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Healthy attitude — Kaufusi happy despite career-ending injury

SHARE Healthy attitude — Kaufusi happy despite career-ending injury

Jason Kaufusi is thankful he can still hug his wife and lift his children.

Though an unstable shoulder kept the former East High and University of Utah football star from playing in the National Football League, the 26-year-old is finding life outside of the game rewarding.

"Everybody has a different definition of wealth, a different definition of success," Kaufusi said. "To me, success is trying to help somebody out. That's success to me. Wealth? Having my wife and two kids being healthy. That's wealth to me."

While many of his former teammates — including childhood friend Sione Pouha — have gone on to receive monetary riches associated with the NFL, Kaufusi makes ends meet in a variety of ways.

His greatest passion is a business he owns and operates that places kids from juvenile detention centers into foster care. On the side, Kaufusi helps coach football at Cottonwood High and works at the airport as a ramp attendant. He and wife, Tenille, also manage an apartment building near the U. campus.

The latter is where Jason, Tenille, 3-year-old Taliana and 2-year-old Ammon reside.

"It's almost a sanctuary that I can find peace and comfort when I come back home and play with my kids," Kaufusi said. "It doesn't matter if I have a good or bad day. It's a totally different story or ball game. It's like that everyday.

"I'm grateful for my wife because she puts up with me. She does a wonderful job staying home with the kids," he added. "When I come home and I'm playing with my kids, I'll just say 'Wow, what more could I ask for in life?' "

It wasn't always that way, however.

When it became apparent that Kaufusi's football career would come to a premature end because his unstable shoulder failed to respond to surgery and exhaustive rehabilitation, there were some dark days.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks just fell on top of me," said Kaufusi, who admitted he was "big-time depressed."

His final game was Utah's win over BYU in 2002. It capped a second consecutive first-team all-Mountain West Conference campaign for the junior defensive end.

"Jason was an extremely talented player, one of the more talented kids I've ever coached — very smart on and off the field. Unfortunately he had injuries," Utah assistant coach Gary Andersen said. "It got to the point in his career where he decided it was best for him to be able to do what he's doing right now — just take care of business and get his family raised."

Kaufusi had hoped to play for new coach Urban Meyer in 2003, but his shoulder never cooperated. Doctors told Kaufusi he was at great risk for additional injury — severe enough to prevent him from ever hugging his wife or lifting his kids again.

"Jason Kaufusi is why you coach football. He's just a hard-working, focused, dedicated athlete who cares tremendously about what he does. It was a pleasure having him on our team," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We wish we could have gotten that last year out of him, but an unfortunate thing with his shoulder prevented that. There's no question in my mind he would have a great career beyond college had he not had the shoulder problem."

The NFL, in fact, continued to list Kaufusi as a draft prospect as late as this year. A compliment, he noted, and something he may share with his kids sometime down the road.

As for now, it's also a reminder of what could have been.

"When all of a sudden all your hopes and dreams get taken away from you, you hit a wall and you're like 'What am I going to do now?' " said Kaufusi, who hoped an NFL career would help him provide for his wife and kids financially. "The money would have been good, but at the same time you sit back and realize that instead of asking why, you ask what can I learn from the situation."

Taking accountability and responsibility, Kaufusi noted, helped him move forward. After extensive rehab yielded little progress, Kaufusi decided to give up his comeback quest late in the 2003 season.

"It was pretty depressing. It was hard, but you just kind of trudge through it," Tenille Kaufusi said. "I'm happy that his shoulder is feeling better. He's not in as much pain anymore. He can play with his kids as much as he wants."

Football became painful for Kaufusi. He used to receive anti-inflammatory shots before each game and at halftime. Before heading home, he'd receive medicine to sleep at night. Sometimes, when the pain was great, Kaufusi would sit in a cold bath to ease the pain. The next morning he'd be back in the training room.

Countless hours, he said, would be spent in the doctor's office or rehab center.

