For many people in different lines of work, the year 2020 was all about adjusting. J.R. Tavai is no exception. With the COVID-19 Pandemic halting a lot of the day to day activities around his Redondo Beach, California home, the Lions’ newly re-signed defensive lineman was looking for a gym to workout in. His older brother Jordan helped him set up a makeshift spot in his home garage. Not too long after that, Tavai decided to pay homage to his Western Samoan roots.
“I ended up getting a lot of exercise playing rugby down at the beach in Santa Monica,” he said.
“It got a little discouraging looking for gyms that were staying open. With the weather down here, it’s great to be able to be outside year-round.”
The good news? Tavai won’t have to worry about weather impacting home games with his new squad. A quick refresher. Tavai represented one of the squad’s most intriguing editions in last February’s free agent derby. Coming off two solid seasons with the Ottawa REDBLACKS, including a team-leading 49 defensive tackles and seven sacks in 2019, the former USC Trojan was and still is expected to provide a spark for a defensive line that will look very different from the one that last hit the field.
“I’m thrilled for the chance to still be a Lion and being reunited with Campbell and our defensive line coach Leroy Blugh was a major selling point,” added Tavai.
“Looking at the depth chart and seeing some of the guys being assembled by Rick and Neil McEvoy, it definitely is shaping up to be a group that will contend for a championship.”
You can hear it in his voice. He’s battle-tested. A true competitor. A lot of that can be attributed to the competition he had growing up…
Tavai Brothers Feed Off Each Other
J.R. has five brothers to thank for his football development: Jordan, who played football at the University of Kansas, Jahlani, a linebacker coming off his second season with the Detroit Lions, Justus who currently plays linebacker at the University of Hawaii, Jonah, a defensive lineman at San Diego State and the youngest Jaggar who will graduate from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach in 2023.
It’s safe to say the schoolyard games growing up benefited all six of them in their gridiron aspirations.
“It kind of manifested having our entire family play football,” J.R. said.
“It was quite competitive. We didn’t baby each other and it was a lot of roughhousing. That carries over to football.”
Like many professionals, J.R. also credits his parents for helping him succeed. Their father Will worked three jobs around Inglewood to help support the family. Mother Nua was the one getting her six sons and daughter Serena out of bed at 5:00 every morning to get ready for the long trip to school. The Tavai clan all attended Mira Costa after a young kid was shot close to their home.
“Mira Costa is a good academic school and our parents didn’t want us to be subjected to the crime that took place in Inglewood,” said Tavai.
“Going to a school like that also paved the way for college success.”
That’s what led him to the Trojans.
Making A Mark At USC
With plenty of NCAA Division 1 offers to choose from, the hulking defensive lineman opted to stay close to home and attended USC. But it wasn’t just the proximity to Inglewood that sold him to the program.
“I’ll never forget seeing my mom and dad’s eyes light up when head coach Lane Kiffin walked into our living room,” he recalls.
“His dad Monte (USC’s defensive coordinator at the time), also played a role. That’s a hall of fame coach right there. I decided right away after talking to them that I’d commit.”
Tavai’s position coach with the Trojans was none other than Ed Orgeron, more recently known for leading LSU to the national title last year. With the embarrassment of coaching riches surrounding him, Tavai enjoyed four solid years with the Trojans. His best highlight? Helping the Trojans snap a four-game losing streak in their rivalry with Stanford in 2013. The next year, they beat them again in their house in a 13-10 defensive battle for the ages.
“Winning in their house was incredible. After that, it was smooth sailing,” Tavai says with a laugh.
He parlayed his success at USC into a contract with the Tennessee Titans where he suited up in four games in the 2015 season, recording three tackles, one sack and a forced fumble.
And just like with Stanford a few years back, the Lions have their own demons to exercise with rivals in 2021. Tavai will be a major reason for that on a revamped defence.
“As long as I’m on the field, I’m happy. But I’m looking forward to bringing some more wins and helping us reach the ultimate goal of winning a championship.”
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