Updated: Aug 29, 2019
This past fall, Sione Ta'ufo'ou became the first Polynesian-American, let alone Tongan-American, to serve as a head varsity football coach in the W.C.A.L. Coach Ta'ufo'ou guided the Archbishop Mitty Monarchs to an appearance in the C.C.S. playoffs, and more than a dozen Monarchs were named to all-league teams, which recognizes them as top athletes. On their road to the playoffs, the Monarch's varsity squad achieved impressive victories over W.C.A.L. rivals, something they hadn't accomplished in many seasons. Now, Coach Ta'ufo'ou appears to have Monarch Football on the right track.
Although all these accomplishments are laudatory, they do not begin to depict Sione Ta'ufo'ou. The fact that the W.C.A.L. hired its first Polynesian-American coach, though it is doubtless a milestone, is really more of an accomplishment for the league rather than for Coach Ta'ufo'ou. Similarly, that Archbishop Mitty was able to hire a coach of Ta'ufo'ou's caliber is really more of a coup for the school rather than for their new Polynesian- American head coach.
Sione Ta'ufo'ou is not a young, up-and-coming football coach. Although young, one could say that he has already been to the mountaintop. He coached the Menlo Atherton Varsity Football Program for five years taking them to the C.C.S. Final in 2011 when he was named P.A.L. Coach of the Year. The young coach stepped away from the job at the pinnacle of his success, but he continued to study football working under the tutelage of C.S.M.'s Tom Martinez, his old college coach. Known as the "Quarterback Whisperer," Coach Martinez, who served as Tom Brady's personal quarterback coach, would eventually describe Coach Ta'ufo'ou as "one of the top three football coaches I have met in 46 years of coaching."
After Coach Martinez's unfortunate death in 2012, his protege went on to coach at Nike's prestigious Elite 11 development program and at Trent Dilfer Football. Coach Ta'ufo'ou developed quite a reputation as a quarterback guru and as an outstanding coach. Trent Dilfer himself praised Ta'ufo'ou, "His ability to get the most from the least and the best from the best is among the finest I have seen at the any level." Coach Ta'ufo'ou also coached for The Opening, and in 2012, he created his own nonprofit, instructional organization Difference Makers Athletics. Through his nonprofit, the coach conducts his Difference Makers Quarterback Academy training camps where he is as focused on building leadership skills as he is on developing quarterbacking skills.
With this type of football pedigree, Coach Ta'ufo'ou easily could be coaching at a major college program or on an N.F.L. staff, and yet he chooses to work with high school athletes. To understand the coach's career choice, all one needs to do is speak with him. Ta'ufo'ou seems unconcerned with those aspects of sports that consume most athletes and fans. When asked about dramatic victories, or championship games, or even having coached famous players, he responds with his ideas about building culture, cultivating character, learning as much as he can, teaching, creating community and shared experiences. He loves to talk about the process and about learning, especially from failure.
Ta'ufo'ou believes that failure is a great learning tool, that much can be learned from it. He thinks one of the greatest challenges is learning to be comfortable with doubt and uncertainty, but that to do so also reaps some of the greatest benefits because that is where tremendous learning and growth are possible. However, he realizes to do so requires a special type of courage, and this is a big part of what he is trying to develop in his players when he talks about building character. He wants them to be able to confront failure fearlessly, and to be able to push through the tough times together, appreciating the opportunity, in real time, as an opportunity for growth. He realizes that this is one of the most difficult things to do in life, but that it is one of life's greatest lessons. As he is fond of saying, "Tough times don't last. Tough people do."
Regarding success, according to Mitty's new coach, his greatest accomplishments are the emails, texts, and calls he receives from his former players to thank him for some life lesson he taught them, or for having helped them get through a rough patch, or simply for the experience they shared with him and their teammates. Coach Ta'ufo'ou understands that often years of maturation are required before athletes are able to understand and appreciate the lessons he is trying to teach them. Each year, as more of his players reach that level of maturity, those calls, texts and emails become more frequent.
MAD's Director John Murray recalls a time when Sione Ta'ufo'ou was not so philosophical. Murray first met Ta'ufo'ou when he trained him at the Riekes Center in Palo Alto, and the two have worked together many times since. MAD's Director's earliest memory of the young Ta'ufo'ou is when Gary Riekes kicked him out of the gym for verbally abusing all the quarterbacks training at the facility. As a young linebacker for the St. Francis Lancers, Ta'ufo'ou hated quarterbacks. He hated them, but he also studied them because they were his prey. Murray sees the irony in the fact that now Coach Ta'ufo'ou has become the quarterback nurturer. The coach now teaches his own players that they play against opponents not enemies, and their opponents' efforts and accomplishments are to be acknowledged and respected.
Murray is not surprised at Ta'ufo'ou's success. He remembers the teenager who was spirited and unquenchably curious. According to MAD's Director, the young Ta'ufo'ou had an amazing facility for grasping concepts almost immediately, and he possessed an inexhaustible work ethic. He was also a natural born leader, a coach's dream. As far as all the intangibles, Murray knows his friend received those at home. He recalls the first time he met Sione's mom, Deanie Ta'ufo'ou. She was a sweet woman, but also a quiet force. "The first time I met her, she brought in Sione's two younger brothers, William and Matthew, and she instructed us to call her if we had any trouble with any of her children. His younger brothers were never any trouble, and after that Sione was a model citizen." Unfortunately, Deanie Ta'ufo'ou passed away in 2015, and she is still missed and fondly remembered by all who knew her.
Family and community are always very important to Coach Ta'ufo'ou, and although they did not have a lot, they had each other and their local Tongan-American community, their extended family. His mother was a big believer in the ability to make something out of nothing. Of course, the somethings she was referring to were the things that really mattered: love, friendship, loyalty, diligence, persistence, courage, honor, community, and laughter to name a few. These are the things that Coach Ta'ufo'ou knows are important, and these are the things he values. These are the treasures that he so passionately wants to share with his young football students, and that is why he can still be found coaching in the high school ranks.
Sione Ta'ufo'ou is a fascinating individual, an inspirational individual, an instructive individual about whom a whole book could be written, and there would still be more to tell. In the meantime, whether or not one is a fan of Archbishop Mitty Athletics, or of high school football, or even of football at all, we should all be fans of Sione Ta'ufo'ou. For in rooting for him, we are rooting for ourselves. He is not just a football coach who is trying to notch victories and championships, trying to secure a place in the annals of gridiron lore. Sione Ta'ufo'ou is an artist, a philosopher, a teacher, and football and its young players are his medium. He is aspiring to a masterpiece of a better world filled with individuals of character who value their relationships and their communities. He is trying to make our world a better place one player at a time.