Pacific NW Cover Story
Faith and each other come before sports in the talented Tuiasosopo family
Honored for their athletic talent, the Tuiasosopo family of Woodinville puts faith and each other first.
Trying to ease an aching back, Matt Tuiasosopo emerges from an ice bath at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.
Outside, his mother, Tina, waits patiently at the players' entrance for her third-born son. She gives him a big hug and gently rubs his back.
Matt may be an up-and-coming baseball player for the Tacoma Rainiers, but he's also a son, a young man not entirely out of the nest.
Some day he might be a star.
Not so surprising in this amazing family.
Step into the living room of the unpretentious Tuiasosopo home in Woodinville and evidence of the five remarkable children who grew up here is striking.
Trophies line one wall, posters with the faces of Tuiasosopo children line another; plaques fill a third.
"We don't have to paint the walls," says Ashley Tuiasosopo, the baby of the family and a softball player at the University of Washington. Adds big sister Leslie, "That's my dad's doing. All the walls."
Scattered liberally among the pictures and plaques are small, faith-filled reminders of what is most important to this family, perhaps the region's No. 1 sports "team." "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord," says one proverb.
There are other reminders that faith is the driving force in this surburban house on the edge of a quiet street, a place for street football and cul-de-sac basketball, a place where Manu and Tina Tuiasosopo raised their three sons and two daughters, all accomplished yet unassuming athletes.
Before they begin lunch, the couple offer a prayer. They are active members at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond.
"We raised the kids going to church," says Tina. "They claimed it as their own, and they have found their own walk with the Lord. In their sporting life, they know their talent is a gift given from God and they should use it wisely; hopefully to bring honor to God and not get big-headed."
Ask any of the five children and you'll get the same answer. Their lives have been driven by five passions, in this order: faith, family, friends, school and, lastly, sports.
While sports may be last, the achievements are impressive, starting with Manu, a former Seattle Seahawk who also won a Super Bowl ring as a San Francisco 49er. And then there are the children:
Leslie, the University of Washington all-PAC-10 volleyball-player-turned-assistant coach who helped lead the team to a national championship in 2006.
Marques, an all-state Woodinville High School football star who was so talented at baseball he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins out of high school. Instead he went to the UW and was captain of its 2001 Rose Bowl-winning team and is now the backup quarterback for the Oakland Raiders.
Zach Tuiasosopo, named to the all-state team as a defensive end in high school and a solid player for the Huskies, made it to the practice squads of the NFL.
Matt, also a star high-school athlete in football and baseball, is playing for the Seattle Mariners' top farm team in Tacoma.
And Ashley, a talented high-school basketball player and most inspirational player on the softball team before going to the UW.
Despite these and many more accomplishments, Zach speaks for the family when he says, "It's never about awards and prizes, but using your God-given talents."
"They're a family that is rooted in their faith," agrees Jack Thompson, a former Washington State University star known as the "throwin' Samoan," and a close friend of the Tuiasosopos. "It goes right back to Manu and Tina. Manu has always put things in the proper perspective: faith, family, school and sports. They lived it. They modeled it. They live their faith, and it comes right back to the parents and how they lived their lives."
MANU AND TINA met at St. Anthony Catholic high school in Los Angeles, Manu the star football player and Tina the cheerleader. Tina asked him to a Sadie Hawkins dance, and it took him three weeks to answer because he had so many other girls waiting in line.
"From the day she asked me I was swept off my feet," Manu says now, having recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. "We went to the dance and have been going strong ever since."
Manu said his high-school team was terrible. At the end of a 4-5 season his senior year "you'd have thought we'd won the state tournament." Still, college scouts noticed his skills, and he took a scholarship to UCLA. He and Tina married while he was still playing college ball. Leslie was the first born, then Marques, in 1979. It was the same year Manu was the No. 1 draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks. "To get drafted was a surprise," says Manu. "To get No. 1 was a real surprise."
Manu played five years with the Seahawks as a defensive lineman and four years with the San Francisco 49ers, getting that famous ring in the 1985 Super Bowl. He retired a year later to Woodinville, where the family has lived ever since. As the children grew, Manu pursued his love of coaching, helping lead football teams at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle and at Eastside high schools until Leslie started high school. It was a tough decision, but Manu made the call to step out of coaching while his children were playing.
He and Tina were active in the kids' sports, however, and Manu took on volunteer jobs in his native Samoan community as well as with the Seahawks.
Did Tina ever feel out of place, being the only Caucasian in a big Samoan family? "I just fit in," she says. "It never really seemed different. But as we got married and had kids, wherever we were, they thought I was the nanny. The kids had brown hair and brown eyes, and I was blonde with blue eyes. I just brushed it off and laughed."
