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Passing Marks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rick Neuheisel didn’t want Marques Tuiasosopo to play for him.

Not at quarterback, anyway.

When Tuiasosopo was finishing high school, Neuheisel, then coaching at Colorado, was like so many other coaches across the country. They all looked at the powerfully built kid with the quick feet and great bloodlines and rubbed their hands in anticipation.

Every coach wanted a kid who could dunk a basketball in the eighth grade, who once hit a baseball that soared over a wall about 400 feet away and three-quarters of the way up a tree behind it, a kid whose father, Manu, had been a defensive lineman, first at UCLA, then for the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.

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Marques also has an uncle--Johnny

Olszewski--who played in the NFL, as have three of his cousins--Jesse Sapolu and Terry and

John Tautolo.

Yes, every coach wanted Marques, but to do what?

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Play safety? Probably.

Linebacker? Maybe.

Tuiasosopo listened to the recruiters and politely said, thanks, but no thanks.

A two-way football star at Woodinville High in suburban Seattle, Tuiasosopo was determined to be a college quarterback. So determined that he turned down the Minnesota Twins, who’d picked him in the 28th round of the 1997 draft. So determined that he waited patiently until he could find a coach who would believe in him.

That coach turned out to be Washington’s Jim Lambright.

Other coaches hadn’t seen Tuiasosopo throw much. That’s because he didn’t throw much in high school, only 64 times in his prep career while operating out of a wishbone.

But Husky recruiters were able to watch Tuiasosopo unlimber his arm at a football camp.

You want to be a quarterback? No problem.

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Tuiasosopo began his freshman season sitting on the bench behind Brock Huard. Then, when Huard sprained an ankle in the second quarter of Washington’s third game, against Nebraska, Tuiasosopo went in.

“There can be no excuses,” Tuiasosopo told himself. “Too many people put in too much time and effort for me to screw up. I can come out here and look really stupid, or I can come out and look like I know what I’m doing.”

On his third play, he showed he knew what he was doing, connecting with receiver Jerome Pathon on a play worth 41 yards.

Neuheisel, watching on TV before his own team’s game, picked up the phone and called one of his assistants, Bobby Hauck.

“I thought you told me this kid couldn’t throw?” Neuheisel said.

A year and a half later, the roles were reversed. Tuiasosopo was judging Neuheisel.

Lambright had been fired and Neuheisel was interviewing for the Huskies’ job. As is the custom at Washington, one of the players was invited to the interview.

In Neuheisel’s case, it turned out to be Tuiasosopo. Fortunately for the coach, there were no hard feelings and he got the job.

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And Tuiasosopo got the last word.

“I was sitting in a chair shortly after I got to Washington,” said Hauck, who went along with Neuheisel. “Tui comes up behind me, puts his arms around me and says, ‘Still think I can’t play quarterback?’

“I told him, ‘Thank God you didn’t listen to me.’ ”

The Player

Can Marques Tuiasosopo play quarterback?

Anybody asking that question today around Seattle would be risking great bodily harm.

Tuiasosopo has not only played the position in his four years at the school but redefined it.

The start of the Neuheisel era at Washington in 1999 was also the start of the Tuiasosopo era. After having started only three games in his first two seasons as a Husky, Tuiasosopo was given the ball by Neuheisel and told to throw it.

Disaster!

Washington lost to Brigham Young, 35-28, and to Air Force, 31-21.

“We had thrown the ball 88 times in the two games,” said Keith Gilbertson, now the offensive coordinator, “but we felt we weren’t using [Tuiasosopo’s] talents.”

That included his running ability. So, with Colorado, of all schools, next on the schedule, the Husky brain trust decided to throw out the old offense and go with the option.

The coaches weren’t even sure of the proper way to pitch the ball.

“Marques had to show us,” Gilbertson said, remembering Tuiasosopo conducting a coaches’ clinic.

But in this clinic, the coaches were the students.

It all worked out, however. Washington beat Colorado, 31-24, launching a three-game winning streak en route to seven victories in its remaining 10 games.

The key to that success was Tuiasosopo, who became a two-way threat, equally comfortable finding the open man on a pass play or finding the open lane for a run. And always comfortable in a leadership role.

Marques learned that role early. His brother Zach, a Husky linebacker, learned the tough way about his brother’s ability to delegate authority when they were kids.

“My parents would tell him to do the chores while they were out,” said Zach, younger by 2 1/2 years. “As soon as they were gone, he always made me do all the work.”

Not only a strong leader, but a smart one.

“He can beat you with his feet, his arm and his head,” Gilbertson said. “Defenses can’t just say they are going to pin their ears back and go get this guy because he’ll run.”

Tuiasosopo’s games against Stanford the last two seasons illustrated his versatility.

In 1999, despite playing with a bruised buttock, Tuiasosopo passed for 302 yards and rushed for 207 against the Cardinal, becoming the first player in NCAA history to reach 300-200 in one game.

This season, at Stanford Stadium, Tuiasosopo had to call on all his reserves of emotional strength.

The lasting memory of that afternoon is of Washington safety Curtis Williams lying immobile on the field after making a helmet-to-helmet tackle. He had suffered a spinal injury that has left him paralyzed.

The last his teammates saw of Williams that afternoon was the ambulance taking him to a nearby hospital.

Still, there was a game to play.

The Huskies moved out to a 24-6 lead in the fourth quarter, only to collapse and fall behind, 28-24, with less than a minute to play.

Then it was Tui Time.

He calmly blocked out Williams’ tragedy while marching his team 80 yards in 36 seconds, throwing a game-winning 22-yard pass to Justin Robbins with 17 seconds to play.

Washington 31, Stanford 28.

That was one of eight comeback victories engineered by Tuiasosopo in this, his senior season.

Also this season, with Monday’s Rose Bowl against Purdue still to go, Tuiasosopo has thrown for 2,146 yards and 14 touchdowns, rushed for 394 yards and six more touchdowns, and been named Pac-10 offensive player of the year.

Any Tuiasosopo doubters still out there?

The Person

Not many Samoans can boast of having Polish cousins.

Tuiasosopo can because although his father is Samoan, his mother, Tina, is of Polish-German stock.

The Tuiasosopos are royalty back in American Samoa. Marques’ grandfather, Asovalu Tuiasosopo, is the high talking chief of Vatia, a village of 800.

Neither Marques nor Zach has been to Samoa, but they have tried to soak up all the information they can about their ancestral home from relatives and books, learning the customs and even eating taro, a root food served at most Samoan meals.

“Before my days are over, I want to go there,” Marques said.

He has also soaked up all the football knowledge he can from his father, who doesn’t like to talk to reporters but attends every Washington game and is not hesitant to share his opinions with his sons.

“It’s another reason to do well,” Marques said. “That way, when I talk to my father, I can hear, ‘Great throw,’ instead of “What in the heck are you doing?’ ”

Marques said his father’s four favorite bits of advice are his watchwords:

“Play hard.

“Play smart.

“Kick butt.

“Win.”


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