Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Andy Cross / THE DENVER POST
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Between sips from his Starbucks cup, Sefo Liufau’s smile was as bright as ever on Friday as he talked about his present and future.
No more 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls to workout. No more rehabilitation for his latest injury. No more pressure to be the face of a football program and the No. 1 target of criticism on social media.
“I’m just being a student,” said the young man who quarterbacked Colorado to its best season 15 years in 2016. “I have two classes and a lab and then I’ll have my economics degree, which I’m pretty excited for. I’m going to just try this whole college kid thing out and just kind of relax and take a step back.”
Less than 13 months after his final game with the Buffaloes and a little more than four months removed from his shot at the National Football League coming to an end, Liufau, 23, has decided to move on from the game, at least as a player.
Liufau returned to Boulder this month to finish off the degree he put on hold a year ago to pursue an NFL opportunity.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I’m ready to get this semester underway and finish out strong.”
The all-time leading passer in CU history, Liufau was at the center of The Rise in 2016 – CU’s resurgent 10-4 Pac-12 South division-winning season that was preceded by 10 consecutive losing campaigns.
Although not selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, he signed a free agent deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, spending the entire offseason with them. With a sprained MCL in his knee, he was released by the Bucs in early September, reaching an injury settlement with the team.
Liufau went to his home in Washington to rehab the knee and work out for another shot. Then, he realized he didn’t want another shot.
“The thing is you only have one body and you can only live once,” Liufau said. “The amount of shots I’ve taken and the amount of injuries I’ve had, I’ve kind of gotten fed up with it. Not in a negative light, but there’s more to life than football and there’s other responsibilities I have outside of the game. I just thought it would be for my better interests to move away from the game, in terms of playing, just to protect my body.”
Liufau, who went through a myriad of injuries – many of which he played through – at CU, has no doubt he could continue to push through physically, but said, “Do I want to have to do that every single day?”
Even now, he sometimes has trouble sleeping on the right shoulder that he separated during the 2015 season opener against Colorado State. The injury to his left foot that knocked him out of the 2015 season – and for much of the 2016 offseason – still causes some soreness after he plays basketball.
So, if another team came calling and wanted to invite him to camp, he said, “I’d have to gracefully pass. I’m ready to move on and see what life has for me.”
Despite the punishment to his body, Liufau is grateful for his time as a player, and what he accomplished at Bellarmine Prep in Washington, at CU and by earning an NFL opportunity.
“To be able to get that opportunity was great,” he said.
After a “pretty good rookie mini-camp” in the spring, Liufau said training camp was tough, because opportunities simply weren’t there for him to get reps on the practice field. He was behind three other quarterbacks and never got live training camp reps.
“I think the first action I got was in a preseason game against the Bengals,” he said.
Despite the lack of practice, Liufau was sent into the game with 2 minutes, 48 seconds to play and the Bucs trailing 23-12.
“You kind of go in on the fly and you think you know most of the plays, which I did for the most part, but there’s also other rookies out there that don’t always know what they’re doing,” said Liufau, who completed 4-of-5 passes for 31 yards on the drive and got the Bucs into field goal range (the kick failed). “It was a decent drive, but I still didn’t get any reps after that.”
He later played in the preseason finale against the Washington Redskins, completing 16 of 28 passes for a touchdown and an interception. The next day, he was placed on the waived/injured list.
“It was interesting ride, an interesting experience,” he said. “You learn a lot about yourself when you’re far away from home, your back is against the wall and you’re not really getting any opportunities.”
While it didn’t work out, Liufau said, “I’ll always cherish that and I don’t regret going out there and trying for the NFL.”
It was eye-opening for Liufau to see how intense the NFL is in pushing and quizzing players to get them better. He said it was “unreal” the amount of work that went into his time with the Bucs.
“I think I learned more in the couple months I was there than my whole time at CU,” he said. “That’s not really a dig at anyone; it’s just your job; it’s your life.”
Most important to Liufau, he said, “I learned that I can compete with them which is really great to see for me personally.”
After being released by the Bucs, Liufau went back to his old high school and helped to coach the football team. He worked with quarterbacks and also called some plays.
“There’s different highs and lows when you’re coaching, especially at the high school level,” he said.
CU has approached him about joining the staff as a graduate assistant, and recently he was walking to class when he spotted defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot – hired a month after Liufau’s final game with the Buffs.
“He was like, ‘Hey, if you ever want to come up, we’ll put you to work,'” Liufau said. “I said, ‘I know you guys will; that’s why I’m not coming up there right now.'”
Liufau said he isn’t closing any doors, but returning to the Buffs as a grad assistant is not on his radar right now.
“I really just want to enjoy life and put the stress of football to the side for a little bit,” he said. “I got a job offer from my uncle in Washington at a mortgage firm. We’ll see. We’re just kind of keeping all doors open and just focusing on graduating and getting my economics degree right now.”
While the stress of football is no longer there for Liufau, the memories of his time at CU are still fresh, and he will always be synonymous with The Rise of 2016.
“I definitely miss all my teammates,” he said. “We had a special bond that season. It came together really well. I miss that a lot.
“I definitely take great pride (in the 2016 season), but I also remember that it wasn’t just me.”
Because he was the quarterback and beloved by so many fans, Liufau may always be the face of that 2016 team, but he said, “I’d rather the Rise be remembered as that senior class that stuck it out, and all the tears we shed, all those games we played in. I’ll never forget them.
“There was a lot of great players around me and a lot of good people around me. To be a part of a senior group that went through so many ups and downs and stuck together and the majority of us didn’t leave, I’m really proud of that, really proud of those guys for sticking it out and being accepting.”
Several of those teammates are still playing football, and there’s always a part of Liufau that will miss the game. With a healthy body and bright smile, though, he’s a young man with no regrets.
“To think about not playing football in my lifetime is kind of weird,” he said. “I’ve been playing tackle football since third grade, so it’s pretty ingrained in myself and definitely my culture. I just felt it was the right move for me personally.
“I’m happy with my decision.”