PULLMAN – Washington State linebacker Sekope Kaufusi grew up poor without a father in a crime-filled section of East Palo Alto, Calif. He became a father himself a few days before he turned 18 and graduated from high school. Obviously, Kaufusi has dealt with more serious issues than a tough football loss or two. That doesn’t mean Kaufusi does not seethe at the losses.
Especially when the Cougars get outplayed as they did last Saturday in a 44-21 loss to underdog Oregon State.
“This really, really hurt, and we’re going to take the next 24 hours to make it hurt,” Kaufusi said after the game. “We want it to hurt. We want to have the fire lit.”
Coming out of high school, Kaufusi’s grades scared off most recruiters – “I had a 1.7 GPA after my junior year” – but the Cougars weren’t the only ones who noticed his raw talent. They were, however, the only Pac-12 school to offer him. At Woodside High, Kaufusi played tight end and middle linebacker, ran back punts and kickoffs and punted.
“He could be a great one,” said defensive coordinator Chris Ball.
Kaufusi’s pride in himself and his team, combined with his considerable athletic skills, makes him one of the more popular Cougars in the locker room.
“Really nice kid,” Ball said. “Very good kid. Very respectful.”
“He’s always done a good job of keeping his eye on what’s important to him,” wide receiver Gino Simone said. “That’s his family and this team. I love that about him. He’s a great teammate and a great brother.”
Simone and Kaufusi aren’t actually related. Of course, Kaufusi didn’t know he was a cousin of WSU defensive tackle Toni Pole until the two met on Pole’s recruiting visit two years ago. Kaufusi and Pole grew up 15 minutes apart.
Now Pole (pronounced Po-LAY) and Sekope Kaufusi (Suh-COPE-ee Kuhh-FOOS-ee) share an apartment with Kaufusi’s girlfriend, Suisami Atagi (SOO-ee-saw-me Ah-TOGG-ee), and the couple’s 2-year-old son, Ziggy Atagi-Kaufusi.
“There really is no time for me,” Kaufusi said with one of his frequent laughs. “The time I have is really for football and school. Then when I come home, I just spend time with my family. Toni Pole … is the best uncle I could ever ask for. He does nothing but spoil Ziggy.”
Ziggy, whom Kaufusi and Atagi named after musician Ziggy Marley (“We just wanted something different”), was born three months premature.
“He was 2 pounds, 9 ounces when he was born,” Kaufusi said. “He was in the incubator for about six weeks. He had to have heart surgery, so he went through a lot. Now, you couldn’t even tell. He’s healthy, he’s upbeat. He’s a gift from God.”
Suisami works in a sandwich shop near the couple’s off-campus apartment. Money is hardly overflowing.
“Things get a little hard,” Kaufusi admits. “We don’t really have a car … as long as we’re happy, that’s all that matters.”
Kaufusi grew up with a divorced mother, three younger siblings and two grandparents who provided limited income. Kaufusi has little contact with his father, who lives in New Zealand. The family is of Tongan descent.
Kaufusi received some early training for fatherhood when he watched after his brother and twin sisters when their mother worked two jobs while going to school to train to be a medical assistant.
When Kaufusi’s mother landed her new job, she rode a bike to work – 10 miles each way – so her children had access to the family car.
“My mom’s a big inspiration,” Kaufusi said.
Kaufusi, a general studies major with an emphasis on business, has long dreamed of playing in the NFL. The speedy outside linebacker, a redshirt sophomore, ranks fourth on the Cougars with 32 tackles despite missing one game with a shoulder injury.
Kaufusi led everyone with a career-high nine tackles against Oregon State, but he said there’s only one thing to do with that game as WSU prepares for Saturday’s game at seventh-ranked Oregon.
“Just flush it and try to move on,” he said.