Hawaiian Punch: Taulapapa Makes Splash In Starting Debut

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Media Relations

Wayne Taulapapa sat in a metal folding chair in a postgame interview room in the bowels of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Stadium late Saturday night, meeting with media to talk about his debut as Virginia’s starting running back.

Taulapapa (pronounced Towel-La-Papa) was wearing a big smile and a lei, that was given to him by his parents before he left the field. In Hawaiian culture, leis can be given for a variety of reasons, such as gratitude for peace and honor. On this occasion it was given for kicking Pittsburgh’s butts.

Having won a fierce battle for the starting job over five other candidates, Taulapapa, perhaps the smallest of the lot at 5-foot-9, 210 pounds, was effective. His 10 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown were impressive, translating out to 6.6 yards per attempt.

Even more importantly, he put an exclamation point on the win with a 10-yard touchdown run — his first score as a collegian — with 32 seconds to play in UVA’s 30-14 win over the defending ACC Coastal Division champs.

After that kind of start, we’re gonna call Taulapapa the “Hawaiian Punch.”

Punching in that final touchdown meant something to Coach Bronco Mendenhall. His team showed some killer instinct on that short drive. While some expected UVA just to run out the clock, Cavaliers’ center Olusegun Oluwatimi said the offense wanted to score.

Certainly, Taulapapa had no objection.

“For us, it was more us trying to declare that we do have a run game,” Taulapapa said. “A lot of us are unknown, but we’re trying to work our best to really push the limits of what we can do, not only in the run game but also passing, blocking, protecting the quarterback in whatever capacity.”

That’s the main reason that he was selected as starter. Mendenhall constantly described Taulapapa as the most trustworthy and versatile.

The Virginia coach would rather one back carry the load rather than make it running back by committee, although he could handle that scenario should that become the case. Mendenhall believes there is better chemistry on offense when one back carries the mail.

UVA was about 50-50 on its run/pass balance in the game, although 18 of the 33 running plays were by quarterback Bryce Perkins, who garnered 44 net yards, including 26 yards in losses due to three sacks. Taulapapa had 10 and PK Kier the other five for 19 yards (3.8 average).

The Hawaiian Punch and his backfield cohorts are attempting to fill the void by 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis, who departed after last season’s 8-5 campaign.

Virginia’s backs weren’t certain on who might get the most rushes heading into the game, but according to Taulapapa, they were ready to get the job done.

“We more so had a collective idea that we were all just going to do our best to contribute in any way that we could,” Taulapapa said. “Obviously, Pitt is a physical defense. They can really wear [running backs] down, so we kind of went in with the idea that collectively we wanted to get 100 yards and try to help the offense in that way.”

UVA finished the evening with 129 net yards rushing and a 3.9 average per tote, while Perkins threw for another 181 yards and two scores.

It was a successful debut for Taulapapa, who emerged from the pack in the spring as the leading man at the position and hasn’t let go. All that has impressed his head coach.

“What I like about his running style, and I talked to the team about it [Monday morning], is that he’s always falling forward,” Mendenhall said of Taulapapa. “Rarely does the first player get him down. Just seems like he is on the verge of getting out of a tackle or falling forward or stumbling ahead and he tries hard. So I think his vision and his will, besides his ability, all contribute.”

Not too shabby for a player who spent some sleepless nights in Central America in between high school and his arrival in Charlottesville two years later. There were lonely nights when Taulapapa wondered if he might not play football again. He missed football. He missed his family. Still, he knew he was doing the right thing.

“His journey has been a unique one,” Mendenhall said of Taulapapa’s two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Nicaragua. “While in Nicaragua, there was civil unrest there. All missionaries are asked [if they want to stay], or the church brings them home early to keep them safe.”

When Mendenhall was still the head coach at Brigham Young University, he offered Taulapapa a scholarship. After Mendenhall left Provo to take over Virginia’s football program, the new BYU staff did not honor the offer to the young Hawaiian running back.