It took Manu's mother awhile to get used to the marriage, Tina recalls, because Manu, the oldest son in the family, was the first of his generation to marry outside the Samoan culture. His family would speak Samoan in their home, and she quickly learned the word palagi, meaning white person. "I knew they were talking about me."
The marriage hit a rocky patch in 1981 when Manu, in his second year with the Seahawks, confessed to drinking and partying.
Tina "basically told me to shape up or else she was leaving me and taking the kids with her," Manu says.
Manu sought advice from teammates who he'd observed had strong marriages. "Over time it was very evident to me that the reason those men had a successful relationship with their wives and family was because of their personal faith and relationship in Jesus Christ," he says. "I can admit to this day that my life and relationship with Tina and our family, while it wasn't perfect, changed for the best from the moment I made the decision to have a personal faith and relationship in Jesus Christ."
IT'S A SIMPLE red plate, etched with the words "You are special today." For more than 25 years it's had a distinctive place in the Tuiasosopo kitchen, brought out to honor one of the children. It might be a birthday. Maybe somebody got an A on a report card.
When the table was set — with the four chickens Tina would have to cook to feed her brood — the red plate would be put at the place of the honored child, and Manu would give a speech about why.
"My favorite thing was leading the three cheers with the red plate," says Ashley.
"We got really excited as kids," adds Leslie. "My sister would say, 'Red plate, red plate,' and my parents would pretend to ignore it."
But out the plate would come. And while it could have been used to honor the many awards each of the children received in sports over the years, it never was.
That doesn't mean sports were not encouraged and supported. They were — from early on.
Manu started Leslie, the oldest, playing basketball in third grade. Into dolls, she hated it. If she'd get a rebound, she would hand the ball to the other team.
"I said, Dad, I don't like this," she remembers. "He said try it one more year, and if you don't like it you don't have to do it. I fell in love with basketball."
Leslie played basketball until ninth grade, when friends suggested she try out for the volleyball team, where she excelled, landing a scholarship to the UW. As a junior she was an all PAC-10 blocker and went on to play in the 1999 World University Games. She played professionally in Spain for a year — returning to the States to camp out in RVs with the family and watch Marques in the Rose Bowl.
As a child, Marques was trouble. At age 3 when he was left with a babysitter, he unlatched a window and walked out of the house into the pitch dark. He was found at a neighbor's house — the babysitter never sat again. Matt says he's watched old home videos and seen where his siblings were trying to walk on stilts and Marques pushed them off and stole the stilts.
"I didn't like him until he was in the sixth grade," Tina says of her oldest son.
"I just didn't sit still very well," explains Marques. "If I could climb on something I would climb on it, or go under it. It wasn't much fun for my parents to deal with."
In high school, he excelled at both football and baseball, but chose to stay with football as a Husky. At the UW, Marques was the first true freshman to start a game at quarterback, and in 1999 became the only player in NCAA football history to pass for more than 300 yards and run more than 200 yards in a single game (beating Stanford). In the 2001 Rose Bowl, he was named most valuable player. He was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2001, then moved to the New York Jets before rejoining Oakland this year.
"I don't think we were different from any other family," says Zach, born three years after Marques. "We were raised to give 100 percent of everything we did. Growing up with a lot of brothers and sisters was fun. Dad never forced me to play sports, but he never wanted us to give up, and I found it easy to understand that."
Zach's understanding of that message was sorely tested in 2003, when he pleaded guilty to third-degree malicious mischief for damaging four cars after a sorority party. He agreed to a year of alcohol treatment and 40 hours of community service.
Zach says he doesn't even remember the incident, but he's had to accept what happened and move on. His parents were not pleased.
It was Matt's birthday and he was home alone. His parents were with Ashley at a sports event in Eastern Washington. The police called. Matt tracked down his parents, who returned home.
"It was a tough time," Matt recalls. "We stuck together and prayed, and he moved home. We had to come together as a family."
"He's still our son and we love him," Tina says, "and he made a very poor choice. He had a valuable life lesson."
In 2005, Zach was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent. He spent the next two years on practice squads for Pittsburgh, Oakland and finally the Philadelphia Eagles, who released him a year ago. He left the NFL having never played in a regular-season game, but says a highlight of his life was an exhibition game against the Seahawks in 2006 when he was on the Oakland squad with brother Marques, who threw him a pass — which he caught and was promptly tackled.
Concerned about their physical development, Manu wouldn't let his boys play football until middle school, pointing them toward baseball and soccer instead. Now when he talks of his three sons he says he thinks they're actually better baseball players than football players. So he's very proud of son Matt, who gave up a UW football scholarship to join the Mariners organization, complete with a $2.29 million signing bonus.
