THINK YOU KNOW UZI, THINK AGAIN
For someone who denies opposing forwards from scoring goals, Uzi Tayou has forged a reputation as a person who has given so much off the field.
When he isn't blocking shots for the Empire Strykers, the veteran defender usually can be found on the streets of Ontario and San Bernardino County in California, along with his brother and teammate, Franck, giving aid to the homeless.
The Tayou brothers have handled out water, food, blankets, and clothes to people who are less fortunate than many of us.
"The biggest role that they play is in our community, and Uzi is a huge part of that," Strykers head coach Jimmy Nordberg said. "This is a guy who, on his days off. is going to homeless shelters, homeless people on the street and handing out water bottles and food and stuff like that. Very, very giving person. Both of them.
"It's great. They're not asked to do it. It's completely on their own merit.
"We're a community-based organization and what Uzi does in the community, to be honest with you, is far more valuable than what he does on the soccer field because he empowers the youth. He works a lot of camps clinics, because a lot of extra stuff off or on the field, which is what we are about. It's been terrific for our organization."
For the Tayou brothers, it seemed to be the natural thing to do.
"There's always going to be life after soccer, and you know people are not always going to remember how good you were," Uzi said.
"That's the beauty of life in general," Franck said. "That's the beauty of having a gift and being able to bless people in so many ways as opposed to just what you do on the field."
There is a good chance that fans might remember what you did by giving the people help and a second chance.
Uzi and Franck started their personal community outreach with the Strykers during the COVID-19 pandemic several years ago.
"It was raining. We were home and the weather was terrible," Uzi said. "We are complaining about the fact that we're going to stay home. There were people who had no other place to stay.
"You have to show how grateful and thankful you are. So we just decided to go out and give water and food. We started just going around parks because we knew that that's where they'll be camping."
That feeling of gratefulness and of giving was instilled into the brothers when they grew up in Cameroon.
"It begins with my father, who was a big shoe philanthropist back home," Franck said. "He worked mainly with prisoners. He went to Europe and bought a lot of clothes donated it to the to the prisoners because of the conditions they were living in."
They also saw it up-close, which Franck called, "a bunch of acts of kindness."
"We had a maid at the house once and she came to work late because she didn't have money for cabs," Franck said. "She walked, which caused her to be late. All day she was so worried [about being fired]. She was so scared. When my dad came home, he told her, 'I heard you came to work late today.' She was shaking. He handed her $100 and said, 'I don't want to be late to work anymore.' For me, it was a life-changing moment. Seeing the joy on her face, and my dad was a hero at that point. That's sort of like what cultivated that that spirit in us."
The Tayou brothers wound on the other side of the coin when they attended Tacoma Community College in 2008-09. They were staying at Patrick Lawrence's house. They were charged $1,000 a month for rent and were out of money.
"My brother and I were packing our stuff, thinking we're going to be homeless," Franck said.
The brothers went to the owners and explained to him why they were leaving.
"They were had a smile on their faces. 'You guys are good. You can stay there for free.' So we ended up staying at a house for a whole year without paying rent," Franck said. "When we left that place, and we were so thankful. We were told to spread the love. That's something we took and ran with."
When they played for the Monterrey Flash during the 2018-19 Major Arena Soccer League season, the brothers worked with a local orphanage. They made visits to the facility to encourage children and a start a scholarship program in which they could attend private school.
"I remember the first time with this kid. I'll never forget it," Uzi said. "It's been almost five years. They never forget what we've done for them ... because it changed their life. They're getting jobs, good jobs."
But like with the Tayous, there was a caveat.
"It's on them, "Uzi said. "Now you have do that for somebody else."
After the 2017-18 season, the Tayou brothers were named the winners of the MASL's Ed Tepper Humanitarians of the year award.
Uzi brought along that philosophy when he played for the Baltimore Blast during a 2015-16 MASL championship season.
"A lot of it is inspiring my brother, who has an amazing heart," said Franck, who added that Uzi was almost in tears when he read a story about the homeless.
"He said that we're so blessed. so fortunate to have to do something and, and initially he wanted to just, donate money," Franck continued. "I said, 'That's great, but what if we can get our friends to come in on it and donate so that he could get a bigger portion.’ Within an hour we made a few phone calls and raised $3,000. So that was great."
Since then, the Tayou brothers have continued to pay it forward.
Both players were born in Cameroon a little more than a year apart. Franck is 33, Uzi, 32, but were raised as twins as they attended the same classes in school together. Uzi fell in love with soccer first, while Franck began playing at the age of 17.
He turned into a quick study and becoming one of the most dominant players in the league, winning four MVP titles in the MASL and being named an MASL first team all-star as many times.
The brothers also have played for several teams, including the Las Vegas Legends, Monterrey Flash and Soles de Sonora.
Though indoor goal-scorers grabbed the headlines, Uzi has managed to cast his own shadow on the backline. He has earned defensive player of the year honors and led the MASL in blocked shots one season. Entering this weekend's action, Uzi is tied for the most blocks with the Florida Tropics' Rafa Alves, with 33 apiece.
