SEATTLE - Alameda Ta'amu was asked a simple question by one of his coaches after his sophomore season.
“What kind of football player do you want to be remembered as during your career at the University of Washington?”
The more he thought about the answer, the less he liked the direction he was headed.
Yes, he was a starting defensive tackle on a rapidly improving Huskies football team. Yes, he was a good player.
But something was missing in his résumé. Ta’amu didn’t want to be remembered as just another good player in a program that has produced plenty of them.
“I want people to remember me as a dominant defensive lineman,” he said. “Someone who dominates and changes games.”
But dominance doesn’t come easy.
Ta’amu had the talent to dominate up front: A mountain of a man-child, he was blessed with shocking athleticism despite his massive size. It’s what made him a top recruit out of Rainier Beach High School in 2007. It’s what put him on the field as a true freshman and allowed him to play in every game the last two seasons.
But for all his talent, coaches questioned his commitment.
Put simply, he was too heavy to be dominant.
At 6-foot-3, Ta’amu weighed as much as 390 pounds when he first came to the UW. Last year, he played at or around 360 pounds.
“Too heavy,” defensive line coach Johnny Nansen said. “I think after a while, carrying all that weight is just hard on a body, and it was hard on him playing.”
Coaches harped on Ta’amu to lose weight. He had to do extra conditioning on top of the required amount.
“I thought coaches were always picking on me,” he said. “But it was Coach (Kenechi) Udeze who said to me, the minute coaches stop talking to you means they don’t care about you. So I knew these coaches cared about me, so I decided to show them some love back.”
Ta’amu showed them by doing what they had always wanted – drop some weight. He committed himself to that goal and showed up this fall at around 330 pounds.
It’s a noticeable change. Ta’amu is still large, but he looks athletic. There is muscular definition, not just bulk.
“Now you can actually see a body,” Nansen joked.
How did Ta’amu do it?
As a football player, he can’t just stop eating. He can’t go on some crash diet, either. No, he had to lose the weight while not just maintaining his strength, but improving it.
“I did it by working out harder than I ever have and eating better,” he said.
Eating better isn’t easy for a college student, with a McDonald’s or Taco Bell usually just blocks away. Giving up burgers and tacos, though, wasn’t nearly as difficult for Ta’amu as it was to stop eating rice.
Rice is a food staple in his Samoan heritage. It’s part of almost every meal. He was raised on it. And he gave it up.
“I gave it up completely,” Ta’amu said.
His family showed their support and “respected” his decision.
“They understood that I wanted to get better,” he said. “When I started changing the way I ate, my older brothers started changing the way they ate, too.”
Soon the pounds started melting away.
“I came here and I was wearing size 50 pants, now I’m down to a 44,” he said.
Changes also came in his performance on the field.
“Last year, when I was tired and down and out, I couldn’t get off the ball,” he said. “I was lazy. Now when I’m tired or fatigued, I’ve got a stronger mind and I get off the ball like I did on the first play of a series.”
Ta’amu’s quickness and agility improved.
“Movement-wise, movement from gap to gap, you can see the quickness,” Nansen said. “A year ago we’d have to alter his stance to try and get him to move. Now he’s just comfortable to do it.”
With the graduation of Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, the Huskies need Ta’amu to improve on his 2009 stats of 19 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.
“We got to step up because Daniel isn’t here to save us every time,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys returning and we need to bring it.”
Nansen thinks the commitment to coming in better shape is a sign that Ta’amu is ready to take a major step forward as a player.
“He finally matured enough to understand that what we were telling was to make him become a better football player,” Nansen said. “He knows what’s at stake. He knows he’s going to be one of our leaders.”
And most of all Ta’amu knows he’s headed in the direction of how he wants to be remembered.
“I only got two years he left,” he said. “I’m going to be better this year. I run faster. I’m a lot stronger. I’m just better.”
And if Ta’amu is better, the Huskies – particularly the defense – will be better, too.
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org