Injury provides Tupou with hidden blessing


It was the same stride he had always taken in pursuit of the ball.

The footsteps were so routine for the seemingly polished nose tackle that when senior Christian Tupou fell to the ground without being touched during last May’s spring game at the Coliseum, an anxious and energetic crowd was quickly reduced to a collective gasp.

Comeback · Senior nose tackle Christian Tupou is out for the season with a knee injury, but he has not let it affect his tireless comeback efforts. - Brandon Hui | Daily Trojan

What it had just witnessed was the painful outcome of football’s sometimes inevitable injury plague: the ending of a young man’s season before it even began.

If the grim reality of Tupou’s torn knee ligaments got lost in the shuffle amid sanction rulings, coaching changes and the resulting collective state of depression, don’t bother buying your tissues now — the Sacramento native wants no sympathy on his long road back to the field.

In fact, somewhere between the monotony of the training table and his hard-to-miss cheerleading routines on the sidelines of the Howard Jones Field, the physical wounds sustained from that May afternoon seem to have faded into the background these last four months. In their place is the 21-year-old’s unmistakable desire to utilize his time away from the field as a chance to grow as a teammate and as a student of the game.

To put it bluntly, Tupou’s day-to-day rehabilitation schedule would have any Lyon Center gym rat rethinking his definition of a workout.

Although Tupou is insistent on downplaying how tough the process really is, his hours spent in the training room are about as comfortable as witnessing a McCourt divorce proceeding.

They don’t include some relaxing ice baths or a cushy rubdown. No, Tupou’s journey back to the gridiron consists of daily squat reps, agility ladders using only his hands, Romanian deadlifting with weights that far exceed twice my body mass and core stabilizing exercises that are about as uplifting as a George Orwell novel.

But if you truly want to peer into the bend-but-don’t-break mind of an athlete who is determined to turn agony into achievement, look no further than the self-appointed position he has taken on among his teammates — vocal leader.

“Now, I always support my teammates,” Tupou said. “I wasn’t real vocal before, but now I am. I am putting my all into it, and just trying to help the defensive line get ready to play. The biggest thing I’ve learned from all of this is the importance of being patient. My time will come, I know that. So just don’t rush this.”

Despite the 6-foot-2, 290-pound lineman’s noticeable vigilance and patience throughout his left knee’s slow progression, it’s what he has learned as a bystander, rather than as an on-field energy infuser, that might ultimately make the biggest difference when No. 44 runs between the white lines in 2011.

At first glance, Tupou’s pre-injury numbers in 2009 — 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles — would tell you that the former Grant High School standout was primed for a breakout season in Monte Kiffin’s defensive tackle-friendly Tampa 2 scheme.

But what statistics and All-Pac-10 honorable mentions often fail to reflect is whether or not that mantra of a commitment to excellence is merely lip service or a genuine depiction of an always-constant “on” switch activated in the mind of an athlete.

For Tupou, that eventful day at the Coliseum gave him the opportunity most collegiate football players would happily choose to neglect — a time to look in the mirror and accept the responsibility of prior shortcomings.

“Staying into everything mentally has been a big key in my rehabilitation,” Tupou admitted. “Before when I was playing, I took advantage of a lot of things. I wasn’t finishing every single thing and really wasn’t a perfect player — that’s what I want to picture myself as. It’s something I want to work on when I come back.”

Though each step on his road to restoration and transformation has been paved with new quandaries and obstacles, Tupou is every bit the part of your exception to the rule.

Twelve months is a daunting figure.

The imposing and sometimes deleterious set of limitations have a remarkable way of making even the most well-known football luminaries crumble beneath the shields of masculinity and bravado they’ve constructed during their lifelong love affair with the gridiron.

But this tale is not about your common man, because in every way, shape and form Tupou is deviating more and more from the norm.

Tupou is appreciative when others would question. He is gregarious when others would find solace in their tears and pity parties. And he finds strength in places the unwritten party line of sports would assume were better suited to fear.

But fear has no place in the life of a young man who has his head in all the right places. Instead, Tupou holds on tightly to his plan for revival.

First it was regaining the power to walk, now it’s gaining enough strength in his gait to jog; over the next few months he will happily cross off one-leg squats, then complete squats and vertical jumps, and finally will raise his bench press weight up to around 500 pounds.

And those are only the football-related goals; his medical redshirt has also afforded him the ability to further pursue post-graduate work at the Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism.

Talk about finding a silver lining.

“For The Love Of The Game” usually runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at dulberg@usc.edu.