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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

Liufau overcame culture shock, injury to become key piece

Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau (8) celebrates after returning a fumble for a touchdown on a play that was later reversed during the game between Notre Dame and Boston College at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Credit: Max Petrosky/The Observer

The destination Marist Liufau has arrived at is quite a stellar one. The fifth-year linebacker is part of a three-headed graduate student monster in the middle of Notre Dame's defense. Liufau has started every game for the Irish this season, just as he did a year ago. He was third on Notre Dame a year ago in tackles and is near the top of that list once again in 2023. He trails only senior defensive end Jordan Botelho in sacks. Liufau has developed the resume and skills necessary to give himself a chance at reaching the NFL.

It's all even more impressive when zooming out and looking at Liufau's Notre Dame journey. The Kalihi, Hawaii, native didn’t think his next step from Punahou High School would be South Bend. But Liufau was coached in high school by Robby Toma, a wide receiver for the 2012 Notre Dame team that reached the BCS National Championship. He helped Liufau realize what Notre Dame was all about.

"What they've heard about Notre Dame is basically I came here just because it was a great school and they had great football. I was going to be able to develop myself mentally, physically on and off the field," Liufau said. "So it was just the best opportunity to take."

That didn't mean it was easy. Like most Irish freshmen, Liufau didn't see much game action his first year on campus. But the bigger transition for Liufau happened on days that weren't Saturdays in the fall.

"I definitely was thrown off a lot. It was a big culture shock for me," Liufau said. "Everything was different. So transitioning here my freshman year was pretty hard. I missed the food back home and mainly missed my family, obviously. Then winter came over with us wanting to go home every day. But never stuck it out. I know it's gonna benefit me in the long run."

The benefits came fast. Liufau started to make a name for himself in the 2020 campaign, making his first three collegiate starts and notching 22 tackles. Twelve of them came in the ACC Championship and College Football Playoff, showing Liufau could make plays on the biggest stages. It all set Liufau up for a breakout 2021 season when he could take his place as a week-in, week-out impact player.

But Liufau's journey had other plans. Just before the start of the 2021 campaign, Liufau suffered a brutal injury making a tackle in an otherwise ordinary August practice. A broken ankle ended his season before it even began.

It wound up being 610 days between that 2020 playoff performance and the next time Liufau stepped on the field. The Irish had changed head coaches, defensive coordinators and linebackers coaches. It was fair to wonder how Liufau would perform in his return after the arduous recovery and with all of the coaching turnover. But against No. 3 Ohio State, Liufau was right back near the top of the tackles category, racking up 5 in a strong defensive effort as a whole.

That strong performance was a harbinger of things to come. With the injury now behind him, Liufau quickly showed the promise that made him a fan favorite leading up to his ankle injury. Over the last two seasons, only fellow graduate student linebackers JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser have racked up more tackles. From pass breakups to sacks, Liufau has filled just about every section of the stat sheet as an upperclassman. He's even picked off a pass and recovered two fumbles.

Liufau's Notre Dame experience goes beyond the numbers, though. Over the years, the culture shock faded, allowing him to see and experience the special culture that led him to South Bend in the first place and will be with him long after he leaves.

"[I'm] definitely gonna remember my teammates. I'm gonna remember all the games. Memories from the games are definitely going to stick out to me," Liufau said. "Just Notre Dame’s culture, both as a football as well, like, as a football team, our coaches, football team. It's just culture overall. Just being a student here. I think it's gonna stick out, stick with me for the rest of my life."

Liufau is hopeful the next place it will be with him is in the NFL. But he also wants to stay in the moment. And Saturday will be a special one for him as he remembers everyone he's shared these few dozen special Saturdays at Notre Dame Stadium with. Even better, he'll finally get to share one with the people he wants to the most.

"[It's the] first time my whole family is going to be, at least my immediate family, they're all going to be here in South Bend," Liufau said. "Like I said, my older sister [Melean] and brothers [Marcus and Mark] never got to watch me play in person yet, so I'm excited about that.”

Liufau went through some difficult times early in his Irish career. But they're firmly behind him. Saturday will allow him and his family to celebrate that, and all that is to come.

"Family is everything to me. So having them able to have a handle here at my last time was just such a blessing for me and for them," Liufau said. "It's gonna be so fun."