How the XFL gave defensive POY Pita Taumoepenu 'exactly what I needed'


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SALT LAKE CITY — Under the bright lights of Sin City and the relative cloud of the newly reborn XFL, Pita Taumoepenu did his best work.

Now it just might bring the former Utah linebacker back to the National Football League.

The former Utah and Timpview High linebacker will work out with the Cleveland Browns after dominating the XFL with a league-high four forced fumbles en route to Defensive Player of the Year honors, KPRC Houston's Aaron Wilson reported a day after Taumoepenu was named DPOY.

Under league rules, XFL players will be eligible to sign with NFL teams beginning May 15, and Taumoepenu — who also finished second in the league with 7.5 sacks and sixth with eight tackles for loss for the Vegas Vipers — will surely be near the front of the line after a vote of team head coaches and player personnel directors earned him the recognition of most impactful player on defense in the Arlington, Texas-based league.

But that league, which re-launched in 2020 under former owner Vince McMahon and sold prior to the 2023 season to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Dany Garcia and RedBird Capital Partners prior to playing the 2023 season with eight teams split into a north and south division, offered Taumoepenu exactly what he needed after the 29-year-old pass rusher was a sixth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers.

Taumoepenu played in just 11 games while bouncing around with five teams over six years before he was released last January by the Denver Broncos, paving the way for the Vegas Vipers to draft him in the 2023 XFL draft.

Vegas Vipers linebacker Pita Taumoepenu celebrates a sack against the Houston Roughnecks at TDECU Stadium on April 15th, 2023 in Houston, TX.
Vegas Vipers linebacker Pita Taumoepenu celebrates a sack against the Houston Roughnecks at TDECU Stadium on April 15th, 2023 in Houston, TX. (Photo: Maria Lysaker, XFL)

"I've been playing in the NFL for the past few years, got drafted by the 49ers, and sometimes when you're second or third string, you don't get to show all of your football talent at the highest level. People never get to see what you are capable of doing," said Taumoepenu, sporting a crimson-red University of Utah hat during the league videoconference. "In this league, I was able to show everybody what I am able to do. Not just me, but everybody else in the XFL; the XFL gave us a chance to show our talent and express our style and the way we play the game.

"This experience was one of the best experiences of my life," he continued. "I got to play with different players from different backgrounds, from the NFL, from college, from Canadian football. They all came from a different part of the world, and coaches from different backgrounds. I got to learn so much, and see football from a different perspective. Even though we came from different backgrounds, we all are in the same spot and our main goal was to try to make it to the NFL. We had to be humble enough to learn from each other and work with what we had to get better every day, so we have a chance. I'm very grateful, and I'm very happy with the experience."

In addition to Taumoepenu's award, the XFL also announced D.C. Defenders head coach Reggie Barlow as Coach of the Year, St. Louis Battlehawks wide receiver Darrius Shepherd as Special Teams Player of the Year and D.C. quarterback Jordan Ta'amu as 2023 XFL Offensive Player of the Year.

The 9-1 Defenders will face the Arlington Renegades in the XFL championship game next Saturday, May 13 at the Alamaodome in San Antonio, Texas (6 p.m. MT, ABC).

That platform of weekly nationally televised audiences across the ESPN family of networks helped players like Taumoepenu shine in the XFL as they worked their way back to another chance at the NFL. But it didn't help Taumoepenu not be surprised by his award selection, which he joked he learned about when the league tagged him with the honor on the official Instagram account.

Lucky for him, his family didn't know either, until he called his mother at work.

"She doesn't have social media, but I was able to give her a call and let her know," the former Timpview High standout who was born in Euless, Texas said. "She was so happy; my mom doesn't know much about football, but she would call me after the games and always ask me if I'm healthy. That's the most important thing she worried about. My sister was so happy, too; she was proud of me. It meant the world to me."

XFL players lived and trained in Arlington, Texas before flying to home sites for games each week, which in Vegas' case meant Cashman Field in Las Vegas' downtown district. The Vipers labored to a 2-8 record, last place in the North division behind D.C., Seattle and St. Louis, but the struggle taught Taumoepenu and his teammates plenty of lessons under first-time head coach and legendary NFL cornerback Rod Woodson.

"The biggest thing that I learned from coach Woodson and everyone is whatever you put on the field is your resume," the Utah graduate said. "Don't give up; even if we don't make the playoffs, we still have something to fight for. We still have to put film out there for the next level.

"For me personally, I have so much pride in myself. Even when things seem impossible, I just continue to be the best person I can be. I like to play for my family, my friends, and everyone who has worked so hard to put me in this situation. They kept me going."

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