Natu Tuatagaloa Commits to Community


Nick Salomon, Contributor

Standing at six feet, four inches tall and with a large build, Natu Tuatagaloa can appear  intimidating when you see him for the first time. Most people have to look up when talking to him, but although Tuatagaloa may be looking down, he has a relaxed way of making people feel he’s listening to them and respecting what they have to say. And in turn, he has gained the respect of many people in his life.     

It all started in San Francisco, California, where Tuatagaloa was born at Kaiser Permanente Hospital on May 25, 1966. He lived in San Francisco for just two years until his parents, Gage and Ria Tuatagaloa, bought a house on Point San Pedro Road in San Rafael in 1968. At that young age, Tuatagaloa didn’t know that his family, friends, childhood, and playing sports would help him become a community leader in San Rafael and that San Rafael would mean so much to him. 

Tuatagaloa is the son of Afioga Te’o Gage Magatalatala Tuatagaloa (most people called him Gage) and Hengerika “Ria” Raap Tuatagaloa. His father came to America from Potasi, Samoa just after high school. His mother, who was from the Netherlands, also came to America after high school and met Gage at a Red Cross-sponsored international dance at SF State in 1962. They were married in 1963 and had their first and only child, Natu, in 1966. 

Tuatagaloa didn’t have any blood siblings growing up, but his parents took in four of his cousins when he was young and they became Tuatagaloa’s siblings. One of his cousins, Rosie, says “If you ask any of us, we’d say we have the same mom and dad and are siblings.” When asked what the relationship was like between Tuatagaloa and his parents, Rosie recalls, “It was very, very tight and they had a lot of open communication.” This tight bond with his parents grew even stronger when Tuatagaloa started playing sports. 

Although his parents were struggling financially and worked seven days a week so they could afford to live in San Rafael, they were never too busy or tired to be supportive and involved with every aspect of their son’s life, especially sports.

Tuatagaloa’s father was a part of a group that would help build playing fields and take care of the equipment, and he always made sure that his son got to every game and practice. His mother was busy being the treasurer, on the boosters, or trying to help organize softball, little league, and football. Sometimes there were needs for the teams that could not be met due to a lack of funds. For example, when one of the teams needed new uniforms and there was no money in the budget, Gage and Ria Tuatagaloa came up with an idea of how they could help. They started luaus in their backyard to raise money for whatever needs came up for their kid’s sports teams. The whole family was involved, marinating meat, cooking and barbecuing together, and hula dancing for the people who came to their luaus. Gage and Ria made sure their family knew the importance of contributing to a cause, and the luaus were successful because the family worked together. 

When he talks about the sacrifices his parents made and their never-ending support of their family and the community of San Rafael, it is easy to see that his roots are what inspired, and continue to inspire, Tuatagaloa to give back to his community.

Tuatagaloa believes strongly in San Rafael City Schools. He went to Glenwood Preschool, San Pedro Elementary School, Santa Venetia Middle School, and San Rafael High school.

Being a student in the San Rafael City School District, Tuatagaloa felt at times like he was treated differently because he was a minority and looked different than most of his peers. “I was singled out at school to check to make sure I could speak English or understand math,” he admits. “My experience growing up as a minority in the community helps me look at things with a lens that takes into consideration that everyone doesn’t see things the same way and that decisions can impact kids and families in different ways.” It is not surprising that these experiences helped drive Tuatagaloa to become a member of the San Rafael City School Board, on which he has served since 2001. 

“Working for the school board is my way of giving back to the community that gave me so much,” Tuatagaloa says. His wife, Judy, explains that he didn’t have much money growing up, but there were many friends and families in the community that supported him so “volunteering and giving back to the community became his passion and duty.” This need to give back is like a “thread woven into him; you can’t get it out of him,” says Judy. 

Just a few of Tuatagaloa’s accomplishments during his tenure on the board include earning the position of President and Vice President, being awarded Marin County Trustee of the Year at the 2019 Golden Bell Award Ceremony, and working closely on Measures A and B and the Parcel Tax for the school district. 

Rachel Kertz, a fellow Board Trustee, has worked with Tuatagaloa on the Board for seven years. Kertz commented that her first impression of him was that “he was very confident, well spoken, and very involved in the community of San Rafael.” Kertz considers him a valuable presence on the Board. “It is always great to have him in the room because he definitely knows the right questions to ask and he knows how to make people feel like they are being heard,” Kertz says. “When people are upset or if there are difficult decisions that have to be made, he is always able to have those conversations with people.” 

Another way Tuatagaloa gives back to his community is by volunteering as a member of the Advisory Board of the Marin Athletic Foundation, which supports school athletic programs in Marin County. Because he grew up an athlete himself, this was a perfect fit for him. Tuatagaloa knows the importance of playing sports and how being involved in sports helped shape how he lives his life today. Teamwork, commitment, having a great attitude, knowing how to deal with adversity, and growing and being a leader are all skills Tuatagaloa learned from playing sports. 

When he played basketball at SRHS, Tuatagaloa showed his coaches and teammates his dedication to always give it his all. Bret Tovani, Tuatagaloa’s coach at the time, says, “I think the thing that stood out most of all was his dedication, his attitude, his coachability, and his approach to everything he did was just stellar. He just took it all very seriously and he was a great leader. And all that began to be the hallmark of everything that he did.” Being a good teammate is an important part of being a successful athlete. “His teammates loved him and they still do today. That is a tremendous attribute as an athlete and as a person,” Tovani says. “He was always very willing to do whatever he had to do to become the best player that he could become and that characterized who he is as a person. He is still this way today.”

