Homeless to NFL hopeful: Duane’s American dream gets real
Duane Tuitasi has overcome homelessness, loneliness and an unrelenting college career in pursuit of his NFL dreams.
And on Monday, those five years of pain and uncertainty will finally come to a head when the proud Brisbane athlete gives his all to impress scouts at an NFL Pro Day.
It has not been easy, but Tuitasi knows it has all been worth it to have this shot.
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It's been a fast-tracked career for Tuitasi who only discovered gridiron in 2014 when he went to Brisbane Rhinos training with his cousin.
He knew within one training session that he was destined to move to the US.
His best friends told him it was stupid and an Australian coach who saw his highlights said he wasn't strong enough, he was too small and he wouldn't even start in a junior college team.
But that didn't deter Tuitasi.
"He told me to wait two years but I was like, I don't got two years," the now 28-year-old said of the coach.
"He said it would be a big waste of my money … That kind of pissed me off. When someone tells me I can't do something, I'm like, 'okay, well I'm going to prove you wrong'."
And so, Tuitasi embarked on a rollercoaster of a journey - or "trip" as he prefers to call it.
He received a scholarship offer from the University of Las Vegas in 2014 but it fell through because he didn't have the grades to qualify.
He then chose his junior college by closing his eyes and pointing at a map of the US. He landed on California and with a game of "eenie meenie" then selected Golden West College.
He moved over in August 2015 but missed the football trials. Luckily he was scouted by head coach Nick Mitchell in the cafeteria.
For three years he played for GWC - paying over $40,000 with his parents' help to do so - before 22 offers rolled in from bigger colleges, including his dream school, San Jose State University.
He graduated from San Jose in December 2019 with a Bachelor of Communication Studies and two years of Division 1 college football under his belt.
The defensive tackle did all the hard yards that college footballers do - 5am starts and 18-hour days, seasons cruelled by injury and months living in sharehouses on a "JUCO" diet of bananas, 99c rice, canned ravioli and ramen noodles.
But, across his five years in the US, there are two moments in particular that have shaped him and led him to his Pro Day.
The first moment was when he found himself homeless just three weeks after arriving in the States, when he came home to find the family he had been assigned to live with completely gone.
"It was 7:30pm after practice and I came home and I see my two suitcases outside and my box and all my shoes over the yard," he said.
If life has taught me anything it is to make sure to always give back and don’t ever forget where you come from. American football may not be at the level that some countries are in the world, but I know this much...... ITS GOING TO BE ✊🏽✊🏽✊🏽 pic.twitter.com/94QjVvvIQf— Duane Manai Tuitasi (@DuaneTuitasi96) February 12, 2020
"I went to put the key in but it wouldn't turn. I looked in the house and it was just empty.
"When you're new to the country you don't want to ask for help. I didn't know what to do. I sat there for like an hour and I was like, 'I can't ring coach, I don't want to be needy.'
"I knew there was a (shipping) container at the back of the football field that no one locked. There were tackling bags left in there so it was a mattress for me."
He went to the college the next day but they told him they couldn't place him with another family until the following semester.
They asked if he had a friend to live with and, not wanting to cause trouble, Tuitasi said he did but returned to the shipping container and lived there for another three weeks.
He showered in the football team's locker room and used the library as a refuge until it closed at 11pm each night.
He was afraid to tell his coach and even more afraid to tell his parents back home in Australia.
Eventually Tuitasi was caught out by college security and he was placed in a sharehouse with 18 other people.
This led to his second career-defining moment.
Three months into his time at the sharehouse, his defensive line coach Savea Harrington told him to come live with him.
Tuitasi was sidelined with an Achilles injury and Harrington wanted him to learn more about American football.
"He said, 'I want you to live and breathe football'," Tuitasi said.
"And I learnt football. It's a metaphor for life that when things are going to be tough, you have to run through them.
"Coach Harrington was really big on making a list so I made my list and it had 22 things.
"The first thing was to go to Junior College and get onto a team. From there it was be a starter, then be all-conference, then all-state, then be ranked, then get (recruit) stars, then get my first offer.
"I started realising every two to three months, things were getting ticked off the list and maybe this wasn't a crazy list. I put my Bachelor's degree down for my mum (Neta) and dad (Tili).
"The only thing left on the list is NFL. That's the last thing."
As Tuitasi prepares for Monday's Pro Day at San Jose State - which will be filmed and sent to scouts due to coronavirus social distancing rules - he wants fellow Australians to know his story, to know how hard it is to make it in the US but to also push for better pathways so more athletes can head overseas.
The 139kg, 185cm-tall Samoan said the talent exists here in Queensland but there needs to be better access.
"I wanted to see if I could come home and make a difference," he said.
"I want Australia to be on the map. Everyone thinks we're just a rugby union or rugby league country. But we have athletes here … I want to help make a pathway. There's no proper pathway that goes over there. At the moment, you just have to do what you gotta do.
"When I was living in the container, that's when you're like, 'I want to go home.'
"It's lonely. I remember going over there and I didn't want to ask anyone for help because it felt like everyone had their own clique. You're just the international guy.
"It's hard because you're there by yourself but if you have a goal you want to accomplish, that's what you're pushing for.
"If you're pushing to get somewhere, you have to put it in the back of your mind."
Originally published as Homeless to NFL hopeful: Duane's American dream gets real