Despite injuries, Tuani has left his mark on Navy

The scene that played out before Navy began football practice Monday afternoon in Annapolis was different than other moments during the past four years when Jabaree Tuani tried to motivate his teammates.

Depending on Tuani's position in the pecking order of team leaders, the 6-1, 265-pound defensive end has spent much of his career encouraging or castigating, his words and body language usually fitting perfectly to the circumstance surrounding the Midshipmen.

This time, as Navy (4-7) prepared for its final game of a frustrating season and Tuani got himself ready for the final game of a remarkable career, the senior co-captain had the simplest of messages: no matter what has transpired the past 3 1/2 months, losing to Army (3-8) Saturday at FedEx Field was not an acceptable conclusion.

As he had done so many times, particularly as he transformed himself from promising plebe to respected upperclassman to unquestioned leader, Tuani thought of his two of his football heroes, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and the late Reggie White, as he spoke to his teammates.

"It's kind of amazing to see what a Ray Lewis does, even after 15 years. Obviously on the field he's the meanest guy out there, first one to get the tackle," Tuani said after the practice had ended. "Reggie White was one of my favorite players growing up, he was a monster on the field. It was hard to stop that man, but he was also a man of God and he was about helping whoever needed him. Those people kind of influenced me to do the same for this team."

Tuani has played in all 51 games for Navy since the beginning of his freshman year, starting 46 of the past 47 and 28 straight despite an assortment of debilitating injuries. He hyperextended his back against Southern Methodist midway through his sophomore year and still has chronic pain. He tore his meniscus and badly sprained his labrum as a junior and was unable to practice for nearly two months.

The injuries haven't stopped Tuani from becoming one of the most productive defensive linemen in school history — he is tied for second in tackles for loss (42) and tied for third in career sacks (16) — or one of the most respected players among his coaches and teammates, who compare him to former quarterback Ricky Dobbs for the way he inspires them on and off the field.

"He's a unique football player. If Jabaree's a couple of inches taller he's not here," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. "Other schools would have recruited him. He's that good. He's been a great leader, he's worked hard in the hall, worked hard academically. I'm very proud of him. He's been the best defensive lineman we've ever had."

Said defensive line coach Dale Pehrson, "He plays big, he plays hard, he's very, very smart. He's got some good genes and he plays with very good technique. I've never had anyone close to playing as big as he does."

Consider this: going into his senior year at Brentwood Academy, near Nashville, Tenn., Tuani had not received a single scholarship from a Football Bowl Subdivision team despite the fact that he was the unquestioned leader of a state championship team that was sending players to many Southeastern Conference schools, including Alabama and Auburn.

"Navy was never in the picture," he said. "I was set on going to Furman [to play at the Football Championship Subdivision school.]"

Barely 6 feet and weighing less than 240 pounds, Tuani was thought to be too small. He was being recruited by Furman and Bucknell. When then Bucknell assistant Ashley Ingram was hired by Paul Johnson at Navy and assigned to recruit several Southern states, including Tennessee, he recommended that the Midshipmen start recruiting Tuani.

"I thought he would eventually become a pretty good player," Ingram said earlier this season. "I didn't think it would be that soon."

It took Tuani a few practices to get noticed by Niumatalolo, then in his first season as Johnson's successor, and defensive coordinator Buddy Green. After playing well his first four games, an injury to an upperclassman gave Tuani his first start against Wake Forest. He made six tackles, including two for losses, and caused a fumble in an upset of the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem.

Tuani, who needs three more tackles for losses to break the school record, has started all but one game since and even that game, against Notre Dame his sophomore year, he got in for nearly every snap.

"I wish I would have started him, that's my one regret," Pehrson said.

Tuani's life as a Midshipmen seems to be just an extension of what it was like at Brentwood Academy, where Tuani became the first African-American to be elected school president and helped get others involved in school activities.

Calling the private school "a place that sets you up to be successful …in helping you start your life off in a correct way", Tuani said that not being recruited by bigger programs turned out to be "a blessing in disguise" for the impact he has had at the academy.

"Coming up here, I wanted to show the guys what I had to offer, not just my physical talent, but the kind of person I portray," Tuani said. "I try to be a role model so that when you leave this place, even though you're leaving physically, you've still left a big impact that will definitely influence this program."

Said Pehrson, "He's left a great legacy on the field, but what he's done for the football program is far-reaching. Guys will talk about him for years and years to come and the example he sets, not just as a football player, but as a person and the work ethic he has. He's a pretty special young man."

Pehrson said that many of the Navy players had not spent much time in the weight room before getting to the academy.

"They learned how to work by watching him," Pehrson said.

As he finishes his career and gets ready for his next step — he has signed up for Surface Warfare Officers School after graduation — Tuani is teaching himself a new skill. Ever since his third-grade teacher's daughter showed up at school one day and played the violin, Tuani has wanted to buy the instrument and learn how to play. He made the purchase a couple of months ago.

"With the way the school is set up, obviously you can't just get a teacher and go to lessons. It's hard. I'm trying to do it the YouTube way," he said with a smile. "It's coming. I'm getting a little better. I'm a long way from where I know I can be or I want to be. Violin is a little bit different, it's a little out of the ordinary."

On Thursday, Tuani will practice for the final time as a Midshipmen.

"It's kind of surreal," he said Monday. "When you're a plebe, you want to think how fast this place can go by. Now when you're actually here, in the moment, you're in awe. It's been a great ride. It's not quite over yet, but I definitely have a lot of great memories of this place."

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