It was the night before one of college football’s biggest games, and the Oregon football team was checked into their hotel, eagerly anticipating their appearance in the Rose Bowl the following day.
While many players would be nervous the night before playing in “The Grandaddy of Them All,” receivers Lavasier Tuinei and Josh Huff were debating one thing: which one of them would be the player to bring home the game’s MVP honors. It wasn't a question of if, but a matter of who.
In order to fully appreciate this prediction, which speaks largely to Tuinei's character, one has to relive the football journey he had encountered to get to that hotel room.
It could be argued that football in his blood, as he grew up watching his father, defensive end Van Tuinei, play for a variety of NFL teams.
“I started playing football when I was nine. We were living in Chicago and my dad was playing for the Bears,” he reflected. “It was probably something that I took for granted as a kid, but looking back now, it was just a great opportunity for me. I’ve been going to NFL games since I was six. It was great to have my dad there; I really look up to him.”
As Tuinei grew older (and taller), he made the switch to receiver and found his place on the field. As a 6’4” sophomore with good hands, he was attracting attention, but after missing his senior season due to transfer eligibility rules, the receiver found himself with two options: walk on to a team or attend a junior college.
“I was actually going to walk on to Ball State because I just wanted to stay home by my family, but my dad said, ‘Forget it. Going to a Junior College is a better opportunity than walking on, where it will be even tougher to get that scholarship opportunity,’” said Tuinei.
He took his dad’s advice to heart and headed west to Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California; ironically, it was the same junior college his father had attended.
“At the time, I was disappointed. I wanted to get a scholarship and play straight out of high school. It was my dream. When I went, I just thought ‘I’m going to try and make the best of this, I’m just going to have fun.’ I wasn’t even thinking about leaving after the first year, but I did well and my mindset helped. I was lucky enough to have good grades in high school so I could leave junior college after one season,” he said.
Tuinei immediately made an impact on the field and by the end of his fourth game, Oregon had extended him an offer.
“I had always wanted to go to Arizona, because that’s where my dad had played after JuCo, but there was a problem with my NCAA eligibility. Schools stopped looking at me but Oregon kept fighting for me. I never took a trip or a visit anywhere, and once I found out I was cleared, I just went straight up to Oregon,” he said.
The receiver quickly discovered the transition to Division-I ball would take some time.
“I was really nervous. I did horrible in my spring training and that carried on to the field, too. I wasn’t doing well and Coach Chip Kelly was always yelling at me, calling me skinny, but somehow I just pulled it through. I didn’t expect anything my first year; I just wanted to start; that was my main focus. Then I was starting and I was performing and we were winning. It was crazy, we were winning games,” he said excitedly.
For a receiver playing in a run heavy offense, Tuinei didn’t always have the opportunity to put up big numbers. Sure, there were some highlights, including an incredible one-handed catch for a touchdown versus Auburn in 2010, but overall, Tuinei was more than happy to relinquish any sort of limelight in order to help his team win.
“I’m blessed that I was on that team and can say I was there from the beginning. Coach Kelly started right when I got there and we had a new offensive coordinator and a new wide receiver coach. I was surrounded by a group of players who just connected so well, like a family. Once we got on the field, we were on the same page. Our mentality was the same. You don’t find a lot of teams like that,” he said.
Another perk in playing with the Ducks was the opportunity to take part in some big football games; in his first year at Oregon, he went to the Rose Bowl, followed the next season by the opportunity to play for the National Championship.
“I always grew up wanting to play in the Rose Bowl and my first year, we make it there. It was also my last college football game,” said Tuinei.
All his years playing football came down to this: his final college appearance, a game played in one of footballs’ most prestigious stadiums and broadcast for millions of people. That day, Tuinei said all he needed to with his performance on the field. With eight catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns, Tuinei achieved not only a career high in the 45-38 win over Wisconsin, but also, as predicted, Rose Bowl offensive MVP honors.
“It was exactly how I wanted to perform. Once I got the opportunity, I just blew it up; it kind of shocked me.
“After that game, I was like ‘I did it. I actually showed people I can perform like that.’ During the season, we were winning. I wasn’t upset at all. I knew what kind of offense we ran and I knew what my role was, but I always felt like I could have helped a little more than I had. That’s what happens when you have a good running back (in LaMichael James). I think he’s one of the best running backs I’ve ever seen in person. I just thank God for giving me the opportunity to be able to make something happen in my last game,” he said.
For Tuinei, the Rose Bowl was about more than winning the trophy; the receiver is entering the 2012 NFL Draft and his performance in the game opened up opportunity. Tuinei signed with Paradigm Sports Management the next day and has been getting more looks from NFL scouts.
He didn’t receive an invitation to perform at the NFL Combine, but the receiver isn’t giving it a second thought as he prepares for Oregon’s Pro Day on March 15.
“I didn’t have the numbers; you need stats to get into the Combine. It’s a great opportunity and it would have been great to go, but I’m just going to make the best of it. Pro Day is my Combine,” he said.
Tuinei isn’t wasting any time; he has been in California since the Rose Bowl, first participating in the NFLPA Collegiate All-Star Game and then working out with his trainer to get in the best shape possible.
“I’ve been working on a lot of drills, the L-cone, 3-cone, and my 40-yard. My trainer Jason David played in the league, for the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints. He went through the same thing; he didn’t go to the Combine, but he just tore his Pro Day up and he got drafted in the fourth round. It’s good to have that in the back of your head.
“He’s been doing a very good job training me. When I came here, I was a little lanky; I’ve grown into my body more. I’ve gained about ten pounds since I’ve been here, all lean muscle weight; I’m at 220 now,” he said.
The extra size will be a nice addition to one of Tuinei's greatest player strengths, his blocking ability, as the receiver has a unique mentality when it comes to his position.
“I’m very physical, I’m big at the receiver spot. I feel like not very many receivers like to block, but I have a mentality of a defensive player on the offensive side. I know the game, I know defense, and I can read it quickly. I know every type of zone coverage; if it’s man, I know what angles I need to take to break away from them. On top of that, I’m Samoan, so I’m tough in general. It’s in me. Every single time I block, I think, ‘I just want to hurt this dude. I want to slam him into the ground,’” he laughed.
Aside from getting bigger, Tuinei has been putting an emphasis on working on his speed, training with coach David Washington.
“People don’t think I can run very fast, but I never really had the chance to prove my speed on the field, especially because of how fast we go. We go from play after play after play; there’s not really a huddle where you can regroup and get your breath back. I’m going to show them everything I have, every ability that they weren’t able to see in the type of offense we were running,” he said.
With less than a week left until he returns to Eugene, Tuinei is keeping focused and getting advice from the person who has never steered him incorrectly: his father.
“We talk about working out, keeping up with my routes, time management, and speaking up in interviews. My dad has been through it all and he’s never told me wrong. There are times I don’t listen and I have to learn on my own.” Tuinei pauses, thoughtfully. “But lately I’ve been listening to him, it’s a very crucial time right now,” he laughed.
For now, Tuinei is maintaining the confidence he has always showcased, the same self-assurance that took him from a high school senior year void of football to a California community college to the offensive MVP of the Rose Bowl. It is with this confidence that he makes one more prediction.
“I’m going to shock a lot of coaches on my Pro Day and once that time comes, I’m going to be ready,” he said.
Hey, he’s said crazier things.