When Ngalu Tapa verbally committed to WSU a month ago, it seemed odd that a 6-foot-3, 275-pound wrecking ball of a defensive tackle -- who racked up 23.5 sacks as a junior in a pretty good football league -- would be unrated by the major recruiting services and only hold offers from WSU, Arizona and Hawaii.
It turns out that Tapa spent the time between the end of his junior football season and beginning of his senior season in a juvenile correctional facility after being convicted as an accessory to a liquor store robbery committed by a cousin. Tapa (unwittingly, according to him) drove the getaway car, and when he was arrested a few days later, he confessed his role and was sentenced.
If it surprises you that Mike Leach would extend an offer to a kid with a criminal record, Joe Davidson's story in the Sacramento Bee is worth your time to read. Tapa had never been in trouble before that, and reportedly has done everything possible to get his life back on track:
Tapa is known for more than just being a football player, though opposing coaches this season have called him as dominant a player as they've ever faced. Tapa plows through offensive lines whether double- or triple-teamed for Burbank, which plays at Elk Grove on Friday night in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs. But it was Tapa's standing as a student-athlete and campus leader that helped his legal cause, said Burbank principal Ted Appel. Tapa is an honors student in Burbank's International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous curriculum of advanced courses. Classmates are inspired by his mathematics ability and willingness to help others, said Appel.
Tapa dreams of studying engineering at Washington State, where he has verbally committed to signing a letter of intent on scholarship. He mentions it more than chasing down quarterbacks. A number of Pacific-12 Conference schools were hot for Tapa a year ago, but many cooled off upon learning of his arrest and conviction. The Cougars offered, nonetheless, and he accepted. Scores of Tapa supporters provided letters and phone calls of character reference to WSU administrators and coaches, including Appel, Burbank coach John Heffernan and probation officer Smith. (WSU officials cannot speak publicly on Tapa until he signs a formal national letter of intent in February.)
"You could name 1,000 kids who could get in trouble, and I'd never think Ngalu (pronounced NAH-Loo) would be among them," Appel said. "There are challenges around here, and he made a mistake. Hopefully, he'll be better for it, and I think he will be. He already has been."
It's a pretty remarkable story, and it sure sounds like Tapa is a kid worth taking a chance on.