"A lot of people don't realize what happens behind the scenes," said Kaufusi, who admitted his competitive drive kept him going. Guilt trips by coaches, who insisted he was letting the team down by not returning to the field, eventually fell upon deaf ears. Kaufusi came to realize there was more to life than football.

While sitting in a hospital bed after a fourth or fifth procedure on his shoulder, Kaufusi began to question whether it was really worth enduring the hardships and being away from home.

"Do you really want to risk your shoulder and not carry your son later on down the road, not play basketball with your kids, not even hug your wife with two arms or give anyone high-fives?" Kaufusi said. "That's what really came to my mind when I was sitting in my hospital bed."

After much reflection, Kaufusi made the tough decision. About the time Utah defeated Southern Miss in the Liberty Bowl, he knew his playing days were over.

"Your heart and mind is telling you one thing, but your body is telling you another thing," Kaufusi said. "It's a fine line when you've got to tell yourself, put your foot down and say 'look I can't do it.' "

Though it would have been easy to blame others, Kaufusi says he has no bitterness towards the U. or anyone else. Pointing fingers, he said, is a waste of time.

Kaufusi was throw into action just a couple of months after returning from an LDS Church mission.

"My whole upper body just wasn't ready," he said. "The smart thing would have been to come back, redshirt and get healthy."

The first of Kaufusi's numerous shoulder problems occurred in the Colorado State game that season. Despite the injury, he went on to become the co-Freshman of the Year in the MWC.

"I think he had the potential to definitely be an NFL player if he could have stayed healthy," Andersen said. "Unfortunately it didn't happen for him. But he's all-around a well-balanced kid and he'll be very successful whatever he decides to do. There's no question about that."

Kaufusi said there are many things he wants to do. His top priority, though, is his work with troubled youths — placing corrections kids in foster homes, tracking them and providing therapy.

"That's just the way my life is moving now," he said. "I'm just trying to help kids out."

Kaufusi's message is to not take life for granted and that actions have consequences. Treat each day as if it were your last, he continued, and appreciation will follow. That, in turn, produces respect.

At the end of the day and hopefully whenever this world comes to an end, I can stand before my creator and tell him I made a difference in somebody else's life," Kaufusi said as tears welled in his eyes. "It's touchy for me. I love these kids as if they were my own, and that's the way I take them."

Being a positive influence has also led to Kaufusi's involvement with high school football, where he shares his success with the players. At Cottonwood, head coach Tom Jones regularly preaches about trust, love and commitment.

"These three guiding principles or whatever you want to call them are what motivates me every day," Kaufusi said. "All these kids, I think, don't understand that."

A commitment to excellence, he continued, means being the best person at whatever you do — whether you're a plumber or a Wal-Mart greeter. As a ramper at the airport, for example, Kaufusi puts his words into action. He's determined to be the best.

"Whether you tell me I can or I can't, I don't care. My mind is focused on being the first person out there," he said.

Kaufusi's zest for life has helped him put playing football in the past.

"I think all these life experiences direct you in a way that's pleasing to the guy upstairs," he said. "Hopefully I'm on the right track of doing some positive things."

Looking back is simply not an option.

"I'm just having fun. In life, everything happens for a reason. I think there's a reason I didn't redshirt that first season. I think there's a reason why I probably got hurt and why I wasn't supposed to play in the NFL," Kaufusi said. "It's probably why I'm dealing with the youth of today. Whether that's my purpose in life, to help these guys here, so be it. As long as they know they'll have 100 percent of me. Whatever I do, I'm going to give you the best I can."

Though Jason admits NFL money would ease some burdens, it doesn't necessary buy satisfaction. He already has that at home.

"We are definitely happy. We have two healthy children. We just couldn't be more blessed," Tenille said. "We've got our family. We've got our health and I think that's all you really need in life. Money is a perk, but we love our kids and we love each other."

Who could ask for anything more?

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com