One of the main reasons why Joe Tafoya gravitated to football—or sports, more generally—had very little to do with athletics.
“I started playing organized sports at the age of seven, starting with flag football and Little League baseball,” said Tafoya, 33. “One thing that really kept me into it and kept me coming back to it was that I had a lot of family support.
"Going to a Little League baseball game 10 or 15 miles away, we knew that we were going to be traveling with a pretty big crowd.”
Several years later, Tafoya, then in high school in his native California, came to the conclusion that football may be more than a good reason for his extended family to get together.
After being visited by representatives from top colleges across the United States, Tafoya ultimately decided to take his talents to the University of Arizona and showcase his skills as a member of the program’s “Desert Storm” defense.
Over time, Tafoya, who developed somewhat of a reputation as a “practice all-American” early on in Arizona, began to excel on the field. Eventually, it became clear to Tafoya that his run in the world of football may not end at the collegiate level.
“In my junior year, I started having agents calling me up,” Tafoya noted. “They would get me on the phone and tell me how great I was and that they wanted to represent me.”
Although Tafoya was regarded as one of the top defensive ends in his draft class—a unit that boasted future Pro Bowlers Derrick Burgess, Andre Carter, Aaron Schobel, Justin Smith and Kyle Vanden Bosch—the former star at Arizona was the 19th—and final—defensive end claimed in the 2001 NFL Draft.
Naturally, this didn’t exactly sit well with Tafoya, who was ultimately claimed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 234th overall selection.
“It really surprised me,” admitted Tafoya, who suffered a shoulder injury during college and was classified as undersized by most pro scouts.
“It was really heartbreaking, because then you start thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’m just not good enough to make it,’ and you start doubting yourself. I sat there on my couch and I watched all these other guys that I was ranked higher than and they didn’t have the same statistics that I had, (but) for whatever reason, someone else saw them as a higher prospect than me.”
As it turned out, Tafoya’s run with the Buccaneers—the team that would go on to claim the league’s title for the 2002 campaign—was short-lived.
After being on the receiving end of a “cheap shot on (his) leg” in the first preseason contest of Tafoya’s career, he found himself sidelined indefinitely with a broken ankle.
Unfortunately, Tafoya—in circumstances that appear to be more than a bit shady more than a decade later—was shortly thereafter released by the Buccaneers.
After leaving the squad’s facility—with an injury settlement in tow—Tafoya focused his efforts on getting back to 100 percent.
But before Tafoya could get back to optimum health, he was contacted by Jerry Angelo from the Chicago Bears—a man who was instrumental in drafting the defensive end in Tampa Bay. Angelo informed Tafoya that he wanted him to be a member of Chicago’s practice squad.
Over the course of his run in the world of professional football, Tafoya suited up for the Buccaneers, the Bears and the Seattle Seahawks—which included an appearance in Super Bowl XL—before capping off his career with the Arizona Cardinals in 2007.
Unfortunately—as is the case with most professional football players—Tafoya’s career didn’t conclude on his own terms.
“I started doing a workout with the New Orleans Saints—they had the two other kids there—and we were all doing drills,” Tafoya recounted. “I was going over some bags in a drill I had done 1,000 times before, and I twisted my foot and actually broke a bone and tore some ligaments in my foot.
"Man, it was the most painful thing I had ever experienced.”
Tafoya visited the emergency room upon returning to Seattle and learned that he would require surgery. It was at that point, he noted, that he suspected that his career in professional football was effectively over.
While rehabilitating his injury, Tafoya’s suspicions were confirmed a few weeks later.
“The doctor said, ‘Hey, man, you’ll never be able to run, jump, pivot—any of the things you used to do—the way that you had in the past. I don’t know what this means for you and your NFL career, but in life, in general, you’re not going to be the same.
“That was it—I guess the choice was made for me. I didn’t make the choice.”
Naturally, Tafoya, who had spent the better part of the past two decades playing football, was devastated by the prospect of no longer being able to play the game he loves.
“There’s a whole series of things that happen to a guy when they’re done playing in the NFL and none of them are really positive, you know?’ Tafoya said.
“You go through this deep depression, you have to reinvent yourself, you have to figure out what it is you’re good at, you start worrying about money—because you’ve set up this lifestyle for yourself—and you immediately realize that you’re in way over your head because your living expenses are so high and you’ve got no income coming in. The transition happens immediately—you immediately recognize the situation that you’re in and the gravity of it.”
Fortunately for Tafoya, he had put away a bit of money during his career and had the luxury of time—to say nothing of his NFL credentials—to decide which avenue he wanted to pursue in the coming years.
“Because I was an NFL player, the doors were always open,” Tafoya said. “You can always walk through a door—you can always get a meeting with somebody—wearing that NFC championship ring. That was really cool. I had a lot of great mentors and people who were willing to teach me, advise me and put me on their team, if I needed it.”
Despite the fact that Tafoya is still a fan of football, the former communications—with a focus on computer science—student has found a new passion since taking his leave from the gridiron.
“We build mobile apps,” said Tafoya, who is now the proud co-owner of Viva Vision, an up-and-coming software development company. “... I love it. Finally, (I’ve got) something that you can put all that passion and drive and experience—and relationships—and use it towards something else.
“When you’re passionate about something and you really enjoy what you’re doing, you strive to achieve.”
Much like Tafoya long dreamt of making his mark on the game of football, the married father of a one-year-old daughter, now aspires to achieve great things in the business world.
“I’m one of those people who doesn't stop,” Tafoya offered. “Now that I’ve found something that I’m passionate about, I’m never going to give up—I’m never going to stop building and growing ... I want to find some type of a technology platform that I can build, some type of software company to get involved with and take it to the highest level.
“I’ll probably keep going for the rest of my life until I find something like that.”
Ed Kapp is a contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations were obtained firsthand.