PULLMAN – Taariq Al-Uqdah tried his best to play it cool. Washington State’s redshirt freshman linebacker tried to keep a poker face, tried to act like he’d been there before, even during this meeting last week with defensive analyst J.C. Sherritt.
That’s about when Al-Uqdah let the smile wash over him.
“I couldn’t help myself,” Al-Uqdah laughed. “I started cheesing.”
Al-Uqdah had just gotten the word, by his own account the best news he’d heard since becoming a Cougar: He would be starting at mike linebacker in Washington State’s road game against Arizona State that weekend.
As he walked into the meeting with Sherritt, Al-Uqdah figured he’d be chatting about something bland like academics. He walked out as a Pac-12 starter. He had in fact never been here before, so he let the emotion hit him. He smiled on his way out of the room. He called his dad, Esston. He spent the rest of the day on cloud 9 – heck, cloud 11 or 12.
“It was a proud moment for me to hear the excitement in his voice,” Esston said, “and how proud he was of his accomplishment. It was a very exciting conversation.”
Al-Uqdah had been waiting for this opportunity for more than a year, since he first arrived in Pullman last season as a true freshman. That season, WSU’s linebacker corps included Francis Mauigoa and Daiyan Henley, two stars who moved on to the Miami Hurricanes and the Los Angeles Chargers, respectively. “I had goals of playing,” Al-Uqdah said.
All along, even as his plans changed, this was the vision Al-Uqdah had for himself.
“This is what I’m here to do. This is what I came here for,” Al-Uqdah said. “I didn’t come here to sit in the back. I wanna be a star player. I got big goals for myself. Yeah. This is what I was made for. I was built for this. All I needed was an opportunity.”
That weekend, even as Washington State’s losing streak hit four, Al-Uqdah made the most of it. He totaled five tackles, tied for his season-best, and Pro Football Focus handed him a defensive grade of 66.8 – tops on the team among players who played at least 15 snaps.
Even before he became a starter, though, Al-Uqdah had been creeping up on this opportunity. He has bloomed into one of WSU’s best tacklers, which has become key as missed tackles have plagued the unit, and he played nearly 50 snaps in the Cougs’ loss to Arizona earlier in October. He’s still learning, still learning to stop the game from “moving fast,” as head coach Jake Dickert said, but he did not become a starter by accident.
The engine behind Al-Uqdah’s quick ascent, the reason he felt so ecstatic about becoming a starter and why he felt ready to play as a true freshman, is simple enough: He loves the game.
“Loves the crap out of the game, bro,” Esston said. “He loves the game. He loves the work of the game. He loves everything that comes with football, bro. It’s not nothing that comes with football that Taariq doesn’t love. He loves every aspect of it, from the grind, the locker room, the sweat, the workouts, the camaraderie. He just loves it.”
There was a day, though, when those who knew Al-Uqdah best wondered if he would even stick with football.
Esston Al-Uqdah was ready to see what his son could do. This was in 2012, back when Taariq was 8 years old, and his dad had just moved him to defense. Esston felt wholly unsure about the decision – just a year prior, Taariq would only play running back because felt afraid of contact – but he was ready to give it a shot.
“And he went and smacked the kid,” Esston said. “And I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I said, ‘Oh no. Uh-uh. We gotta do this again to see if this is a fluke.’ ”
It was no fluke. Somehow, in less than a year’s time, Taariq had done a complete 180. He had gone from avoiding contact at all costs to embracing it, playing all over the field on defense, laying hits in youth leagues like he was Ray Lewis in his prime.
It stunned Esston. He had signed Taariq up for the Crenshaw Colts, a youth football league in the Los Angeles area, where he grew up. This league, Esston explained, was home to “nothing but roughhouse players.”
“If you couldn’t cut it,” Esston said, “then you wasn’t gonna play.”
Taariq, better known as Buddah, earned playing time by becoming one of the most physical players around. He played both sides of the ball, running back on offense and most everywhere else on defense: cornerback, safety, you name it. “He scored probably 40 touchdowns that year,” Esston said.
As Buddah moved onto high school, his circumstances changed. His love for the game did not. As a ninth grader at Narbonne High, he sustained an injury that sidelined him for some time. As a sophomore, as the top-10-ranked Narbonne wrapped up its regular season, the team was banned from the playoffs for the next two years for allowing an ineligible player to participate in the 2018 playoffs.
As all that unfolded, Buddah struggled in the classroom. He was immature, his dad said, and that reflected in his behavior. Teachers left comments that all followed one theme: Class clown. Bothers people. Can’t stay in his seat.
Esston, though, understood what was nagging at Buddah.
“If you sit him down and make him do the work, he’s gonna do it and get rid of it, so he can go do what?” Esston said. “Play football. So he can get outside and go play catch and go wherever the kids are playing football, or grab his brother and make him go in the back and they play catch or whatever it is they may do.”
For Buddah, everything comes back to his love for the game. It’s why he played in Snoop Dogg’s youth football league when he was 13. It’s why, in high school, he began to understand the value of academics. One of his longtime teammates, a five-star recruit who fielded dozens of offers – “every offer in America,” Esston said – lost his opportunity because he lagged behind in the classroom.
It’s also why, long before he became a Washington State starter, he felt ready for the opportunity.
You might have better luck winning the Powerball than fazing Buddah Al-Uqdah. As he’s traveled with the Cougs to their road games, from Colorado State to the Rose Bowl to Autzen Stadium, he’s never felt daunted.
“People talk about, like, stadiums being crazy. I never felt like any of them were too big for me or anything like that,” Al-Uqdah said. “I feel like this is what I was here to do, what I came here to do.”
It might be because he’s spent so long waiting for his time. When he first arrived in Pullman, he was ready to get in the mix, ready to compete with Henley and Mauigoa for playing time. Except one day, when he was stretching out his shoulder with WSU trainers, he felt something awkward in his shoulder.
“Found out it was torn,” Al-Uqdah said. “Fracture in there.”
Al-Uqdah had a torn labrum, which he had suffered as a high school senior. He had always felt some pain in his shoulder, but he figured it was normal, a minor thing he should play through. It was anything but. He underwent surgery and redshirted his true freshman season.
For Al-Uqdah, that made a difficult chapter of his life even worse. He was living away from home for the first time, and he planned to distract himself by getting on the field right away. Gone were those plans. Instead, he had to rehab, rehab, rehab.
As he did, he thought about his situation. A year later, he’s starting for the Cougs, a redshirt freshman with a blindingly bright future.
All from one meeting.
“I feel like it made me go harder and appreciate it more, because it can be taken away from you in a second, everything,” Al-Uqdah said of his injury. “I got people back home believing in me to do this stuff, like my parents, my brothers, my sister, my niece, my nephew, everybody back home, you know, believing in me. I gotta keep going for them, too. It’s bigger than me.”