Matt says bypassing the family legacy at the UW was a tough decision. When the UW volleyball team Leslie helped coach was in the national-championship game, Matt had been in the crowd, his body painted purple.
But when it was time for the baseball draft, he rushed home from school and was thrilled to find he was the Mariners' first pick.
"When they called my name I couldn't believe it. The phone started ringing off the hook. It was one of the craziest moments in my life," he recalls. "In high school I'd be watching Ichiro, and then the next year I was in the clubhouse with him, stretching with him, working out with him."
Manu and Tina remain divided on whether Matt should have put off college. "It didn't bother me one bit," says Manu. "I instilled in them they needed to make their own decisions. What makes you happy, we'll be there to support you."
Tina wishes he'd gone to college first. But he did promise he'd eventually get a degree. "I want to finish college," says Matt, 22, who was born the year his father retired from the NFL. "Education is always the most important thing."
Academics were so important, Tina and Manu had a rule that if their kids didn't keep up their grades they wouldn't play. Period. And sometimes they sat.
Matt says he once got a C in school; he was grounded until he brought it up to a B.
Zach remembers being held out of games because of grades, too. "I pushed the envelope a few times, and I paid for it."
By the time Ashley came along — Leslie had told her mother she was going to run away from home if it was another boy — the pattern was set: Church, school, family gatherings, games.
Since Ashley had gone to so many of the other kids' games, when it was her turn to play, they came to watch her. Sometimes the family would watch her game, pick up dinner on the road and head to the UW to watch Leslie play volleyball, or Matt and Zach play baseball.
As athletic director in Woodinville, Terry Agnew watched all the Tuiasosopos grow up. "One of the things that's truly special about the Tuiasosopo family is the kids are better people than they are athletes," he says. "This speaks highly about all of them. They weren't the type of people who held themselves in high esteem, and that's one of the reasons they were so special."
THEY LINE UP on the field in their green uniforms, these kids who dream of football stardom at Woodinville High School.
"Right-handed stance. Right leg back. Hut. Hut," barks Manu, who coaches the school's defensive linemen. "We'll get better at this," he says as the team pushes blocking sleds. "Let's really get popping. I don't want to hear it, I want to feel it."
Manu, now 50 and his youngest off to college, returned to coaching at Woodinville last season, wowing the kids that a former NFL star was there to help. When the season starts he'll be putting in up to 60 hours a week coaching — and that's on top of his full-time night job as a cargo handler with Alaska Airlines.
The school has remained very much a part of his and Tina's lives. As she has for the past six years, Tina works in the lunchroom there.
The family is still close, the children often joining their parents for Sunday services at Overlake. Manu goes to all of Matt's baseball games in Tacoma, leaving in time to get to work. Three of the kids vacationed with their parents in Hawaii this summer.
And while none of the Tuiasosopo children got a chance to visit Samoa growing up — too expensive for a family of seven — all say they dream of going one day. Manu's father is the "high talking chief" there, and had hoped his oldest son would take over.
For now, Manu is, like many folks, fretting about the cost of gas and groceries. "I'm glad we're not feeding kids today," he says.
Thompson, the friend and former WSU star, thinks Manu and Tina should write a book on parenting. "It's quite a story that should be told, and society as a whole can really benefit from it. There's enough stupid stories out there, stupid, overbearing parents, and this is a good one."
Indeed, the children all seem focused, retaining the family values but following their own paths.
Leslie, seeing her parents' grit and guidance now for more than three decades, says, "Growing up, you don't understand your parents and the decisions they help you make. Now that I'm older, I can see how they shaped and molded us. I'm very thankful. I would not be where I am without their love and care."
A psychology and speech major who once wanted to go into nursing, Leslie says now she'd love to be a head volleyball coach some day. At age 29, Marques is gearing up for another season on the football field in Oakland and still going to church — now with the woman he married last year, Lisa, a volleyball player from Sequim he met through Leslie.
Zach, 26, is married, too, working for NC Machinery in Tukwila and knowing his football years are behind him. "You do it for so long it becomes a lot of who you are," he says. "It's hard to let go." But he and wife Tasha are raising her 10-year-old son, Tyrus, who is storming the baseball fields himself. Zach says he wants a big family, at least six kids. Tasha rolls her eyes.
"I don't care if they're athletes," he says. "Sports, band music, academics. As long as what they're doing is to the best of their abilities. That's all I can ask of them."
Zach, Matt and Ashley all say they'd like to teach some day.
"It's been my dream ever since I was little," says Ashley, who works summers coaching youth sports. "Our parents wanted us to be normal. They never wanted us to think we were better than anyone else. But whatever we did we had to do it with all our heart, 110 percent."
Susan Gilmore is a Seattle Times staff reporter. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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