Tuatagaloa played many sports growing up, but football was his favorite. He played on his first organized team for flag football in 2nd grade. He then went on to play Pop Warner Youth Football, high school football at SRHS, and then got a scholarship to play as a defensive linemen at Cal Berkeley. His hard work at Cal paid off. He was voted captain of the 1988 team by his teammates and at the end of his successful college football career, he was drafted to the NFL.  

“Being a professional football player was my lifelong dream. All I ever wanted to do was play football,” Tuatagaloa says. His drive and work ethic became even stronger when he went to the NFL. “When I saw that I had an opportunity to play for the NFL, I really changed my approach to working out, training, and watching film to not only get myself better, but to get my team better by making an impact.” Tuatagaloa knew “it takes a lot of hard work to get there and actually stay there. Everything you do gives you an opportunity to open the door but once you get there, you have to work super hard to stay where you are.”

He played for the Cincinnati Bengals, the Seattle Seahawks, the New Orleans Saints, and the Houston Oilers. He attributes his success in getting drafted to his parents, coaches, and teachers while growing up in San Rafael. “I was very fortunate to have great parents that showed me the value of hard work and the blue collar work ethic,” Tuatagaloa says. “My relationship with them was one of deep respect and love and understanding of all the hard work they put forth so that we could have a good life growing up.” He admits that he also had great teachers and coaches who pushed him, and showed him how to become a better student and a better athlete. “And those things translated into me having the opportunity to play in the NFL,” Tuatagaloa says. He played in the NFL for six years before moving back to his hometown, starting his own company and raising a family. 

On June 3, 1996, Tuatagaloa married the love of his life, Judy Woods, a fourth generation native of San Rafael. Together, the couple raised three daughters, Tianna, Malia and McKenna. Judy explains that her husband raised his family with a series of principles he calls “the Five F’s.” These include: faith in something other than yourself, a family for which you would do anything, fitness, finances, and friendships. “These are what Natu is and what he stands for,” she says. He also wanted to make sure that his daughters would always give back to their community by volunteering, and he instilled the importance of giving back into his daughters just as his parents instilled it into him. 

Tuatagaloa was just as involved with his daughter’s sports as his parents were involved with his athletic career. Judy explains, “Natu coached all of his girls with every sport they played growing up: softball, basketball, volleyball. He was always there to help out and volunteer any way he could.” His motto for his daughters when playing sports was: “Show up on time, work hard, get better, and have fun.” 

“Of course he likes to win, but it was never about winning,” Judy admits. Mainly he wanted his daughters to know it was a privilege to be part of a team.

Tuatagaloa takes pride in his volunteer commitments, but all this volunteering does come with a price. “He gives up a lot of his personal time and family time to volunteer for the community,” his wife Judy admits. Even when he is at home, “He is often on board meeting calls, at a board meeting, or volunteering for a foundation that he is on,” Judy says. Sometimes he even receives phone calls at home from random people in the community wanting to bounce things off of him. Yes, Tuatagaloa does make sacrifices to do the community work he does, but he wouldn’t stop giving back. And he gets something out of it too. “In the early years back when I was playing football, I spent a lot of time at San Rafael High School in the off-season engaging with the student-athletes, whether it was helping with practice, teaching them something in the weight room, or playing after-school basketball with them. So I made some really good connections with those kids.” 

Besides having the qualities to succeed as an NFL player, a businessman, a husband, a father and a volunteer, Tuatagaloa also has the qualities of a true friend. His friends describe him as loyal, sincere, passionate, competitive, honest, caring and empathetic. He also has the ability to make his friends feel like family. Dan O’Toole, a close friend of Tuatagaloa’s since the 3rd grade (they went to Senior Ball together and Natu is Godfather to his youngest daughter) says, “He is one of those guys who, if you ever needed anything, it doesn’t matter what he’s got going on, he’d always be there for you.” O’Toole recalls when he lived in Chicago years ago and was dealing with a health issue, “All of sudden Natu knocked on my door without even telling me he was coming to make sure I was ok. Him being present is always something very unique which makes him a terrific friend.”

Tovani has similar feelings about their friendship. “I consider myself still good friends with Natu,” Tovani says. “If I had any issues that I would want someone to chime in on, he would be the guy that I would go to. I have tremendous admiration for him and the way he goes about his business.” 

His friendships are one of the reasons Tuatagaloa still lives in San Rafael. If asked if he thinks about leaving, he is confident this is where he belongs and this is where he will stay. Since both he and his wife had family in San Rafael when he decided to come back from the NFL, it made sense to make a life here. “It really tied me to this community,” Tuatagaloa says. “We still continue to support the school community today even though all of our kids have graduated from SRHS.” He truly does love San Rafael. “I don’t think that there is a better place in the world to live. We have a great city with beautiful landscapes and a very diverse group of people. And from San Rafael you can get anywhere you need to go pretty quickly,” Tuatagaloa says.

Tuatagaloa has two years left on his last term for the SR School Board. What’s next for Natu Tuatagaloa? As far as his former high school basketball coach is concerned, “I can’t say enough good things about him. I am surprised he is not the mayor of San Rafael.”