Zion Tupuola-Fetui Will Face Michigan With His Father in His Heart

    Zion Tupuola-Fetui has ridden a roller coaster of emotions during his Washington Huskies career but looks to end it on a high note in Houston.

    Zion Tupuola-Fetui began his football journey with the Washington Huskies leaning on the support of his father. When he takes to the NRG Stadium field on Monday for what is likely his final game in the purple and gold, he’ll carry his father in his heart.

    Forged by adversity, the defensive dynamo’s career has been a rollercoaster of emotion that could end on a high note in Houston.

    Zion Tupuola-Fetui Will Face Michigan With His Father in His Heart

    Nothing about Tupuola-Fetui’s journey from Pearl City, Hawaii to Houston for the 2024 College Football National Championship Game has been easy. There’s a reason why he was the recipient of the Don James Perseverance Award at the Huskies’ end-of-season awards. Between injury and heart-breaking loss, he’s battled harder than most to represent Washington on Monday.

    It’s been a six-year journey that started with the man they call ZTF signing his National Letter of Intent leaning on Molia Fetui’s back like a table — a metaphor for the dependability and stability provided by father for son — and likely ends on Monday with the potential for a championship that Molia always believed possible but never got the opportunity to see.

    However, Tupuola-Fetui won’t end their journey alone. When No. 4 screeches off the edge in pursuit of Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy on Monday evening, he’ll do so with his father on his mind.

    Where once Molia carried the weight of his son’s potential on his back, the young man will now carry the dreams of his departed mentor with him into the biggest night of his young life.

    “I think the best way to honor them after they pass is to carry them with you,” the sixth-year senior Husky tells khon2.com, before later explaining his motivation to deliver a national title to Washington as “one of those things where I’m doing it for him because he can’t witness it himself anymore.”

    A softly-spoken young man, much like his father, Tupuola-Fetui has had to carry his grief at the passing of his father more openly than many can imagine. In the aftermath of a win over Stanford, he discovered that Molia had fallen asleep for the final time. One week later, he had to take the field for one of the biggest games of the season as Washington faced USC.

    A testament to his inner fortitude, the Washington outside linebacker played his best game of the season. Hustling Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams with his trademark explosiveness and ferocity, Tupuola-Fetui forced a fumble with a strip-sack — his first of the season and something his father had been longing for all year.

    The emotion was palpable as the man whom his father called “The Sack Man” left the field.

    “This week was really hard, but I knew my dad would want me to play,” Tupuola-Fetui told Dave Mahler of KJR Seattle in the aftermath of a crucial win. “He loves this game, he loves UW, and I knew I’d just be doing him wrong if I didn’t play. I’m thankful that I was able to play good in his memory, that was him playing through me.”

    Tupuola-Fetui is no stranger to adversity. While no event can compare to the loss of a loved one, his time at Washington has been beset by having to overcome setbacks that would challenge the mental fortitude of even the toughest individual.

    MORE: National Championship Prediction: Michigan vs. Washington Odds, Spread, DFS Picks, and More 

    Arriving in Seattle in 2018 as an all-state standout at Pearl City — who played both ways in addition to being an accomplished volleyball player — Tupuola-Fetui saw minimal action as a true freshman. Preserving a redshirt year, he logged his first career tackle against North Dakota and eventually saw action in the Rose Bowl.

    While his playing time increased in 2019, his production was still minimal for the Huskies, generating nine tackles and a key stop in a victory over USC — a sign of things to come some four years down the line.

    However, it was the globally disrupted 2020 season that saw the young Washington outside linebacker explode into the national consciousness with an eye-popping, jaw-dropping, bone-shaking three-game stretch which saw him tally seven tackles for loss, seven sacks, and three forced fumbles. All-American accolades and First Team All-Pac-12 honors followed, as did NFL attention.

    Adversity struck in the spring of 2021, following his decision to return to the Huskies rather than pursue the NFL. During practice, Tupuola-Fetui tore his Achilles, casting doubt on whether he’d be able to play at all during his fourth season with Washington. Furthermore, doctors warned that the injury could take away his main pass-rush weapon; explosiveness.

    MORE: Washington 2024 Football Schedule: Full List of Opponents

    “(The doctors) said the only thing that could be affected (from the surgery and recovery) was my explosiveness,” Tupuola-Fetui told the Seattle Times following his return to the field in October 2021. “I was like, ‘My explosiveness? I’m an outside linebacker. I literally have to get off the ball every play.”

    That adversity couldn’t keep “The Sack Man” down. He returned six months later — an unheard-of recovery period from such a serious injury — and was soon back in opposition backfields, recording a first sack of the season against Arizona.

    In just over two years since, he’s logged 10.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and two forced fumbles. He’s also missed additional time with injury. By his own admittance, his six-year journey through the college football experience has been a turbulent, tumultuous ride. But, rather than reflect negatively on it, Tupuola-Fetui has allowed it to shape him.

    “I have no regrets with my journey here,” ZTF tells khon2.com ahead of the Sugar Bowl win over Texas. “Obviously, a lot of ups, a lot of downs. It helped me to become more of a well-rounded person, not just on the field, but in life.”

    Football has sometimes dealt Tupuola-Fetui a tough hand. Life has dealt him the ultimate devastation. Yet, his character and perseverance have helped the Washington outside linebacker to continue on his journey, both in football and in life. He’ll be there in Houston in person, with his father in his heart, acting as a motivating factor every single step of the way.

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