Freddie Tagaloa is the only Viking who can say he’s 6-8, 316 pounds, once bench-pressed a University of Arizona school-record 475 pounds and just got out of San Quentin.
Yeah, that San Quentin.
“My first day on the yard, some guys got into a fight,” Tagaloa said. “And I believe someone got stabbed.”
No, Tagaloa isn’t a criminal. He’s a criminal justice major whose 3.0 grade-point average includes a five-month internship at the famous California state prison, where his father, Sakaria, worked as a guard for 25 years and eight months before retiring last year.
Tagaloa’s dream job is forensic accounting. Uncooking cooked books, if you will. The big left guard even was accepted into Arizona’s master’s program for accounting and had a paid internship lined up in Tucson when he gave pro football a Hail Mary at the Vikings’ rookie minicamp tryout last month.
“I made it,” he says through a smile that doesn’t retreat. “I’m pretty much as surprised as you are.”
Tagaloa began his college career in 2012 at Cal, where he played 23 games with seven starts at tackle through two seasons and a 4-20 record that drove him to Arizona. Cal center Brian Schwenke, a 2013 fourth-round draft pick and current Colts lineman, was the first to notice NFL-caliber strength in Tagaloa.
“Brian kind of told me that if I really focused, the NFL could pave the way for the future of my family’s family’s family,” said Tagaloa, who will get the NFL rookie minimum of $465,000 if he makes the final 53-man roster. “That caught my attention.”
Knee injuries limited Tagaloa to 17 games over two seasons at Arizona. He started four games at left tackle and four at left guard in 2015, and nine games at left guard last season.
“I’m not surprised that I didn’t get drafted,” he says.
But the big fella still turns heads whether he’s on the football field at Winter Park or helping out in the yard at San Quentin. He also possesses unusual strength even by NFL standards. At his pro day, Tagaloa bench-pressed 225 pounds 41 times. Had he been invited to the scouting combine, Tagaloa would have won the bench press by six reps.
“Freddie played basketball from fifth grade until high school,” Sakaria said. “He was a humble kid. Respectful. Obedient. He didn’t take advantage of his size because he didn’t want to hurt anybody. In ninth grade, he came home and said he was going to play football.”
Sakaria played linebacker and defensive line, but not until he got to City College in San Francisco. He was a biology and pre-med major who ended up as a 30-year correctional officer after seeing a flier “for a job making pretty good money.” He ended up at San Quentin working “The Upper Yard,” which houses Level 4 offenders.
“And the highest level is five, so there are some stone-cold killers,” Tagaloa said. “My dad’s 5-10, but he’s wide. He weighs about 330 and he can handle himself. I heard stories while I was there. But what impressed me most was how much the inmates and guards all respected him. When guys found out who my dad was, that took care of me.”
Sakaria and his wife, Olive, have five children. Four girls and Freddie, the, um, baby. It was a devoutly Christian home that put academics ahead of athletics. A “happy family,” as Sakaria puts it, that included maternal grandparents who came from Samoa to start a Methodist church in San Francisco.
“I’m proud of all my children,” Sakaria said. “I’m really proud of Freddie for not giving up on his football career because at one point, he was going to quit.”
That came in March of 2014. Freddie was unhappy at Cal and came home to say goodbye to his grandmother, Leitualasa Toailoa, whose kidneys were failing.
“Freddie burst into tears,” Sakaria said. “But he was encouraged by his grandma. She told him to go finish what he started.”
No one knows where the finish line will be for Tagaloa. Right now, he’s getting paid the standard $700 weekly stipend to participate in OTAs. Lodging, meals and transportation to and from Winter Park are paid for while he focuses on football only.
But the rookie linemen did have to ante up to buy a new coffeemaker for the meeting room. And some dip for veteran Alex Boone.
“It is strange being a rookie, but I think I can handle buying a coffeemaker and some dip,” Tagaloa said. “I’m pretty sure if I spent $700 in one week my mom would jump all over me. So I can’t complain. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider.