Strange reunion with Henry the Great

Marvin Westwestwords

Interesting reunion scheduled for this weekend in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama linebacker Henry To’o To’o will share warm greetings with old friends after trying to knock their caps off. Those same old friends will have done all they could to turn To’o To’o upside down on behalf of Tennessee.

Henry To’o To’o

We are left to wonder whether Brian Niedermeyer will attend the gathering. He was the Jeremy Pruitt assistant who somehow persuaded Henry to reject Nick Saban’s original offer of championships and greatness and become a Volunteer.

The industry hailed Niedermeyer as national recruiter of the year 2019. He received a significant raise in salary. He moved up a notch on the Pruitt staff, to coach linebackers. It was obvious Brian and Henry spoke the same language. Incidentally, the player is half Tongan and half Samoan.

To’o To’o had warm and fuzzy things to say about his relationship with Niedermeyer. Brian learned to eat pani popo (homemade bread with coconut milk). He and the family shared tall tales and laughter. Henry was impressed that the coach immediately learned and retained the names of his seven siblings – Sos, Ieseline, Elenoa, Tiute, Bill, Fia and baby brother Hercules.

Skeptics raised eyebrows and asked each other how did Niedermeyer actually get one of the top recruits in the country. How did he do that? We don’t know for sure but we know To’o To’o was among the first to go when Tennessee’s internal investigation discovered improper benefits and other violations, took down Pruitt and swept the linebacker coach out with him.

Josh Heupel never had a chance to change Henry’s mind. The new coach said that ship had sailed before he landed.

That To’o To’o now plays for Alabama is no surprise. He was originally committed to the Crimson Tide. Saban had said he was an “incredible” prospect.

Tosh Lupoi, Saban’s defensive coordinator at the time, had been a prep star at De La Salle High School in Concord, California, just like To’o To’o was a generation later. Of course, Tosh was Henry’s primary recruiting connection. The school has a football brotherhood built on trust.

“Tosh was everything to me,” said Henry. “He was a De La Salle brother.”

Alas, Lupoi left Alabama for the Cleveland Browns. Tennessee gained ground. It had a very interesting substitute, another inside tie. Ex-Vol Kevin Simon, retained from the Butch Jones staff to work in player development, had starred at De La Salle, just like To’o To’o.

Pruitt and Neidermeyer eased the charismatic Simon into the void.

To’o To’o played well enough for two seasons at Tennessee – leading tackler in a mediocre defense, 140 hits in 22 games, a bit of trouble covering receivers.

When he entered the transfer portal, he became an even brighter star, No. 3 among best available. It was logical that Alabama would offer a happy landing. Immediate eligibility sealed the deal. He soon became a starting inside linebacker.

Early on, Pruitt had said To’o To’o picked up concepts as quickly as Pruitt could teach them.

Others’ assessments: Intelligent, soft-spoken, kind-hearted, religious young man off the field, something of a monster between the lines.

To’o To’o has performed at least adequately at Alabama. He is a key communicator. He has helped the defense read formation keys and be sure of alignments. Alabama hasn’t decided whether he will become an all-American.

There is no reason to think he’ll consider himself a Vol for Life. But, believe me, he still has friends on the Tennessee team. Old teammates understand he just did what he had to do.

“Henry’s like a brother to me,” said Vol wide receiver Velus Jones. “We’re all going to be competing, we’re all competitors. After the game we can shake hands and laugh about it.”

Offensive lineman Jerome Carvin called To’o To’o the enemy – in a gentle sort of way.

“Henry, he was a great teammate when he was here, and we love him for that. But now he’s on the other side, so he’s definitely our enemy.”

Watch for the post-game reunion.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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