's very quick for a guy his size, and he's a real strong, powerful player. I hated blocking him in practice."

The power and quickness already are evident. Fully recovered the elbow and knee injuries he suffered in Europe, Taulealea repeatedly ran past would-be blockers at last weekend's mini-camp, and was able to get under taller offensive linemen and knock them back on their heels, using his ridiculous leg strength to drive them back as he chased quarterbacks and ball-carriers.

But he knows he has further to go to make the team. Veteran Jason Ferguson is locked in as the team's starting nose tackle. Draft pick Montavious Stanley and 2005 rookie Thomas Johnson also are competing at the position, and defensive end Jay Ratliff can slide inside in certain situations. Because of their experience, they presumably have a leg up on Taulealea, who is further hampered by having to learn an entirely new defense.

"At Concordia and in Berlin, we played what's called a ‘stack 4-3,' where I played the 1-gap – I just went forward all the time, chasing the ball. Here, in the 3-4, it's totally different. This is a very disciplined defense, where you can't over-pursue. You've got retain the integrity of the scheme to make it work.

"But football is still football. The words change, but the objective is the same. You still follow your assignments and try to make tackles, or create a situation where your teammate can make the tackle. I've always been a student of the game, and I'm picking it up pretty quickly."

Gurode's description of Taulealea's relentless motor presents a stark contrast to the easy-going persona the rookie shows. If he doesn't end up playing professionally, he said, he'll gladly return home to Hawaii and his surfboard. But he's not ready to hang up his pads and helmet just yet.

"I'm trying to make it as a backup, at least for now," Taulealea said, "because ‘Ferg' is the man there now. But Stanley, T.J. (Johnson), maybe Ratliff – we've got some other guys who play inside, too. Ferg has been great, teaching me things about the defense and about the way he does things, and that's been a big help. But (the Dallas coaches) told me I've got an opportunity here.

"That's all I need."

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