By Michael Rand
The news that Thomas Tapeh has signed with the Vikings made us feel a little, well, old. A little dig through the archives revealed a story we remembered writing about Tapeh for the Newspaper of the Twin Cities; what we had forgotten is that it’s been more than nine years (Jan. 31, 1999) since it was published. He was a high school senior at St. Paul Johnson. And we were 22. In any event, it was a longer piece as part of our “Super Preps” package. We’re going to throw it out there right now as a little trip down memory lane. Remember: Comments between 4-8 today will be lost forever as we change servers. So e-mail your COW votes and YouTube Sunday submissions. Here we go:
It could have been the most nerve-wracking moment of Thomas Tapeh’s life. The St. Paul Johnson running back was in the middle of reading a prepared statement in which he would tell a media gathering, after months of guessing, what school was going to land the state’s top recruit.
But just when it seemed he was ready to say what everybody came to hear, he paused, and veered onto another subject. Tapeh later returned to the straight and narrow, verbally committing to Minnesota amid cheers from family and friends. It was that little deviation, however, that defines him. Nothing is above him, and nothing will rush him. Patience is a virtue, and it’s also his trademark.
It’s what gives him the security to trust his on-field instincts, which led him to rush for 1,845 yards and 27 touchdowns in just eight games as a senior. And it’s the foremost reason he was able to survive the recruiting process — the pitchman coaches, the expert advice from strangers and the constant phone calls — that have led others to rush decisions just to put the process behind them.
“My mom always told me that whatever I do, don’t rush things, don’t rush life,” Tapeh said. “If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. So I just sit back and let it happen.”
Where that philosophy has taken him is quite remarkable. He has already won numerous awards as a senior — the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year, the Associated Press Minnesota Player of the Year, a top 50 national recruit according to several recruiting experts — and he heads the Star Tribune’s Super Preps, the newspaper’s first compilation of the state’s most highly sought major-college football recruits. There will be fewer Minnesota seniors than usual signing letters of intent with Division I-A schools on Wednesday, but if quantity is lacking, quality is not.
Minnesota’s Glen Mason and his college coaching counterparts are prohibited by NCAA rules from discussing recruits until they have signed scholarship tenders. But be certain of this: Mason is ecstatic at the prospect of Tapeh signing. The Johnson star is the only running back the Gophers coaches have recruited. Tapeh has risen to national football prominence from humble beginnings. He came to Minnesota 10 years ago from Liberia, where he still remembers playing soccer in the streets until his shoes wore out, then playing barefoot. Soccer was his first love, a sport he continued to play until a knee injury in eighth grade temporarily forced him to the sidelines.
Three years ago, Johnson athletic director Karl Dickman had Tapeh in a physical education class. He recalls seeing the biggest, fastest kid he had never heard of, and wanting him to play football. Both remember Tapeh wasn’t interested at first, his response to football being that he was “a soccer player.”
But Tapeh wasn’t playing any sports that year, and Dickman couldn’t bear to think of his talent going to waste. The clincher was a standing long jump drill during the phys-ed class. Dickman said he had a board marked off at 7 1/2 feet, and those were the `A’ grades. Tapeh jumped over the board, which was about 9 feet long.
“I said, `I wasn’t paying attention, you must have taken a step and a jump,’ ” Dickman said. “He said, `No, just a jump.’ So I made sure I watched his feet next time. He just exploded.”
Not long after, Tapeh’s football career did the same. His sophomore season was an adjustment period, but it would quickly give way to better things. His junior- and senior-year statistics are virtually identical and add up to more than 3,700 yards rushing and 51 touchdowns.
Those numbers led to others: 10, sometimes 15 recruiting letters a day, all from schools wanting a piece of Tapeh’s time. Then came the official campus visits, home visits from coaches and constant phone calls. He could hardly go anywhere without hearing the inevitable question. Even at a school dance, the person working the door joked that Tapeh wouldn’t be let in unless he said he was going to pick Minnesota.
“It’s nice, but sometimes it’s a little overwhelming,” Tapeh said of the process. “The thing is, people all think it’s something great, but they don’t see what comes with it. If you make the wrong decision, that’s it.”
Make no mistake — he had his fun along the way. He took the compliments in stride and even had his own game with recruiters, in which he’d try to steer them away from talking about football. Still, there were times when he needed a normal life.
It’s a testament to his patience that he withstood everything, and it’s a testament to his family that he was able to find an escape. Whenever he needed to relax, he’d just hang out with his sister Amy, 3, and his brother, Archie, 5. They, along with his mom, Cecily Woiwor, and his two teenaged sisters, reminded him that family is what’s truly important.
Of course, that’s a lesson Tapeh learned at a much earlier age on the flight from Liberia to the United States. His father, Anthony, told him that no matter what happened, Tapeh needed to take care of the family. After the plane landed in New York, Anthony switched flights while the rest of the family continued to Minnesota. Tapeh has not talked to or seen his father since, but he has carried the message tighter than a football in the fourth quarter. Perhaps that’s why he knew a college choice would come to him naturally.
“I said, `I need you. I need you to stay here with me,’ ” Cecily said. “He said, `OK, mom, I’ve made my decision.’ ”
It was the only logical choice.
“It’s just her and five kids. She works all the time,” Tapeh said. “I want to take some of that pressure off of her. She’s my motivation. I know she’s tired, but she still does it.”
Sort of like how would-be tacklers feel after a day chasing Tapeh. Phil Archer, a linebacker from rival Cretin-Derham Hall who also has committed to Minnesota, knows the feeling. Although the two live a block away from each other and hang out frequently, Tapeh is neither friendly nor neighborly during games. “We’ve always played against each other, so it’ll be nice to change that up,” Archer said.
But that’s about all that will change for Tapeh. School will still be a priority (he has a 3.75 GPA in his core classes). His family will still be close by for support.
And the best things in life will continue to come one handoff at a time.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, I don’t know why I’m here and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” Tapeh said. “I just have to enjoy life while I can.”