"If I had one word, it would be selflessness," Nordberg said. "He's willing to give up his body for the betterment of the team. That's why he's always at the top of the leaderboard in blocks. He's willing to do the gritty stuff. He's willing to do the ugly stuff. Nobody wants to stand in the wall and get to get the ball blasted [into them], and nobody wants to slide in the carpet to block a shot from the top of the box. Nobody wants to be on a penalty kill unit. Time and time again, when you're probably going to get scored on because it goes against your stats. Nobody wants to do the sixth-attacker defense. Uzi's the first one up and a leader in that moment, to be able to put his body on the line, knowing that it's hard work, grit and effort. He signs up for it, and he embraces it."
Shot blocking is an art unto itself.
"First of all, it's anticipating the shot and reading the play and his body language," Uzi said. "If I am defending 1 v 1, I want to make the play predictable.
"A lot of people stand to block if the shot is at them. But to be able to slide tackle, you put yourself in a moment when the shot is be taken. I think most people don't appreciate it as much."
Uzi has experience one memorable blocked shot, and that didn't happen during a game, but when he and Franck played in Monterrey.
"He took a shot, and I extended my leg, but the shot twisted my ankle," he said. "It was awful for two weeks."
During the early years of their careers, the Tayou's had this sibling rivalry, especially in college.
"I'll tell you this. Early on in our career that we were younger, back in college, man, it was war," Franck said. "If I had the best of the best of the situation, then I'll be talking crap. If it was him, he'll be talking crap. Coaches knew not to put us on separate teams because it was literally war."
Over the years, respect grew between the brothers.
"We have that respect, and we just play hard and also play smart," Franck said.
Uzi has become a student of the game, which he learned in his one season with the Blast under the tutelage of head coach Danny Kelly.
"It's because of Danny Kelly for the way I approach the game in terms of preparation and knowledge I had learned tremendously in Baltimore," Uzi said, adding that it "shaped my understanding of the game and literally will be the reason I coach one day."
Before every match this season, Nordberg has given his team written tests, not unlike a classroom, about the next opponent. The players have needed to explain the foes' losses, their weaknesses and how to exploit them, how the team plays and their patterns and who they're going to individually match up against.
"You should read Uzi's. It's in-depth," Nordberg said. "He knows every player, what their numbers are, what their dominant foot is, what their traits are, what their key qualities are. He's very good. He's a student of the game. He knows what these guys norms are and what their patterns are and what they're going to do. What he doesn't have in the athletic ability he makes up in his wisdom."
Preparing for a game on the mental and physical sides have become part of Uzi's DNA.
"That sort of thing is extremely vital," he said. "It helps make my job on the field easier. I started doing this part since my last year in Vegas. When I got to Baltimore, I saw has some of the veterans preparing for games. It made me understand that that was the right way to do it. You get a feel your job, and you must you feel very much prepared because you have an idea of what is coming for you. You use your confidence and skillset in stopping forwards in in doing the job."
In fact, Franck called Uzi his private coach.
"He's the biggest critic of my game," he said. "He's so knowledgeable. He's a student of the game. He played for probably the greatest coach in the history of the game, Danny Kelly. He was just such a student. He has a book where he took so many notes. After he joined me in Mexico, he started teaching me the game, but we played such a, unconventional type of soccer game [and the team] was sort of grasping it. We moved to Ontario [Fury, now the known as the Strykers]. It was a different style of play. That's when I started watching film with him and break down some of my plays.
"When you have the ability and the skillset of having someone like him to sort of be able to help you elevate your game, it's unbelievable. Having him on my team, not only playing against him, it has been a blessing. Before every game, he helps me warm up. We work on different things, and he tells me defenders are going to defend me, you need to do this, you need to do that."
Uzi hasn't spread the wealth of his knowledge beyond Franck, but to his teammates as well, as a mentor for the Strykers (11-5-1, 33 points) who are in third place in the Western Division, two points behind the leaders, San Diego Sockers.
"It's been a fun evolution for us because last year, we had a rough, rough ending," Nordberg said. "We lost a bunch of games in a row. The morale of the team in the locker room was in shambles. Seeing the culture change with these guys has been good. Uzi's been a big part of that. He's been a part to tell these guys is what you have to do. You don't just come in at 10 o'clock, train, and then go home. You got to do other work. So now we're starting to see the tests get better and better and better. It's part because of our leadership within the team, because it's not all coaches can't do everything. You've got to have leaders within the unit, and he's taken that role on."
Nordberg wouldn't be surprised if Uzi becomes a coach or a general manager after he hangs up his cleats for good.
"I would love to have the opportunity coach one day after I'm done," said Uzi, who added he has some more seasons left in his tank.
"I would love to play for as long as my body allows me to," he said. "I think I do a pretty good job of taking care of my body on and off the field. I can't put a year on it. It would be tough. We need a championship. That's the only thing in a season that drives you. When you train offseason and when preseason comes, you give 120, 150 percent every day to win a championship. Not the easiest thing to do.
"We've come a long way. I think we belong, but we have to work we have a lot of work to do."
Uzi Tayou wants to finish the season with the flourish on two fronts - help the Strykers win their first MASL championship and continue to help those in need off the field.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.lk. His sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21stcentury Rochester Lancers, will be published in March. It will have many features about indoor soccer and MASL players.