SEATTLE (AP) — At some point the messages that have flooded Zion Tupuola-Fetui's inbox and social media accounts will slow down.
They have been filled with love, less about what he accomplished as a player for No. 5 Washington last weekend and more about providing support for a son who lost his father.
“Been a lot of messages from strangers, Husky nation, fans of all. Ducks. Everyone from across the country,” Tupuola-Fetui said Tuesday. “I think I’ve been able to take everyone’s messages and their stories and really helped me out and bring everything into light, and realize there’s more people than myself going through this type of grief.”
Tupuola-Fetui made one of the biggest plays of the game as Washington improved to 9-0 with a 52-42 win over Southern California on Saturday. His strip-sack of USC quarterback Caleb Williams late in the first half allowed Washington to take the lead before halftime and created some cushion on the way to the Huskies’ 16th straight win.
It was a great football play in a critical game.
But the moment that will resonate with most watching the game came afterward when Tupuola-Fetui broke down in the arms of head coach Kalen DeBoer, seven days after Tupuola-Fetui’s father Molia passed away at age 58.
“Just knowing the journey that we’ve been on together and how special the person he is. It was more about those thoughts and just wanted to reiterate to him how proud we are of him,” DeBoer said. “How much we appreciate what the brotherhood means; because I heard him say that he had to be there for his brothers and that certainly goes the other way to where we all need to be there for him."
Tupuola-Fetui found out after Washington’s win at Stanford on Oct. 29 that his father had died. He had the option of returning to Hawaii to be with his family but instead chose to travel back to Seattle and remain with his team.
It wasn’t until last Tuesday, five days before the USC game, that Tupuola-Fetui decided he was going to play.
“We just sort of left it to him and gave him a little bit of space and, ‘Hey what do you want to do and how do you want to approach this?’” co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell recalled. “He came in one day definitive and just told us, ‘Hey there’s no doubt my dad would want me playing. I want to play. I want to be there for the team.’”
He also had a strong support system around him. Tupuola-Fetui said he didn’t have to worry about meals last week. His teammates made sure he was taken care of.
“Everyone was trying to come over and hang out and just be there for me,” Tupuola-Fetui said. “So I’m really appreciative of all my boys out here and my brothers that took it upon themselves to kind of help me out.”
Tupuola-Fetui finished with 1½ sacks against the Trojans, likely the most meaningful of a career that has now spanned six college seasons. He played in one game in 2018, seven in 2019 and broke out in the truncated 2020 season with seven sacks and three forced fumbles in three games before suffering an Achilles tendon injury that limited him to two games in 2021.
Last year, the first with DeBoer in charge, Tupuola-Fetui had 5½ sacks in 13 games.
This week will be emotional as well. His family is expected to be at Saturday’s game against No. 13 Utah. Tupuola-Fetui had one of his best games against Utah back in 2020 when he had three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery as Washington rallied for a 24-21 win.
“I’m just proud of the way the guys are there for each other,” DeBoer said. “That they’re willing to sacrifice, or whatever the words are that you want to use, to put the team in front of them even in their hardest times."
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