“But I certainly did, and wanted him, so he ended up here at Virginia,” Mendenhall said. “So, a pretty unique story.”

That’s not the whole story.

Taulapapa’s odyssey wasn’t easy. 

“A lot of lonely nights, a lot of prayers said just to feel better,” Taulapapa said. “I was very far away from family, but transitioned into being independent and trusting in my heavenly Father.”

At the end of the day, what kept him going was his family, and accepting and understanding that he was away from his family in order to help other families.

Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Media Relations

“Being able to help other people and see that they were struggling with a lot of things kept me happy,” he said.

During all his mission work, football never left his thoughts. He did what he could to stay in some kind of shape. Push-ups, sit-ups. He made his own weights, bought jump ropes. Family members sent his ladders.

Still, two years away from the game left doubts. How would he fit into UVA running backs’ coach Mark Atuaia’s backfield when he returned? He knew that Atuaia ran a tight ship, putting pressure on his backs every day to deliver.

A star running back at Punahou High in Laie, Hawaii, he rushed for 3,279 yards and 52 touchdowns as a three-year starter. He was part of UVA’s 2016 recruiting class, but wasn’t able to enrol until 2018.

A lot changed in UVA’s program during that span, as the Cavaliers went from 2-10 to 6-7 and qualified for a bowl. Last season, Taulapapa was part of the team (special-teams duty) on a team that went 8-5 and won a bowl game.

As one might imagine, there wasn’t a lot of Virginia football news available in Nicaragua.

“We were cut off from the outside world, so a lot of things I didn’t know,” he said.

E-mails from his parents back in Hawaii kept him somewhat informed about UVA. The coaches would sometimes send letters with the promise that progress was coming. Each one of those letters gave him inspiration.

“Whenever there is hope and that you have a chance to play football again. I remember opening them and crying a little bit, just that I missed the game so much. Those letters of hope allowed me to push and continue the simple workouts I was doing.”

Taulapapa knew others had performed missions and returned to have strong collegiate careers that extended to the NFL. 

Finally making it to Charlottesville, the long process continued, but he credited UVA’s strength and conditioning coaches for getting him back to game-ready.

In the spring, the coaching staff, including Atuaia, saw some flashes but weren’t convinced that the Hawaiian Punch was going to be the answer.

“He helped himself in the spring just by staying healthy, being there every practice,” Atuaia said. “His ability to grasp what we are doing offensively and understanding those concepts seemed to come easy to him. He was behind as far as experience, so he had ground to make up.”

Atuaia knew all about Taulapapa. They were from the same community back in Laie, Hawaii.

“He went to a private school about 40 miles in town,” Atuaia said. “We live in the country. That decision alone by his family helped them find UVA attractive. They made that decision a long time ago as far as his education and being in that private-school environment helped Wayne assimilate to Charlottesville.”

Atuaia likes Taulapapa’s vision, that he hits the hole hard and runs downhill.

“Those are things you can’t coach,” Atuaia said. “On top that, he’s pretty durable. At times he can pound it out, but he is very versatile. He can play inside the box and also has a skill set outside the box as a receiver. Those are things that we were able to uncover during the spring.”

When Saturday night finally came, Taulapapa crossed the goal line in a real football game for the first time in a long time.

“It was really a special feeling, more so because it had been a while since I’ve really ran the ball in an offensive scheme,” he said. “Coming back to that and being able to help the team out in the most productive way that I could really spoke to me on many emotional levels. I’m just excited to see what else I can do to help out in any way I can, whether it be on special teams, offense, catching, running, blocking, anything.”

Being successful against Pitt, a team Virginia had lost to four times in a row, and having never won in Pittsburgh, was a big deal to all of the Cavaliers and to Taulapapa.

“It’s like Bronco said, it’s been four years,” the running back said. “The physicality of Pitt and the way they play, it’s phenomenal to be able to beat them. It really says our program is moving in the right direction.”

And so, it seems, is the Hawaiian Punch — always falling forward.


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