If Psalm Wooching had ignored what he felt was his sporting destiny, then he would have been in Hawaii this week, with his family, waiting on the call from his agent to tell him which of the interested NFL franchises had drafted him. Instead he is in Seattle, having just returned from a trial at French top-flight side Pau, planning his rugby union career.
Wooching, 23, captained the Washington Huskies in 2017, anchored their top-ranked defense as an outside linebacker and was hot property. But amid the calls from agents, it just didn’t feel right.
“I could’ve entered the draft and I could have had the American dream that every kid wants,” Wooching tells ESPN. “But there was something in me that was telling me that it wasn’t my future. I tried to get rid of that nagging feeling, but I knew that it was time to hang up the pads and transition to something else.”
That something else was chasing the dream of a professional contract in rugby union and international recognition.
Psalm Fa’afoisia Pulemagafa Wooching was brought up on Hawaii in a Christian family who were part of a missionary group called Island Breeze.
Faith and heritage runs through his veins. Tattooed on his well-inked torso is a proverb from his father’s village, Taufusi, on Samoa: ‘la sili e le tai se agavaa’ (may the wind and ocean guide your canoe). It is the philosophy which guides his life.
“It’s very important, I just follow my heart,” Wooching says. “That phrase stood out to me — wind, ocean and canoes can translate it however you’d want but it reflects family, rugby, my friends, anyone, influencers, mentors and they all slot into the ocean, the waves, the winds.”
He was brought up on Hawaii, but with Samoan parents rugby was always on his radar. Wooching grew up watching clips of hard-hitting centre Brian Lima — nicknamed the chiropractor for his bone-crunching tackles — and hearing stories of Islander rugby stars from his father Luki Siliako Mafua Pulemagafa Wooching.
Aged 12, he went along to his first training session at Hawaii’s Kona Bulls. The coach asked the group to split into forwards and backs. Wooching headed towards the forwards, a little confused over exactly what was expected of him, but his brother, Caleb, steered him towards the backs and he found his home on the wing.
It was a perfect marriage. In his first session, his team’s fly-half popped him the ball, he darted down the blindside, crashed through flailing arms, went 50 metres and scored.
“I was so fond of the sport. I loved the contact, the hit. In football you have the grind, where it’s stop and go but with rugby it’s a constant battle.”
He was making quite some impact at high school level, and caught the eye of football coaches. He was earmarked originally as a running back but shifted to linebacker.
“I found out I could get a free education and could take care of my family and play at one of the top schools in America — University of Washington — and I went full force into that. It meant I had to turn down the opportunity to play for the U.S Junior National rugby side as I wanted to pursue football.
“I had a great university and college career. We had a good team, we were ranked fourth [in the college football rankings]. But my first love was rugby and that’s what fuelled my football career. Rugby was perfect for tackling, wrapping, hooking the legs which I transitioned to the football field.”
Wooching’s obsession with rugby got to the point where in football’s off-season he was sneaking off post-session to train with the rugby team. “I was a bit of a dual-athlete,” he says, but then came the moment of truth where he had to choose one over the other. “It wasn’t about money anymore, it was about passion and a love for the game. So I had to switch.”
Those closest to Wooching knew of his inescapable dilemma. While franchises were showing interest in his talents, there were no guarantees he could make it professionally in rugby. But it was the itch that could not be satisfied.
On Feb. 16, 2017, he made his decision.
“I was in Seattle, with my fiancée — Courtney Gano, a professional softball player in Italy — and I spoke to my family and I knew it was the right time to send out the release. I had already drafted the statement and I just felt it was the perfect time with the draft coming up.
“I remember that at 12’o’clock I posted it after working out and put my phone away. I went back to do some cardio, play some basketball and looked at my phone and it had just blown up – football agents, to coaches, to NFL teams, to media – you name it they were contacting me.”
Family, Friends & Fans please read ? pic.twitter.com/HrnIdyCV83
— Psalm Wooching (@UWPsalmWooching) February 16, 2017
He currently weighs in at 230 pounds, and stands at 6’4″. He was pretty hard to miss on a football or rugby field when he was catching the eyes of prospective scouts and coaches, but what was also remarkable was the ‘war paint’ he used to adorn himself with before games. He stood there facing down the offense and finished at the Huskies with 6 sacks and 42 tackles in 2016.
The paint was a nod towards his Samoan ancestry, but also a sign that he was never afraid to break away from the status quo. “I started that trend a little,” he explains. “It signifies war paint, which in the islands points towards battles, it’s like you’re going out for the last time. For me it symbolises my battle, like I’m ready to go. Each game I try and change it up a little to signify little things. Sometimes it’s for speed, so I’d make it something like a cheetah – or sometimes it’d be something different, with more cultural significance.”
His new battle is to win a professional contract in rugby union. With the help of former USA and Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan, who is mentoring him and acting as his agent, they are planning out his career.
He models his game on Tuilagi brothers Alesana and Manu (internationals for Samoa and England, respectively), he can play in either the centres or on the wing, he has trained with the USA Sevens team — he will again at the end of this month — and he has played for Seattle Saracens, an affiliate of the English and European champions. But he wants to head abroad and got the first taste of an elite rugby environment on a trial at Pau last week.
Wooching arrived at Top 14 side Pau on Easter Sunday and was introduced to World Cup-winners Conrad Smith and Colin Slade, as well as the fiercely talented Steffon Armitage and Tongan half-back Taniela Moa. After a couple of days to get over jet-lag, he was put through his paces in a series of speed and strength tests before he was given the chance to showcase his skills in a game scenario.
“I took one back 40 metres, off the left side, couple of big runs. I couldn’t show my defensive side, but it was an awesome day. I felt like I excelled in the speed and weight lifting bits as I knew it so well from football.”
Now comes the wait as Pau weigh up whether to offer him a contract while O’Sullivan is looking to set up other trials. In a different life, Wooching would also be waiting by the phone to see if he had been drafted. But the wind and ocean steered his canoe to a different sport.
“If I had stayed in football, right now I’d be back home in Hawaii getting ready for the call and everything that happens in the draft. It would be a defining moment, being an island boy going from the islands to being a dream-achiever. But I’ve transitioned to working my way to a different dream. It will be better for me.”