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Sister’s battle with COVID-19 cemented Jay Tufele’s decision to leave USC early for NFL

USC defensive lineman Jay Tufele is shown with his sister Noreen after a game at the Coliseum.
(Courtesy of Jay Tufele)

In July, a week before she would check into the hospital, Noreen Tufele offered her little brother, Jay, a ride back to USC’s campus. It was a generous offer, considering the 10-hour haul between their home state of Utah and Los Angeles. But that was typical Nini, as Jay calls her — always thinking of family, always watching out for him.

It was a few days after Noreen returned that her breathing became shallow and labored. Her family, concerned with how rapidly her condition worsened, took her to the hospital. She soon tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Several other members of the Tufele family fell ill shortly after, Jay said. But none felt the full weight of the virus’ wrath like Noreen. Almost overnight, her body began to shut down. By early August, Noreen, 26, was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit, fighting for her life.

In Los Angeles, Jay, a behemoth All-Pac-12 defensive tackle, had never felt so powerless. He and Noreen used to talk every day. Now, he’d never felt so far from her.

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“There were days that the doctor would say my sister wasn’t going to make it,” Jay said. “It was really painful for me, being so far away.”

All he could do was pray and keep preparing for football season. Then, nine days after Noreen was admitted to the ICU, , the Pac-12 postponed its season indefinitely.

The Pac-12 released its 2020 season for a third time, and USC is set to open the season on the morning of Nov. 7 against Arizona State.

Jay knew right then that he wouldn’t play college football again, even as USC coach Clay Helton advised his players to stay patient. Tufele, who would have been a redshirt junior, announced his decision to opt out a week later in a social media post, explaining he was doing what was best for his family. Even as Noreen’s condition slowly improved and the conference announced its return, Tufele knew he had to keep moving forward.

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“I’m going to really miss being in the Coliseum and playing with my team,” he said. “But seeing how COVID has impacted my family, I know that the only path forward for me is the one that I’m on. The environment I’m in right now, I’m working really hard, and opting back in is to me, like, it’s too uncertain of an environment. That’s really the biggest issue for me. All of this has really impacted my family.”

The Tufeles had always been a tight-knit group, ever since moving from American Samoa when Jay was a toddler. Those first few years in Utah, all they had was each other. They spoke only Samoan then, and as Noreen and their oldest sister, Ilo, learned English, they also taught Jay. As he grew older, the two sisters kept him in line. Even if that meant wrestling the future 300-pound lineman until he cried.

“Whenever I did something wrong,” Jay said, “they were the first ones to handle it.”

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Noreen, especially, had always been there. It was in her nature to help people, to lead with her heart, and in recent years, she channeled that compassion into working with autistic children. While she’s been in the hospital, several of her clients have stopped by her home to offer support and leave flowers or food for her family.

Jay Tufele, center, with older sister Noreen, left.
(Courtesy of Jay Tufele)

All the while, Noreen kept fighting. She remained on a ventilator throughout August, her lungs ravaged by the virus. By the start of September, her kidneys began to fail.

Then, suddenly, her health began to improve without explanation. “Like a miracle,” Jay said.

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Her recovery remains slow and methodical. Weeks spent on a ventilator take their toll on the body. As she continues to rehabilitate, doctors have told the family she may need another two or three weeks before she can finally leave. By then, she’ll have spent almost three months in the hospital fighting COVID-19, the long-term effects of which could linger beyond her return home.

But now, at least, Jay knows his sister will be coming home. Now that Noreen can speak above a whisper, the siblings are back to talking every day over FaceTime, cherishing that time more than ever before.

In an attempt to help the conference’s chances to get a team into the playoffs, the Pac-12 missed marquee matchups like USC-Oregon or Utah-Washington.

The past few months have put everything into perspective for Jay, who’s viewed as a likely top-100 pick in April’s NFL draft. While other Pac-12 stars chose to opt back into the season, he knew the circumstances were too uncertain for him to look back.

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“My sister, my family is everything to me,” Jay said. “The fact that COVID hit my sister really bad, it affected our whole family. I know I made the right decision for them.”

Jay has tried to do what he can since to help his sister. A GoFundMe he started to contribute to Noreen’s medical bills has raised more than $17,000. A rookie contract in the NFL will help plenty, too; though, at this point, he has no idea where he’ll be drafted and what might come after that.

He still wonders aloud what might’ve been over his final season at USC, where, one month from now, college football will continue in an empty Coliseum. But he has no regrets. While the Trojans open practice this week, he’ll be working out in Orange County, preparing for his dream of being drafted and waiting eagerly for the day Nini can finally come home.

“I’m just so grateful that I’m able to see my sister again,” he said. “She’s going to be OK.”


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