Bingham nose guard Jay Tufele motored across the field in pursuit of the play on the hashes, moving unfathomably quick for someone carrying 285 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame. A Lone Peak receiver was in the process of being stalled and corralled by another defender when Tufele imploded him into the ground.
“I didn’t think I hit him that hard, so I got up, and I was like, ‘Wait … why is everyone quiet?’ ” Tufele said. “I turned around, and his eyes were closed, and I was like, ‘Oh, hell no. I hope he’s not dead.’ ”
Tufele, who concernedly checked on his opponent and helped him back to his sideline, was well within the rules on the play, but the gruesome nature of the tackle led to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for unnecessary roughness. It wasn’t the first time the junior had been punished for being bigger, faster and stronger than his opponents during his career.
Nearly a month after Bingham’s quest for its third consecutive championship ended in the Class 5A semifinals that afternoon against Lone Peak, Tufele visits the location of old Bingham High for the first time. Cut from the mountain, remnants of the football grandstands remain visible, but the building itself has long been demolished in Copperton, a ghost town engulfed by the expanding Kennecott mine after Bingham’s current building opened in 1975.
It’s here where the Miners’ illustrious history began back to 1908. For more than a century, players such as Bruce Hardy, who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Kevin Curtis and Star Lotulelei, all three of whom reached the NFL, adorned the signature Bingham blue. The list goes on, but as Tufele peers over the abandoned field overrun with wild deer and weeds, several coaches claim he holds the potential to be the best player in the history of the school.
“I can only speak to the time that I’ve been here, [but] best in his position as a junior? Yeah, probably so,” said Bingham coach John Lambourne, who coached Star and his brother Lowell. “Best ever? He’s on the verge, but that’s speculation on our part. A lot has to do with what he does with the opportunities that have been presented to him.”
The precedent for the All-Tribune MVP has been established to recognize the top player in Utah, regardless of classification, position, or team success. Tufele plays nose guard, a position often overlooked for star power, yet not only was he unequivocally the best player in the state this season, Tufele is already in the discussion as one of the best to ever strap it up with one year of eligibility remaining.
And for that reason — he’s been named the 2015 recipient of The Salt Lake Tribune’s MVP award.
“My parents were dumbfounded,” Tufele said, noting he, too, was shocked the accolade wasn’t automatically awarded to a skill-position player. “They were really happy. My mom started crying. It means a lot. MVP for football? It means so much, and I’m just really grateful.”
Bingham finished the season 11-2, with losses against Bishop Gorman (Nev.), the top-ranked program in the nation, and Lone Peak, which, at the time, was undefeated. The Miners’ defense was the main reason for their success, as they posted eight shutouts while limiting opponents to 132.8 passing yards per game and 59.8 yards on the ground. Tufele was the monster at the heart of it all, requiring added attention every snap, correlating to freed linebackers and a softened secondary dropping into coverage.
“He’s special because he made offenses change where they were going and what they were doing. There’s absolutely no question about that,” Lambourne explains. “… He disrupts things out on the field, and it’s so obvious to people.”
Tufele is a soft-spoken teenager of Polynesian descent — Samoan specifically. His father played football in their homeland. “He was a heckuva athlete,” Tufele says. “I’m not trying to brag, but he shined mostly in the weight room. He was a good athlete.”
Tufele inherited what Lambourne described as “natural strength.” At age 16, Tufele is still in the maturation process, but already squats 575 pounds, benches 350 and sprints 40 yards in 4.9 seconds. “His physical skills are just tremendous,” Lambourne says. “He’s got great balance, he’s extremely strong, he’s got real good quickness and his feel and awareness for that enclosed interior space is exceptional.”
Tufele never fully realized his abilities until his sophomore season, when he earned a starting role on the varsity unit. Acclimating to the speed of the game took a nanosecond. Tufele has registered 120 tackles and 16.5 sacks in two seasons.
“My game, I go in there — I don’t talk to anyone,” Tufele said. “Once we’re on the field, I can’t talk to anyone. I’m in my own zone. Nothing can stop me. I have to get there. Whoever has the ball, I’m going to be there.”
Tufele is a consensus four-star prospect by every major recruiting outlet. It’s only a matter of time until he’s deemed five-star status, with offers from Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, UCLA, USC, Utah, Utah State, Washington and Washington State on his résumé. He says, “USC, Utah and Washington,” are the front-runners currently, and “they haven’t offered me yet, but if they did, I’d be leaning toward them, is Ole Miss.”
The attention and comparisons haven’t affected his mindset, however. Tufele was left devastated following the semifinal loss. The heartbreak serves as an additional tool to avoid complacency. Tufele is motivated to help the Miners return atop the state’s highest classification. He’s pragmatic in his approach, understanding there is plenty of work left to be done in his high school career.