Chances are you’ll be looking up when you first meet Freddie Tagaloa.
Standing at 6-foot-8 and weighing in at 325 pounds, Cal’s left tackle and team captain is hard to miss. Just ask offensive line coach Zach Yenser. Yenser first met the teenager back in January, and he still remembers their first handshake.
“I heard about how big he was when I got the job,” Yenser says. “Everyone was like, ‘Have you met Freddie yet? Have you met Freddie yet?’ And I’m walking around the weight room and I’m like, ‘Well, I’m guessing that’s Freddie.’ I go and shake his hand. His frickin’ hand is a big paw.”
And as far as football goes, Tagaloa is an opponent’s worst nightmare.
“If the person in front of him gets in his way, he’s going to get moved out of his way,” says Ikaika Woolsey, Tagaloa’s best friend and former teammate from Salesian High School. “You’d see the guys line up next to him, and you could kind of see that deer-in-the-headlights look at Freddie, realizing that ‘damn, I’m going to have to play against this guy for four quarters straight.’ ”
But once the pads come off, he transforms.
Away from the football field, Tagaloa is protective. He’s “gentle.”
When Woolsey graduated from Salesian and left to play quarterback at the University of Hawaii, Tagaloa was entering his senior year. Woolsey’s younger sister was also a student at Salesian, so before Woolsey jetted across the Pacific, Tagaloa approached Woolsey and made sure his friend understood that he was going to look out for his sister.
“When everyone sees Freddie, they think of this big, mean, intimidating guy, but deep down inside, he’s a good guy,” Woolsey said. “People used to call him ‘Freddie Bear.’ As big as he is, he can be really gentle.”
As a product of his menacing figure, protecting the people he cares about has always come easily for Tagaloa. But getting to be the strongest man in the crowd comes with a catch.
The center of attention is something that has been impossible for Tagaloa to escape since his growth spurt. For as long as he can remember, he’s stuck out everywhere he goes.
He’s always been a giant among hobbits.
“Honestly, everywhere he kind of is a spotlight,” Woolsey says. “But he’s never one to attract unwanted attention to himself. He’s just Freddie.”
His distaste for always being the focal point is why you won’t ever hear him bringing up any of his accomplishments on or off of the field. Being the fifth child of a longtime San Quentin worker and a stay-at-home mother has taught Tagaloa to be a quiet grinder. Watching four of his uncles fail to capitalize on their potential in college football keeps him humble, no matter his success.
“I’ve never been the type to do something and like the praise for it,” Tagaloa says. “I’ve always been that way growing up.”
But there’s one place that Tagaloa can be almost invisible: the trenches.
Paradoxically, when Tagaloa takes the field in front of 65,000 fans and a couple million ESPN viewers, he’ll be where he’s the most comfortable.
“I’ve never really been in a situation where I’m lost in football,” Tagaloa says. “I haven’t really been there before.”
The football field offers Tagaloa an escape from the limelight. Out here, he isn’t the focal point — he’s just another player. Despite his knack for controlling the line of scrimmage, you won’t ever find Tagaloa or any other offensive lineman gracing Sportscenter’s top-10 plays.
If he succeeds at the task at hand, chances are the average fan won’t mention his name when looking back on what transpired on the field.
“We go unnoticed,” Tagaloa says, regarding the offensive line.
It’s why you’ll never hear him giving an opponent an earful on the field or participating in any Ray Lewis-esque pregame speeches. Tagaloa never is trying to attract any extra attention to himself. For years now, Tagaloa has fully embraced this mentality.
“Lead by example, do your job and shut up,” Yenser says. “That’s the O-line mentality.”
And as far as Tagaloa is concerned, the lack of recognition is exactly why he loves playing at arguably one of the most unheralded position groups in all of sports.
“If Jerry Rice goes into Costco, everybody is like, ‘Oh my god! That’s Jerry Rice!’ ” Tagaloa says. “But if Orlando Pace walks in, one of the great left tackles, he’s like a normal person without anyone knowing he’s rich. I kinda like that.”
On Saturday night — despite the bright lights, the flashing cameras and the millions of judging eyes — Tagaloa will be right where he’s supposed to be. He’ll be out of the spotlight. The gentle Tagaloa will terrorize Northwestern’s defensive line. He’ll try to knock them sideways to the sun.
But he also will be guiding the way for running back Brendan Bigelow. He will be guarding the blind side of his quarterback, true freshman Jared Goff. He will play the role of the silent protector.
If he succeeds, no one will notice.
Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected].