Sport News: Archbishop Murphy alum makes journey from NFL to pro rugby

No, Taniela Tupou hasn’t experienced any instances of mistaken identity.

At least not yet.

Go type “Taniela Tupou” into Google’s search engine. The first page that comes up isn’t about the former Archbishop Murphy High School football star, who went on to play for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Rather it’s the Wikipedia page for the Australian rugby sensation with the same name.

“No (I haven’t been mistaken for the other Tupou), but I do get comments all the time about having the same name,” the Marysville-bred Tupou said. “I knew about him when I was playing college football because he went viral, so even before I played for the Hawks people would say, ‘Yo, have you heard of this guy?’ He was just killing it at the time, and he still is. The dude is a beast.”

Indeed, the two Taniela Tupous have much in common. “Our Tupou” and “the other Tupou” are both of Tongan descent. They’re both big guys, as our Tupou is 6-foot-2 and 275 pounds while the other Tupou is 5-11 and 290. They both have had long and successful careers in collision sports.

But thanks to an unexpected twist of fate, the possibility of mistaken identity has shot up like a jumper being hoisted by teammates to catch a line-out.

After a lifetime playing football, our Tupou finds himself in the other Tupou’s realm as a member of Major League Rugby’s Seattle Seawolves.

Our Tupou, now 29 and living in Everett, has been excelling on the football field as a defensive tackle since high school, when as a senior he led Archbishop Murphy to the Class 2A state championship game in 2010. He went on to play collegiagtely at the University of Washington, then spent time in the NFL with the Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals, primarily on practice squads. 

He was in both of the pro football startup leagues, playing for the San Diego Fleet in the AAF and the Seattle Dragons in the XFL. Now he’s plying his trade for the Seawolves — “I feel like the answer to a trivia question, I’ve played for every contact sports team Seattle has to offer,” Tupou quipped.

So he must have some kind of rugby background, right?

“I had no rugby background at all,” our Tupou admitted.

So how did this all come about? Flash back to November of 2020. The XFL had suspended operations because of the coronavirus pandemic, and our Tupou found himself playing in the Spring League. That’s when Tupou was contacted out of the blue by Peter Pasque from the RugbyTown Crossover Academy. The Crossover Academy is a program in Glendale, Colorado, dedicated to converting elite athletes from other sports into rugby players. Pasque scouted Tupou in the Spring League and decided Tupou was a prime candidate to be a prop, the position that plays on the front row of the scrum.

“At first they texted me, and I thought it was a joke,” our Tupou said.

“I was like, ‘Wow, you’re telling me my athletic career could continue?’ You only have a small window to play professional athletics, and once that window closes it’s done, you’re never going to get it back. So I took a chance and went with it.”

In January of 2021 our Tupou packed up, said goodbye to his wife and two kids, and headed to Glendale for an eight-week crash course on rugby, followed by several months touring the country to play games. At first he wasn’t fully invested, thinking he was using it more as conditioning for possible football opportunities. But gradually rugby won him over.

“I actually had offers to go back and play football in the CFL and I was contemplating leaving early, having used rugby as time to get in shape,” our Tupou said. “What kept me around was the ultra camaraderie that comes with the game. For example, after every match you sit down and have a meal or a beer with your opponent and talk about the game. That seemed weird, but then I realized that rugby is a real respect game.

“The hard thing for us crossing over is embracing the concept of anything can happen and that’s OK,” our Tupou added. “When you come from football you have your assignment and you do your job. Playing defensive line my job was to hold down the gap. But rugby is played in chaos, for the most part you’re going with the flow and making it up on the fly.”

Still, after touring Uruguay last fall while captaining the team, our Tupou was ready to pack it in, return to his family and contemplate life after sports. But Tupou knows Seawolves director of rugby Pate Tuilevuka through a family friend, and when Tuilevuka found out Tupou wasn’t going back to Glendale he reached out. Now Tupou is the greenest member of the Seawolves.

“We have guys on the team who played world-class rugby, they’ve been all over the world playing,” our Tupou said. “My mindset now is to just be a sponge and soak it all in, just learn from everybody. The speed of the game in the MLR is a lot faster than what I was playing in Colorado.”

As for his namesake, who’s known as the “Tongan Thor,” it’s possible they have more in common than their sport.

 “My dad is Tongan, and we have a kid on the team (Setefano Funaki) who’s from the island of Tonga and grew up with the other Tupou,” our Tupou said. “I asked where they were from and he said Vaini. That’s the same village my dad is from. So somewhere down the line we’re probably related.”

Our Tupou said he had two goals for his rugby adventure. First, he hopes other football players draw inspiration from his example and take the plunge into rugby. Second, he hopes he can one day represent the U.S. on the international level.

Should that second one happen, perhaps we’ll see a meeting of the Taniela Tupous on the pitch — along with an uptick in internet searches that bring up the wrong Wikipedia page.

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