I’m very proud of this young man. Hard work, poor decisions, then more hard work.
On the blacktop just outside the locker room at Burbank High School, your eye immediately catches a basketball stanchion, which is considerably bent, much like a developing tree losing its fight against the wind.
The football coaches here grin while placing blame for the pole’s lean on their titan of the Titans, defensive tackle Ngalu Tapa, who at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds appears strong enough to have put a hurt on the steel structure.
It’s all in jest, of course.
In truth, a school bus from Vacaville was accidentally backed into the basketball pole last week, but its image symbolizes what Tapa faced nearly a year ago – total collapse. It was a sobering time when no one within the tight-knit football family on Florin Road was in the mood to joke.
Days after he completed his junior season in which he recorded 231/2 sacks, Tapa’s world crumbled. In an effort to please an older cousin, common within the Tongan and Polynesian cultures of pride and acceptance, Tapa actually invited great shame. As the driver, Tapa said he was ordered by the cousin to stop at a liquor store in south Sacramento. Tapa claimed only to be naive, not sensing ill intent.
“He told me I could make a little money if I helped him with something, but I didn’t think he meant holding up a store,” Tapa said Monday, his affable nature shifting to soft tones. “OK, I’m thinking, I can pay my cellphone bill. He’s family. I’m OK. But I was wrong. I should’ve just dropped him off and left.”
‘I made a major mistake’
Tapa did what a many frightened teenagers might do after experiencing an unsettling moment. He remained silent and hoped it would all go away.
In a matter of days, the cousin was arrested. He remains jailed, Tapa said. Then 17, Tapa was pulled out of his English class at Burbank, placed into the back seat of an unmarked police car and processed. He admitted his role and spent six months in Sacramento County Juvenile Hall.
“Horrible experience, lonely,” Tapa said. “ I had so much running through my mind on that drive.”
He thought of his brothers, Leki and Liku, sophomore linemen for the Titans. Both share Tapa’s shock of curly hair and big bodies. He thought of the hurt inflicted on his Tongan immigrant parents. His father, Kaifa, is a construction worker who has hauled many 80-pound sacks of cement with sons in tow. His mother, Kataii, is a minister in the Tongan United Methodist Church in Oak Park.
And Tapa thought of his peers, those he mentored as a leader in a youth ministry, and those he played music with in the church band.
Was it all over?
“We’re driving off from Burbank,” Tapa said, “and I’m thinking, ‘I’m not a bad kid. My life is over.’”
He exhaled and continued: “ I made a major mistake, but I’m making a major comeback.”
Record and reputation
Tapa’s otherwise clean record ultimately saved him from a longer sentence, according to Carlos Smith, a deputy probation officer with Sacramento County and a Sacramento State football player in the late 1990s.
“Tapa isn’t a typical kid on probation who’s been in the system since 13, and he had no record,” Smith said. “I’ve gotten to know him. He can offer a lot (to society). And I can relate to him. I grew up in an inner city (in San Bernardino) with influences surrounding you. He’s going to overcome this.”
Tapa is known for more than just being a football player, though opposing coaches this season have called him as dominant a player as they’ve ever faced. Tapa plows through offensive lines whether double- or triple-teamed for Burbank, which plays at Elk Grove on Friday night in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs. But it was Tapa’s standing as a student-athlete and campus leader that helped his legal cause, said Burbank principal Ted Appel. Tapa is an honors student in Burbank’s International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous curriculum of advanced courses. Classmates are inspired by his mathematics ability and willingness to help others, said Appel.
Tapa dreams of studying engineering at Washington State, where he has verbally committed to signing a letter of intent on scholarship. He mentions it more than chasing down quarterbacks. A number of Pacific-12 Conference schools were hot for Tapa a year ago, but many cooled off upon learning of his arrest and conviction. The Cougars offered, nonetheless, and he accepted. Scores of Tapa supporters provided letters and phone calls of character reference to WSU administrators and coaches, including Appel, Burbank coach John Heffernan and probation officer Smith. (WSU officials cannot speak publicly on Tapa until he signs a formal national letter of intent in February.)
“You could name 1,000 kids who could get in trouble, and I’d never think Ngalu (pronounced NAH-Loo) would be among them,” Appel said. “There are challenges around here, and he made a mistake. Hopefully, he’ll be better for it, and I think he will be. He already has been.”
James Pale, a longtime Titans coach and Burbank English teacher, said to understand the Polynesian culture in regard to family trust is to live it. He has. He said students from any culture facing peer pressure can learn from Tapa’s mistake.
“You would never consider a kid Ngalu’s size and with his personality to be sheltered, but Ngalu was,” Pale said. “His life the past few years has been home, school, football, church – repeat, repeat, repeat. When kids live a sheltered life in our culture, their social activity becomes time with their older cousins. Ngalu was never in the street life, like many kids here. He was never far from cousins, who were (into the street life).”
Said Heffernan, “Nglau is one of a kind, and you put so much effort and time and emotions into a great kid like this. Then something like that arrest happens and it breaks your heart. That was definitely a life-changing moment. He’s blessed to have a second chance because this could’ve ruined him. We all went to bat for him. Our reputations as a program and school and coaches were on the line. But we believed in him.”
A better life
When Tapa was released from juvenile hall in July, he didn’t bother to call for a ride. He walked the 11 miles to Burbank, his shoulder-length dark mane soaking up the scorching sun like a solar panel. He headed to Fruitridge Road, down the railroad tracks, onto Florin Road, lost in reflection. He entered the Titans’ football facility, where his teammates were working out. They ran to embrace him like a long-lost brother. The smiles were back.
“Great to have him here,” said Burbank quarterback Ernest Jenkins. “There isn’t a better guy than Ngalu.”
Brothers Leki and Liku wanted to carry him on their shoulders. They look up to him as an example of how to study, how to compete and how to avoid trouble. How close are the brothers? Tapa wears jersey No. 58, Liku 57 and Leki 56.
“When he was locked up, it really hurt all of us,” Leki said. “Our family wasn’t full. Our team wasn’t full. Now we are.”
Smith, the probation officer, said he has challenged Tapa to set a family standard.
“I’ve talked to Ngalu, long talks, and told him he can open doors for his brothers to follow in his football and academic steps,” Smith said. “‘You can start a legacy.’”
Tapa intends to.
“I want the best for my brothers and parents,” Tapa said. “My dad is an example. We’ve helped him work in construction: driveways, sidewalks, brick walls, fencing. I’ve hauled those 80-pound cement bags. Barrels, gravel, dirt. Hard work. Dad tells us to do something better, have a better life. Get a college degree and work on a computer in a nice office. You know, he’s right.”