SANTA ANA – Mater Dei football coach Bruce Rollinson got a phone call in the fall from a Filipino newspaper asking about the ethnic background of senior receiver Thomas Duarte. Rollinson was befuddled.
"In honesty, I didn't even know what his background was," Rollinson said. "I had to ask his parents."
They all had a good laugh once it was explained Duarte is half-Mexican, half-Japanese.
"Nobody's ever come up to me and got it right to this day," said Duarte, who has also been thought to be Portuguese, Hawaiian, Samoan and other types of Pacific Islander.
There is little questioning his talents as a football player. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound, four-star prospect and the Register's offensive player of the year is set to sign with UCLA on Wednesday.
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"I see him as a Tony Gonzalez type," said Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for Scout/FoxSports.com. "He creates so many mismatches as a big receiver. Nowadays you see the tight end position becoming more prevalent in college football and he fits it to a T."
The rest of Duarte's profile is one of a kind. Biggins, who has been covering recruiting for 17 years, says he can't remember the last high-profile recruit of Asian descent.
"You don't see a lot of them," Biggins said. "You don't see them that big. When you see a guy like that, you're like, 'Wow. He's definitely a rarity.'"
Duarte always has been big. He was about 5-5, 120 pounds at the age of 10. After his first season of tackle football and competing against kids three to four years his senior, he returned to flag football because all the best Pop Warner players his size had entered high school.
Suffice to say, Duarte stood out on the field. His father, Tim, is Mexican and his mother, Debbie, is Japanese. Neither is particularly tall, leaving them to speculate their son got his height from a Native American ancestor on Tim's side who stood close to 7 feet tall.
"Growing up I knew I was different," Duarte said. "I knew it'd be rare to find someone like myself."
But he also wasn't looking. Duarte said he was secure "playing the game I fell in love with," the game he had grown up playing on the weekends alongside his father, uncles and cousins.
Duarte said he never faced any strong prejudice, perhaps the product of him being bigger and better than his peers. Instead, Tim said his son's talents, coupled with a welcoming spirit, had a unifying effect.
When he was younger, Duarte often played catch with kids half his age. He once asked his father how he could help teammates on the bench, then he heeded Tim's advice to dominate games early so his friends would be inserted later with the game out of hand.
"Ever since he was little he's been a kid that everybody seems to be drawn to," Tim said. "Little kids would gravitate towards him. He had just a real sense of patience and he always had time for them. He was never too big for them or too good for them."
Not much has changed over time. At Mater Dei, most students are asked to host one prospective student during their four years as part of the school's shadow program. Duarte has been requested about 15 times. His work off the field complements a playing career in which he earned a spot in the Monarchs' hall of fame and will have his No. 18 jersey retired.
"You measure impact by respect amongst faculty, administration, coaches and even clerical staff," Rollinson said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody here that would say a negative thing about Thomas Duarte. As a football player, he will go down as one of the great players in Mater Dei history."
The Monarchs are just one group Duarte said he is playing for. He remembers how excited he used to get when seeing former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen on the TV. He hopes to inspire other minorities and other kids who might be overlooked to pursue their dreams.
"Every time I step on the field I'm representing more than myself, a lot more than myself," Duarte said. "My dad and mom have taught me I'm blessed with a gift and it's not guaranteed, so don't take it for granted.
"I feel like I play for the kids that never got the shot I did, the opportunities I have, the kids that were born with disabilities, diseases. God's given me this gift for a reason."
This past week, USC offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu visited Duarte at Mater Dei in hopes of swaying him to follow in the footsteps of other recent Monarchs. Duarte said he appreciated the gesture but told Polamalu, “I’m solid on UCLA – I always have been, I always will be.”
“He's breaking the mold in a lot of different ways,” Tim said. “That’s Thomas, that’s his style. He's managed to do great things with it. It’s good to be different.”
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