PULLMAN — The first thing you notice about Sekope Kaufusi is the hair.
There are, seemingly, yards of jet-black, wavy tresses tumbling out from underneath his Washington State University football helmet.
Sure, Kaufusi would love to have a Head and Shoulders commercial some day like his idol — and hair hero — Troy Polamalu of the Steelers.
And, sure, the hair makes it easier for those who care about Kaufusi to follow his footsteps on the football field. But there is more, much more, about Sekope Kaufusi than just the hair.
The football resume says Kaufusi, who grew up in East Palo Alto, Calif., is a 19-year-old redshirt freshman linebacker turned defensive end turned linebacker again.
Thrust into the middle last week against 15th-ranked Arizona due to injuries and suspensions, Kaufusi responded with a career-high eight tackles. It shouldn’t be surprising. At 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds, he’s the size of a full-grown man.
What is surprising is he has full-grown responsibilities off the field as well.
He and girlfriend Sui Sami live together with their year-old son, Ziggy Atagi-Kaufusi, born in June, 2009, just before Sekope left for his freshman year at WSU.
“Yes, it’s hard, balancing school, football and my family,” Kaufusi said. “I’m just taking it day-by-day. Whatever happens, happens. Everything happens for a reason, so I just roll with the punches, do what I can for my family.”
But he couldn’t do it without Sami, who stays at home with Ziggy, bringing him to practice occasionally and to home games, where it’s easy to pick out dad. The hair, remember?
Asked how he’s able to compartmentalize the responsibilities, Kaufusi is quick to credit Sami.
“I get a lot from her, because she’s very independent,” Kaufusi said. “She grew up with a lot of people, but she always had to take care of herself.”
The couple met through relatives in high school when Sami was visiting from Sacramento.
“We would hang out at my cousin’s house,” Kaufusi said. “From there it just sparked.”
After Ziggy was born, she and Ziggy spent time in Missouri with relatives because Kaufusi, a freshman, had to live in the dorms. Now they share an off-campus residence and deal with the stress being young parents can bring.
“There are a lot of things I forget to do and Sami gets mad at me,” Kaufusi said, laughing. “And I can’t stop Ziggy from going into the cupboards, grabbing all the pots and pans and just thumping them all over the place.”
Appropriate behavior for a child named for musician Ziggy Marley.
Parenting also can interfere with school and football, as it did two weeks ago.
Kaufusi had just been moved back to linebacker before the Oregon game. He was cramming, trying to absorb the middle and weakside responsibilities. But Sami got sick and had to go to the hospital on Thursday. With no one to watch Ziggy, Kaufusi the dad won over Kaufusi the football player. He missed practice.
“Being Polynesian, they always stress family first, no matter what,” said Kaufusi, of Tongan heritage.
Football has been part of his family’s heritage as well, with cousin Will Taufoou having played fullback at California.
Kaufusi was a standout at Palo Alto’s Woodside High where he passed nearby Stanford, Saturday’s opponent, on his way to school. Going into his junior year, his academics were suffering and “things were going downhill because of off-the-field issues,” Kaufusi said, adding they were family related and leaving it at that.
But the lure of college football enticed him to improve his academics — his GPA was 2.7 by graduation — and ensured he would be eligible for Washington State, the first, and most persistent, school to recruit him.
He came to Pullman last year as a linebacker — in high school, he said the scheme consisted of “me just running around, looking for the ball and tackling it” — but played a lot of defensive end on the scout team. And that’s where he started this season, backing up Travis Long.
“I didn’t want to put my hand down,” Kaufusi said. “That’s basically it. But my mentality was whatever the team needs, I’ll do it.”
Two weeks ago, the team needed him back at linebacker. Against Oregon, playing mainly on the weakside, he had four tackles and recovered a fumble. Last week, playing the middle in place of suspended C.J. Mizell, he had eight tackles, including one for a loss.
“He’s not as physically developed as what he’s going to be,” said linebackers coach Travis Niekamp. “But he’s got a natural feel for the game, very instinctive.
“The biggest negative in his game is a little bit related to experience with coverage issues, but missed tackles is probably the ugliest thing right now. He’s missed his fair share of them.”
All in all, though, Niekamp and the Cougars are happy with the progress Kaufusi’s made. Especially considering his circumstances.
“Mentally, he can handle a lot,” Niekamp said. “That’s another strength. It just goes back to all the stuff that’s on his plate, for him to be able to come out here, focus, concentrate, be able to handle football and play at a high level, I think that says a lot about him.”