By GWEN MURANAKA
Rafu English Editor
“Essentially, if you look at it, all I do is play catch,” said Thomas Duarte, cracking a sheepish smile. “Play catch with the quarterback and it’s a free UCLA education, that’s how I look at it.”
At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Duarte’s reach and athleticism helped him become a standout wide receiver at Mater Dei High School, propelling the team to 11-3 record last season with 15 touchdown receptions. Equally skilled on defense, he notched 42 tackles, 10 sacks and three interceptions.
The Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register named Duarte their Player of the Year in Southern California and ESPN.com rated him the No. 9 tight end in the nation. As the Monarchs’ co-captain, he was named to the Trinity League’s First Team on was named its Most Valuable Player, His numerous honors also included being named to the State Div. I first team and receiving the Glenn Davis Player of the Year award.
Schools including USC, Oregon and Notre Dame came calling before he finally joined Coach Jim Mora and the Bruins of Westwood. At UCLA, he will be playing tight end, seeking to follow in the footsteps of Joseph Fauria, who was signed this offseason by the Detroit Lions. In Mora’s second year at the helm, UCLA will be looking to improve on last season’s 9-5 record (6-3 in Pac-12 play).
“They’re literally big shoes to fill,” Duarte said. “Being around the coaching staff, it gives me the confidence I can do it, that they trust in me and why they recruited me. I’m excited to have this opportunity to go and play in front of 90,000 people at a game, and to really represent the great university that it is.”
It’s heady stuff for the 18-year-old son of a Sansei mother and Latino father who was first introduced to team sports watching his big sister Jessica shoot hoops for the Tigers in the Asian basketball leagues. He speaks with the quiet confidence and poise of a kid who wants to make the most of a rare opportunity.
“It’s gotten to me a few times that there’s not many Asians in sports like myself. But it’s kind of a funny little joke that we have with each other when we see another Asian playing sports. We’re always pulling for them, we’re always rooting for them because there are so few of us,” said Duarte.
At Mater Dei, Duarte’s number was called in game after game, and he delivered with dramatic receptions, often fighting off one or two defenders in tight coverage.
“Everybody on the sidelines and in the stands, having faith that I’ll catch the ball. It put a lot of confidence in me to know that these people trust me enough that when the game is on the line, they’re willing to put the ball in my hands. It helped me to become the person I am today,” he said.
Like Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, Duarte has excelled in a sport not known for broad success for Asian players. Haruki Nakamura of the Carolina Panthers and Dat Nguyen, former Dallas Cowboys linebacker, are among the few Asian athletes to play in the NFL. Scott Fujita, whose adoptive parents are Japanese American, retired last year from the Cleveland Browns, and Hines Ward, of African American and Korean descent, took MVP honors in Super Bowl XL as a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. UCLA fans will also remember John Lee, the two-time All-American placekicker who played in three Rose Bowls in the 1980s.
Duarte said people he meets on and off the field are often shocked that he is Asian American.
“It’s a great experience to be out there competing with these high-level athletes and take off my helmet and people are amazed at what ethnicity I am. It’s taught me a lot to be confident in who you are, don’t try to fit in with the others, because when it comes down to it, everybody is different in their own way,” he explained.
Duarte grew up in Fullerton, the middle child in an athletic family. Tim, his father, played football and baseball, while his mom Debbie, a UCLA alumna herself, played tennis, basketball and softball. All three kids have played sports at Mater Dei High, a private Catholic school in Santa Ana. Jessica helped lead the girls basketball team to a No. 1 ranking nationwide in 2011. She went on to play basketball at Cal State Northridge and Concordia. Youngest son Sammy is now following big brother on the football team.
Duarte played baseball and basketball, but he said football was a constant despite quickly outgrowing the Pop Warner Leagues.
“I remember every Thanksgiving, playing in the ‘Turkey Bowl’ with my uncles and my cousins. Something about football, it was always present in my life,” Duarte said. “Then when I got to Mater Dei, that was the first time I played tackle football since I was about 12. It was something that I knew right away that this is what I want to do.”
For his parents, the passion for sports is simply a part of life.
“In our family, you have to play,” Tim said. “They got it from both sides of the family. That and the good home upbringing allows them to be who they’re supposed to be.”
Debbie said she didn’t push her son toward her alma mater, but is glad she will be able to attend his games.
“I’m happy for him. I didn’t want to influence him either way. Once he stepped on campus, he really loved the atmosphere,” she said. “The Japanese culture as far as our personality is not real aggressive, but he evolved and became an aggressive athlete.”
Steve Yano, basketball coach at Troy High School, first met the Duartes when he coached Jessica in the Tigers Youth Club. Thomas played with Tigers Extreme, a 5th grade boys team. The coach remembered taking the kids on fishing trips to Mammoth, where Thomas enjoyed eating Cup O’ Noodles.
“I saw him about two or three years ago at Mater Dei and I couldn’t believe how much he shot up,” Yano recalled. “He’d ask, ‘When are we going fishing?’
“Thomas is very athletic, very coachable. As long as he keeps his nose to the grindstone, he’s going to do really, really well,” he said.
At Mater Dei, Duarte played basketball in his freshman year, before deciding to focus on football under head coach Bruce Rollinson, who also coached USC quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley. The success the team has had over the years is apparent in the trophies that line the school hallways.
“There’s just something about football – the camaraderie of the game, the life lessons it teaches you, just something about that really caught my attention and I really fell in love with the game,” Duarte said.
“I definitely look up to Coach Rollinson – how he can get 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds fired up to play a football game week in, week out. In weightlifting and practices, he always motivated you to do your best.”
Rollinson said Duarte was one of the better players to have played for the school’s storied program.
“It’s the total package: his character, his leadership, his athleticism. It’s a rare breed of kid that is not selfish, that is not a ‘me guy.’ That’s what Thomas stood for in this program. UCLA has got themselves a very, very polished, physically mature kid that is ready for the next level,” Rollinson said. “I know that in the very near future, Thomas Duarte will have a major impact on Bruin football. There is no doubt in my mind when I make that statement.”
Duarte graduated earlier this month, and on June 24 began his life at UCLA with summer school and workouts with the team. He has been on campus meeting with coaches and getting used to the new rigors and distractions of life as a college football player living minutes from the beach.
“Those are just hurdles you have to get through. I’m going to be on my own and there for two things: play football and getting a college degree. Having fun will be a bonus,” he said.
As a freshman, Duarte will be starting at the bottom, but is hoping to eventually win a starting position. UCLA starts its season at the Rose Bowl on Aug. 31 against the University of Nevada.
“The expectation next year is to get on the field a lot and contribute right away. I have the opportunity to go in and win the starting spot at my position. But it’s not going to be easy. There is this whole new offense I’ll have to learn and get down. And the speed of the game at the next level, I’ll have to adjust to, but I believe I can do it. Hopefully, next year you’ll see me on the field,” Duarte said. “They said it’s a fast-paced, no-huddle offense, but don’t let that discourage you. Because the offense is real simple, they just run it real fast so defenses can’t catch up. I’ve started to get down the routes and play concepts.”
And after UCLA? Duarte will major in business management. He said he’d like to study how the economy works in order to help his parents in their landscaping business. He’s also thought about getting to play football at the highest level: the NFL.
“I’ve thought about getting a shot at the NFL, with Coach Mora there and all the NFL experience they have on the coaching staff. So many of the seniors, 75 percent, are in the NFL right now,” he said.
“It just opens your eyes to how close your goal can be.”