By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
Thomas Tutogi has spent most of his life in the shadow of his big brother. Taimi has one year on him, one inch on him, almost 20 pounds on him, and is such a great football player that Thomas Tutogi grew up desperately trying to live up to his brother.
“I wasn’t really recruited in high school,” Thomas Tutogi said this week, “so everywhere we would go, people would say: ‘There’s Taimi Tutogi … and his little brother.’”
That all changed on the opening kickoff of last year’s game between the University of Washington and Arizona. Thomas Tutogi, then a sophomore linebacker at UW, was running down on the coverage unit when a 260-pounder wearing No. 31 got in his way.
The two Tutogi brothers, who had never before played a game against each other, collided … and, in a way, Thomas had finally caught up to his brother on the gridiron.
“We just kind of a stalemated,” Thomas Tutogi said this week, as the brothers prepare to do battle for what will likely be the final time.
Coming from a football family — the late Junior Seau, a former NFL star, is their father’s first cousin — the Tutogi brothers were inevitably going to come together at some point as gridiron foes. It will happen again Saturday, when 20-year-old Thomas Tutogi gets another shot at Tiami Tutogi, 13 months his senior.
“We’re excited,” Thomas Tutogi said. “Both of us are excited.”
Tiami Tutogi, who plays fullback, defensive line and serves as a protector on Arizona’s punt unit, is particularly excited this week because it could be his final chance to put his younger brother in his place.
”This game I’m going to have to live with the rest of my life,” Tiami Tutogi, an Arizona senior, said via telephone Wednesday afternoon. “It’s a lifetime of bragging rights: ‘Remember when you came down to Tucson, and I sat you down?’
“I want to knock him down and then do it again. Who knows, maybe I’ll even give him a cheap shot. Definitely, I’ll give him a little extra. But whichever way it happens, I’m going to help him up. At end of the day, he’s always going to be my brother.”
The first time the brothers collided in a football sense came before the opening practice of a Pop Warner season. Thomas and Tiami donned their pads for the first time, went out in the front yard, and younger brother announced that he was going to put a lick on his elder. Thomas threw the ball in the air, kickoff-style, then ran toward his big brother … who plowed him over.
A few years later, when Tiami was a high school junior playing varsity football at Chula Vista High School in southern California, Thomas had another chance to take down his brother when the junior varsity had a rare practice with the older kids.
Tiami, a fullback, took a handoff and saw his brother in position to make the tackle.
“He ran right in front of me and acted like he didn’t know I had the ball,” Tiami Tutogi said this week, laughing at the memory. “He just turned his head and ran the other way. To this day, he’ll still tell you that. I think he was scared to tackle me or take on a hit.”
Then came the 2011 meeting between UW and Arizona. Tiami Tutogi was one of two Wildcats deep in kickoff-return formation, and he’d been preparing all week to block a different UW special teamer when a short kickoff left him looking for someone to block.
“I look to the right, and there’s nobody,” Tiami Tutogi recalled this week. “I look to the left, and there was Thomas. It was either ignore him, or hit him in the mouth. So I got up all my strength and went and popped him. Surprisingly, he didn’t fall over. We met more than once that night. It was fun.”
What makes Saturday’s game even more special is that this time, both brothers will be on the field for extended action. Tiami Tutogi plays offense, defense and special teams, while Thomas Tutogi has become a key to UW’s defense — he leads the team in tackles — and also plays special teams. His role rushing the punter should put him in direct line for another collision with his older brother, and if he gets a chance this time, he won’t back away.
“I mean, he’s my brother,” Thomas Tutogi said, “but on the field I’ve got to look at him like just another guy.”
No matter what happens Saturday, Thomas Tutogi has already earned his older brother’s respect. The first time Tiami ever told his brother how proud he was came when Thomas was about to leave for UW _ thereby realizing a dream that looked bleak when he was overlooked by Pacific-10 Conference schools as a high school senior.
This week, Tiami Tutogi is expressing his pride again.
“Just watching him, I’m in awe of how he plays on the field,” he said of his younger brother. “He’s going to be a factor in the Pac-12. It’s awesome knowing he’s my little brother. The kid I used to pick on and used to run over when we were little, he’s a player in the Pac-12 now.”
In a way, Thomas Tutogi has finally stepped out of his brother’s shadow. When he walks around Chula Vista these days, he’s no longer just somebody’s little brother.
“Now we’re just separate,” he said. “Tiami and Thomas, Thomas and Tiami.”
Tiami Tutogi is as proud as ever to be Thomas’s older brother. But this Saturday in Tucson, while playing in front of several family members wearing “Family Always” T-shirts that sport team colors from both schools, Tiami will be looking to put his little brother in his place for one final time.
“A lot of people think because I’m the older brother, he looks up to me,” Tiami Tutogi said, “and to be honest, I look up to him. What he’s going at UW is really setting the bar for me. I can never get outworked by my brother, and he knows that. I’ll never let him beat me up, I’ll never let him beat me in a race.
“I’ll never let him beat me, and he’s known that since we were little.”