Inside the First Samoan Congregational Church in Oceanside, California, the Rev. Junior Tupuola is addressing his congregation, when he notices a figure in white moving across the back of the sanctuary. To Tupuola, it resembles an angel.
As the figure reaches the end of the aisle, Tupuola can see that it’s clad in jeans, the blue color of which stands out against the brightly colored clothing of the islanders sitting in the pews.
The figure stops and turns toward Tupuola. The white resolves into a Washington State University jersey. Crimson numerals take shape.
No. 19. Rod Retherford’s jersey number.
From the pulpit, Tupuola meets Retherford’s eyes, already swimming with emotion.
The sight sends Tupuola’s mind tumbling back to a time a quarter century ago, when a very different flash of white and splash of crimson forever changed the two men’s lives.
“Hey, man, is this your gun?” asked Junior Tupuola, a freshman linebacker who was recruited to Pullman. Tupuola, who grew up sheltered on Navy bases and in American Samoa, figured the white-gripped pistol he just found in the back of Rod Retherford’s Dodge Colt was a toy cowboy gun.
Retherford had arrived in the Palouse a few months earlier from the middle of the “puckerbrush country” of John Day, Oregon. Already a veteran of the rodeo circuit, he figured that if he could ride a 2,500-pound bull in jeans and cowboy boots, he certainly could hit a 250-pound player in full pads.
At 180 pounds and with a cowboy’s lanky build, Retherford had once been cut from his small high school’s team for being undersized. He still seemed too little to make it as a walk-on at a Division I football school. But he proved too tough to leave off the roster.
So here he was, now on scholarship, picking up a couple of buddies at a dorm for a team meal. Star quarterback Samoa Samoa was in the front seat, and Tupuola was squeezed into the back.
For Retherford, coming from a place and time where “if it moved, we shot it,” it was natural to keep a gun under the seat of his old Dodge Colt. The pistol must have slid out onto the floorboard.
“Yeah, but it’s…” Retherford began before the blast cut him off.
White smoke filled the car. Blood poured from Retherford’s neck in a steady stream, spattering the shocked and screaming Junior. Samoa bolted for help.
The .22-caliber bullet had ripped through Retherford’s shoulder and slammed into his neck, destroying one of four major arteries supplying his brain before lodging near his spinal cord.
Retherford’s body went limp from the neck down and started twitching. He’d already lost his older brother to a rodeo accident. Now, with a calm that surprises him still, he thought, “Well, that was a short life.”
But Retherford summoned his wits instead of quietly bleeding to death.
“Junior,” he blurted, “shut up!”
He instructed Junior to press a shirt against the bullet hole to stanch the flow. Then, as the bleeding stopped, Retherford started worrying about paralysis. He willed his index finger to move. At first, it wouldn’t budge. After five minutes, it wagged slightly.
“Man, you would’ve thought we’d won the Super Bowl,” he later recalled. “I was like, ‘Yeah!'”
As it turned out, the bullet had bruised, but had not permanently injured, Retherford’s spinal cord, and except for his shattered shoulder, he quickly regained the use of his body. However, doctors decided that he might bleed to death if they attempted to remove the bullet, so they left it there.
Retherford asked a doctor if he would live. The doctor paused, then said, “I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell.”
The story of Rod Retherford’s return from near death to play the next two seasons with a bullet lodged in his neck made headlines in the early 1980s, when Coach Jim Walden’s Cougars sprang back to national prominence with the team’s first bowl bid in 51 years.
Retherford (’84 Phys. Ed.) would go on to raise a family and try a few different careers. Now a saddle maker in central Oregon, he continues to talk about his legendary resiliency as a motivational speaker.
Junior Tupuola’s story is not so well known.
Tupuola was driving home late from a club in northern San Diego County, California. It was almost Christmas. He’d spent yet another night drinking, he’d been introduced to methamphetamines, and his life was spinning out of control. His soul, he says, was crying out for help.
Through the darkness, he spotted a white cross standing tilted on a hill. Tupuola stopped the car, crawled through the brush, straightened the cross, and piled rocks around its base to hold it in place.
“I said, ‘God, I need you. I need help,'” he says. “I cried like a baby.”
Just a few years earlier, Tupuola had been so sharp at cutting down quarterbacks as an outside linebacker for WSU, that an alum dubbed him “The Mowin’ Samoan”-a nod to the famous WSU quarterback Jack “The Throwin’ Samoan” Thompson. The name might have stuck, if Tupuola’s life had gone according to plan.
At WSU, Tupuola had become intoxicated, first with freedom, and then with booze. He fought to keep up his grades-but not as hard as he fought in bar brawls. More than once, Coach Walden bailed Tupuola out of holding cells across the Idaho line.
“Next thing you know, it’s Monday morning, and I’m in his office getting my butt chewed out,” Tupuola says.
The partying took a toll on Tupuola’s training, but he had such speed and a nose for the ball that he started as linebacker during his final two years as a Cougar. The NFL scouts came, but they vanished when an injury slowed Tupuola a step during his senior season.
Nevertheless, after his final college season, the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League asked him to try out. He abandoned his degree and hustled to Canada, only to spend too much time in nightclubs to be able to withstand the rigors of pro football. After the Stampeders cut him, he got a second chance with the Montreal Alouettes. He still spent his nights at clubs and washed out again.
Back in the Northwest, Tupuola became a bouncer at Celebrities, a Seattle night club. One night, a Saudi Arabian prince arrived with an entourage in Lamborghinis. A member of the group pressed two 100-dollar bills into Tupuola’s palm to bypass a line stretched down the street. At the end of Tupuola’s shift, the prince summoned him to a back room and asked him to become a bodyguard.
Before long, Tupuola found himself living in the prince’s mansion in Paradise Valley, Arizona, where he spent “Monday through Sunday” clubbing.
When the prince went to Saudi Arabia on family business, Tupuola would set out across the desert to spend time with a large Samoan community around Oceanside, California.
One of his cousins ran a drug ring, peddling dope around the beach and hill towns north of San Diego. Tupuola started running with the gang and got his first introduction to methamphetamines, which he called “dirt.”
Soon, Tupuola became a “regulator” for the family gang. When customers didn’t pay up, he and another cousin would “tax” them by taking a car or another possession. Tupuola carried a 9mm handgun. Sometimes he beat up uncooperative customers.
His lifestyle was taking its toll. The football player who once boasted pro talent was falling into despair.
“I let the worst get the best of me,” Tupuola says. “I was dead spiritually. My soul was dead, but I was brought back to life.”
His recovery dates from the night he cried out for help on that brushy hillside in southern California.
As if summoned, a few cousins found him and sent him to American Samoa, where his parents welcomed him home.
Eventually, Tupuola entered Kanana Fou Theological Seminary in American Samoa and later returned to California, where he is working on an advanced degree at Claremont School of Theology. Now an ordained minister, married, and the father of two sons, he hopes to return
to American Samoa to teach at the seminary and help the youth of the island territory avoid many of the same temptations that nearly ruined him.
“That’s what I need to do,” he says, “is save the youth and go around and be a witness to them.
Rather than blaming him, Rod Retherford has always credited Tupuola with saving his life.
“Accidents are accidents,” Retherford says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Junior.”
Even so, the two went in opposite directions after their playing days and never spoke about the shooting.
“Junior and I never really got to talk about everything. You’re macho football players. You don’t tell someone you love ’em and they’re like a brother to you,” he says. “I never said ‘thank you’ to him.”
Now, 25 years later in the back of that church in Oceanside, the two men hug each other like long-lost brothers.
“I don’t think people really understand the bond that is formed between players on a football team,” Retherford says. “You go through so much together.”