Johnson’s Tapeh

Michael Dougherty

Gophers football coach Glen Mason hasn’t had a very good week, coming off a 56-21 drubbing at Purdue, but he might find himself smiling soon.
Fortunately for Mason, all indications are that St. Paul Johnson high school tailback Thomas Tapeh will be wearing maroon and gold next season.
Tapeh, a senior, is coming off a 331-yard, five-touchdown performance in his team’s 40-20 win Friday over St. Paul Central. In five games this season, Tapeh has rushed for 1,141 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging more than nine yards per carry for the ninth-ranked Governors (4-1).
Tapeh, whose teammates have nicknamed “2,000” because of the possibility of him topping the 2,000-yard mark this season, said Minnesota tops his list of colleges.
“They are definitely up there,” he said. “They’ve made some improvements and I wouldn’t mind being a Gopher. They’re at the top of the five with Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Northwestern.”
Tapeh said he has two large boxes where he keeps all the recruiting letters he’s received. One box holds the letters Tapeh has already read and the other contains those that remain unopened — but Tapeh said he reads every one he gets.
A number of things are steering him toward Minnesota, the most influential being the advantage of staying close to his family, something Tapeh said is very important to him.
Tapeh’s mother, Cecily Woiwor, brought him here in 1989 from Liberia and works double shifts as a nurse to help support Thomas, his 5-year-old brother Archie and 3-year-old sister Amy.
Woiwor’s hard-working attitude has rubbed off on Tapeh, who called her the most important thing in his life. For that reason Tapeh said the thought of playing for the Gophers is foremost in his mind.
“My mom told me that it’s my decision and whatever I decide she’s behind,” Tapeh said. “But she wants me to stay home, and if she feels strongly about me staying at home I’m going to do what my mom says because she’s always going to be my mom.”
Tapeh’s football coach Jeff Plaschko also said he expects Tapeh to pick Minnesota. But Plaschko warned him against taking the decision lightly.
“I think he’s going to stay close, but I don’t know if close is Minneapolis or Iowa City,” Plaschko said. “I’d love to see him go here because I would get to watch him all of the time, but I want him to explore all of the options and then make the choice which is best for Thomas.”
If Tapeh does choose Minnesota, Mason and offensive coordinator Steve Loney will get a running back with 4.37 speed in the 40-yard dash who can bench press more than 350 pounds.
Plaschko, who said he had the unenviable task of coaching against former Wisconsin tailback Carl McCullough when he was at Cretin-Derham Hall, said Tapeh is faster and stronger than any other back he has seen in the state.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was spotting him (weight lifting) the other day and I couldn’t even add up the plates on the bar,” Plaschko said. “Some people have said he could probably be playing at Minnesota right now. He’s bigger than any of the tailbacks they have there now, and I would venture to say he’s faster.”
Loney can’t comment on high school recruits specifically, but said he knows there is blue-chip talent here in the metro area — particularly at running back — and would like to see those blue-chippers stay home to play for the Gophers. When Mason took the Minnesota job two years ago, he said one of his top priorities would be to sign instate talent.
Loney was the offensive coordinator at Iowa State when current New Orleans Saint Troy Davis played there, and he helped coach Davis to an NCAA record 4,195 yards in 1995 and 1996.
“In my 25 years of coaching there has been only three of those years where I haven’t had a 1,000- yard rusher,” he said. “So for a tailback, those are the things that indicate he should want to be a part of this offense.”
Even though Minnesota doesn’t have the winning traditions of some other schools Tapeh is considering, he said winning isn’t everything he looks at when weighing his options.
“You can’t ask for too much, because the players play and do what they can,” Tapeh said. “I know what they’re going through over there. If I see improvement in the team, that’s all you can ask for really, because that means people are out there working, and Glen Mason is doing a good job.
“If the athletes are happy, that means something good is going on over there, and I wouldn’t mind being a part of that.”