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Doug Robinson: Tahi puts on camp as lockout continues

Published: Tuesday, June 21 2011 11:10 p.m. MDT

BYU's Naufahu Tahi (3) drags Eastern Illinois' Clint Sellers (4), center, and B. J. Brown (7) to the sidelines as BYU faces Eastern Illinois at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo Saturday, September 10, 2005.

Jason Olson, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Naufahu (Fahu) Tahi, the Minnesota Vikings fullback via BYU and Granger High, is waiting. Waiting for the NFL labor dispute to be settled and the lockout ended; waiting to see how the new labor agreement will affect free agents, since he is one; waiting to see if he should get a high school coaching job to fill the vacated season.

"It's a lot of time off," he says.

Tahi is also waiting for camp to start, but not training camp. He and a group of former BYU players are holding a football camp for kids ages 8 to 18. If you're thinking they are doing this to see them through the lockout financially, you're wrong.

This camp is free.

Several years ago, Tahi teamed with three other BYU graduates — former NFL players Reno Mahe, Gabe Reid and Tavita Ofahengaue — to start a camp for Polynesian kids who couldn't afford to attend any one of the glut of football camps that have become de rigueur for young players. Beginning last year, the camp was opened to everyone.

The camp, which will be held Thursday (2 p.m.) and Friday (10 a.m.) at Alta High, is expected to draw 600 kids. It will include on-field instruction from, among others, Sione Pouha (Jets), Marv Philip (formerly of the Bills), Haloti Ngata (Ravens), Harvey Unga (Bears), Deuce Lutui (Cardinals) and Ray Feinga (Dolphins).

This camp has a new wrinkle: It will include time in the classroom where campers will hear NFL players discuss the value of education. If kids aren't listening to their parents, maybe they'll listen to NFL players.

"There are 119 Division 1-A football programs and only 32 NFL teams with 53-man rosters," says Tahi. "Kids need a Plan B. We're going to let them know that football is the car that drives them to their education. I could not have attended college without it."

Almost everything was stacked against Tahi's bid to make it in the NFL. Not only did he never put up big numbers at BYU, he was pegged for a position that has become all but extinct in the NFL. With the rise of passing offenses and one-back sets, the fullback position was virtually eliminated in the league. Teams rarely even use a draft choice on a fullback — most are late rounders or, as in Tahi's case, undrafted free agents. Tahi signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2006 and was assigned to the practice squad.

"They told me later they hadn't planned on keeping me at all," he says "I was a camp body."

Two months later, the Minnesota Vikings not only signed Tahi, but put him on their active roster. During the 2008 offseason, the Vikings also signed Thomas Tapeh, a veteran fullback from the Philadelphia Eagles. "They paid him good money," says Tahi. "I worked hard. I knew I had to." The Vikings wound up releasing Tapeh.

"It was a huge turning point for me," says Tahi.

Ironically, the Bengals offered Tahi a one-year deal worth $1.4 million in 2009, but the Vikings matched it.

He has been the team's starting fullback since then, filling the bruising, unglamorous role of blocking for Adrian Peterson, one of the league's most talented running backs. During the last four seasons, Tahi has just 10 rushing attempts (but he does have 33 catches, two for touchdowns).

In the 2010 NFC championship game against the Saints, Tahi played a role in what is perhaps the most crucial play in recent memory for the Vikings. With the score tied and a minute left, the Vikings were already deep enough in Saints territory that they could attempt a 50-yard field goal. The Vikings called a play that put Tahi on the field, but during a timeout the coaches decided to change to a formation that didn't include the fullback. The coaches forgot to relay the change to Tahi, and the Vikings were penalized five yards for having 12 men on the field; The penalty pushed them out of field goal range. On the next play Brett Favre threw an interception. The Saints went on to win the Super Bowl.

"We felt like we were the best team," says Tahi. "There was just a miscommunication on the sideline."

With the retirement of Favre and a change of coaches, the Vikings are at a crossroads, and Tahi's future with the team is uncertain. He is a free agent and can't be signed by any team until the labor dispute between the players association and the owners is resolved.

"Before the lockout, we met with the Vikings and they said they want me back," says Tahi. "I hope so. I love Minnesota."

He has spent the offseason training in Utah. At 6 feet, he weighs 260 pounds — about 10 more than his target playing weight. Each year he trims the extra pounds shortly before reporting to training camp, whenever that is.

"There will be a season," he says. "I just don't know how long that season will be. It's a waiting game. All I can do is be ready."

email: drob@desnews.com

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