After missing two seasons, USC’s Solomon Tuliaupupu is hoping for a notable return
On the days he needed them most, when his left foot ached and the despair swelled and football felt like a painfully distant memory, Solomon Tuliaupupu opened his locker and read one of the notes.
He’d written them for these moments, the melancholy mornings, the hopeless afternoons, the nights when his path back from a devastating Lisfranc injury felt never-ending. Every week, he tried to write another. In some, he quoted Scripture. In others, he wrote out his goals. One read “God’s Plan.” He taped it up in the locker as a reminder.
Over two years, two surgeries, two lost seasons, the notes accumulated in Tuliaupupu’s locker at USC. All the while, he tried to stay optimistic. His sunny disposition became his calling card. Since 2018, when he first arrived from Santa Ana Mater Dei as one of the nation’s most coveted linebacker, recruits, teammates and coaches raved about his relentless positivity.
But as he sat out one season, then another, as each original benchmark he’d set passed in dispiriting succession, an internal struggle raged within.
The California Court of Appeals reversed a previous ruling that upheld former USC kicker Matt Boermeester’s expulsion from the university.
“One part of me is saying, ‘Dude, your foot hurts so badly. You should be pissed off, banging the weights hard, mad at everything and everyone. You don’t deserve this. Why’d this happen to you?’ ” Tuliaupupu said. “Then, there’s the other voice in my head saying, ‘Everything will be all right, man. Just keep pushing. God has a plan. Your time is coming.’ ”
After countless false starts and setbacks, that time may finally have arrived. Three months remain until the scheduled start of college football season — assuming there’s a season — but as he continues his recovery in Oregon, where he’s in isolation with his girlfriend, Tuliaupupu is as hopeful as ever that his collegiate debut is imminent this fall.
“I feel great,” Tuliaupupu said. “I haven’t had much pain in a very long time. It honestly just feels good.”
Though with that positive news comes an uneasy disclaimer.
“What I was told is this is the last option to fix the foot for good,” Tuliaupupu said. “There’s always the risk it won’t work. But as of right now, I feel great. I feel amazing. If I hurt my foot again, yeah, my career will probably be over. But I don’t think about that.”
He still thinks about the moment it happened in November 2017. How Mission Viejo was driving against Mater Dei in the state semifinals. How the running back swung into the flat and caught a checkdown pass. How he planted to break on the ball. And how, instantly, it felt as if his foot split in half.
Nonetheless, he couldn’t believe when doctors told him he needed surgery. Or that his recovery could last as long as a year. He chuckles now, thinking of how much longer that path back actually took.
At the time, Tuliaupupu figured he could fight through the pain. He resolved to be ready by the start of his freshman year. He rehabilitated as often as he could, lifted as much as he could, did anything within his power to speed up the process. But as fall camp approached, he still awoke some days unable to walk.
Just another week, he told himself. Just keep pushing.
But as weeks turned to months, his foot didn’t improve. It took until the final week of the season for reality to set in. Right away, he turned his attention to a winter return.
“By then, I was doing everything with the team,” Tuliaupupu said of the months that followed. “All the drills. All the weights. All the running. But my foot just did not feel right at all. I’d be wincing trying to get through every workout. It felt like every time I took a step, I was being stabbed in the foot.”
Tuliaupupu made it back to the practice field by last spring, anyway. His foot seemed back to normal.
“My first practice back, I was on top of the world,” he said. Afterward, as he spoke to his father and sister, he broke down crying. “I was just so happy to be playing football again.”
It was the next practice that Tuliaupupu felt a familiar pop in his left foot.
The options from there were hardly ideal. He could continue rehabbing, hoping that his foot finally healed properly. Or he could have another surgery, fusing together the bones that widened since his first procedure, while leaving in plates and screws to bind them.
Determined not to miss a second straight season, Tuliaupupu waited as long as he could to make a decision. He couldn’t bear the thought of another year on the sideline. But by the second week of fall camp, he understood he might never return to the field without a second surgery.
Former USC quarterback JT Daniels, who lost his starting job with the Trojans to Kedon Slovis after suffering a torn ACL, is transferring to Georgia.
“Our doctors really looked at it,” USC coach Clay Helton said last August, “and for his longevity at the game, we are looking at this as an investment.”
That investment, on paper, cost him two full seasons and 25 games. Emotionally, it cost even more.
“It felt even longer than two years,” Tuliaupupu said. “It’s grueling. You’re watching people do what you love to do, and you’re just not allowed to do it.”
But as the fall approaches, his perspective on those painful two years has shifted.
“It truly forced me to grow in all aspects of life,” Tuliaupupu said. “I’m honestly thankful for it.”
It was all a part of the plan, the one he scrawled on notes in his locker over a year earlier. Most of the notes were lost, in the hasty evacuation of campus when it was closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he still remembers the goals he jotted down for whenever he returned to the field.
Become a first-round pick, he wrote. Become team captain. Become an All-American. Rack up 100 tackles every season. All high hopes for a linebacker nearly three years removed from football.
But after two years spent waiting, Tuliaupupu is ready to prove himself — finally. And now, it’s the rest of the world he hopes that will take note.
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