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Talanoa Hufanga Embraces Bay Area Culture and 49ers Philosophy

There are two distinctive celebrations the Faithful can look forward to on game days coming from San Francisco's rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga.

A resident of Northern California of just seven months, Hufanga quickly embraced the culture of his hometown team. His captivating personality is often shown through his dance moves, adopting the popular Bay Area hip hop move, the smeeze.

"I try to emphasize this culture and what it is about, just try to make the most of it," Hufanga said. "So I love this, and I hope I'm here for a long time."

The other celebration honors his heritage. When making plays on the field, Hufanga places his arms in the shape of the letter "T." However, the letter he creates doesn't necessarily stand for his name. Instead, the deep-rooted display represents where his family is from, the Polynesian island of Tonga.

"There's a lot of it in the Bay Area too, there's a big Tongan community here," Hufanga said. "I'm just trying to put on for our culture and put us on the map, not a lot of people know the island of Tonga."

Before stepping foot each week on an NFL field, the rookie grew up on a small farm in Corvallis, Oregon, raising animals and taking care of his family's property. The work ethic Hufanga created while maintaining his family's farm since a youth carried over to the football field, where the safety was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American in 2020 during his time at USC.

His resolved and tenacity weren't the only things that influenced his professional career. Hufanga has had the fortune of being groomed by NFL Hall-of-Fame legend, Troy Polamalu. As a fellow Trojan, safety and polynesian athlete, Polamalu helped train Hufanga leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft through physical training, mental preparedness and ultimately, being a mentor for the young safety as he navigates his first year in the league.

"Learning from him is very different," Hufanga said. "It's a training that's not common."

The 49ers interest in selecting Hufanga for the 2021 draft heightened when general manager John Lynch made the comparison between the soon-to-be NFL rookie and himself.

"That's just incredible," Hufanga said. "(Lynch) is a gold jacket Hall-of-Famer ... the ceiling is really high for me to try to get to, so I've just got to make him proud, but I really appreciate those things and I'm just trying to be like him one day."

San Francisco selected Hufanga in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. As the 180th pick, the rookie has made his way through the 49ers defensive depth chart, from playing on special teams to getting his first-career start against the Chicago Bears in Week 8.

"Love him at safety (and he) hits like a linebacker," head coach Kyle Shanahan said during the 2021 draft. "His mentality — he's an old school badass as we say."

Hufanga recorded five tackles in the team's win over the Bears, and injuries have kept him in a starting role since. Teammates and coaching staff have recognized the impact the rookie has made in limited work on defense. And it's hard for them to not acknowledge the potential he has going forward.

"He was great. He was everything we asked for and some," veteran cornerback Josh Norman said of Hufanga's early performance. "He wasn't scared of the moment. He actually grabbed that moment by the horns, and he ran with it. He's just going to continue to keep improving, and a guy like that, he only can get better. I mean, he's a rookie, for crying out loud. He played like a vet."

Week 10 will provide a new challenge for the rookie, as he makes his first start in primetime against the Los Angeles Rams on "Monday Night Football." Hufanga aims to make strides against Los Angeles' potent passing game while sticking to his work ethic and grit that quickly escalated him up San Francisco's depth chart in Year 1.