On his last day at home in Gainesville, Florida, before moving to Eugene to start college and play football for the University of Oregon, Tony Brooks-James was in his room changing his shirt when his mom walked in and spotted his tattoo.
He quickly pulled a shirt over and tried to play it off, knowing she wouldn’t approve.
For two months, Brooks-James had tried to hide the hand-sized, colored tattoo on his right chest. His mom had asked him numerous times why his shirts were bloody on that side of his body, but he had remained quiet.
Standing in his bedroom, he could no longer hide the tattoo. His mom, clearly upset, didn’t talk to him on the plane ride to Eugene.
Now, five years later, the running back’s chest features a matching tattoo on the left side, and six different colored roses spread across to represent the six women who helped raise him, including his mom.
“It’s a constant reminder of who I do it for,” Brooks-James said. “Every time I look in the mirror, I see it on my chest. I do this for my grandma, my auntie and my mama, my sister, my cousin.”
Underneath the jerseys and all the padding, a handful of Oregon’s football players, just like Brooks-James, use tattoos to represent their identity and motivation.
Honoring culture and family
Austin Faoliu, a sophomore defensive lineman, knew when he was 18 that he wanted a tattoo of his family’s flower-like crest to represent his Japanese and Samoan heritage.
Six days of multiple-hour sessions later, Faoliu’s left arm became a sleeve of traditional Japanese and Samoan designs, including fish scales and shark teeth. Besides the family crest, Faoliu gave the tattoo artist permission to design the rest.
“Each design on my tattoo has significant story behind it,” he said. “It’s basically telling the stories of how our ancestors lived in the past and our people; what we base our tradition off of and that’s love, God, family, respect, all those things.”
Both of his brothers have similar tattoos, including his younger brother Andrew Faoliu, who also plays on the defensive line for Oregon.
“Every time before I go out to a game, I always look down and know what I’m doing it for,” Austin Faoliu said. “It’s a good reminder for me.”
With such a diverse collection of culture on Oregon’s roster, some players choose to represent their heritages through the ink on their bodies.
On the right arm of senior inside linebacker Kaulana Apelu, a tattoo wraps from his wrist to his shoulder, showcasing his family’s Hawaiian background.
“It’s like a spiral,” he said, “because like in life, nothing is always straight. It’s just always winding, and you never know, you just keep your head straight.”
The tattoo includes Hawaiian traditional symbols and 13 flower buds to represent his 13 grandparents on his mom’s side. He surprised his mom by having her name tattooed in cursive underneath his bicep where the spiral ends.
Apelu also has a tattoo of the Hawaiian spiritual animal, the ‘aumakua, on his left forearm. The spiritual shark acts as a guardian animal over his family.
The decision to honor one’s family heritage runs deep on the team.
Running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio pays tribute to his family by a small tattoo sleeve on his forearm with Polynesian patterns such as fishing nets, waves and shields.
His mom’s last name, Habibi, which means “my sweet love,” is written in Arabic on the outside of the tattoo, while the inside consists of a skull with a gold tooth and a blue, third eye.
Habibi-Likio explained the significance of the sleeve’s skull: “Back in the day, like on the islands, my family had this tribe and they all wore skull masks and they were warriors. In our culture, all the elders had gold teeth. They actually removed their teeth and put in gold caps.”
As for the eye, Habibi said, “It’s the eye that protects you from all bad eyes and jealous people.”
The small sleeve is just one of the redshirt freshman’s six tattoos.
Habibi-Likio was 17 years old when he got first tattoo; the phrase “I am 3” on the inside of his left wrist. To him, three is not only his lucky number but represents his religious belief: “God first, family second and me third.”
By wearing a thick wristband, he hid the tattoo from his mom for a year. She finally found out when she saw him sleeping without the wristband.
Habibi-Likio tried to convince his mom the tattoo was fake, telling her it was made out of sharpie and baby powder. Four months later, she asked to see his wrist and she got upset again when the tattoo was still there.
She approves of his tattoos now, as long as they have significant meaning.
“I don’t really do them too much for show,” Habibi-Likio said. “You can see it and just think it’s regular stuff, but just the meaning, it reminds me a lot of my family and where I came from and just humbles me and that’s why I get them.”
Brooks-James got the tattoo on his chest to honor his family as well.
“In my eyes, if you get a tattoo, odds are that tattoo means a lot to you and it shows who you are,” he said. “I know you can just put it on a notecard and put it on your window, but for me, I want to get something on my body that means a lot to me. And to me, that’s my family.”
Last Christmas, Brooks-James got a matching tattoo with his younger sister, Kalia. The two both got red feathers on their shoulders: his says, “my sister protector,” and hers says, “my brother’s keeper.”
Representing the Pacific Northwest
The face of a grizzly bear growls in front of Mount Adams on the right shoulder of junior offensive lineman Shane Lemieux. To Lemieux, from Yakima, Washington, the grizzly bear represents more than the Pacific Northwest.
“Everyone used to call me bear when I was little because I was a big kid,” Lemieux said. “A bear just resembles the most powerful. They always protect their cubs. I have a little sister and I’ve always been really protective of my little sister because my mom was a single mom.”
Lemieux also has the American flag with the saying, “Don’t tread on me,” in full color. The tattoo matches one his dad has had since he was in the Marine Corps.
Since both tattoos are fairly large and include shading and color, Lemieux said he has spent about $2,000 total on his arms.
The tattoos have given Lemieux a way to express himself.
“A lot of people hate on tattoos like, ‘Why would you have that on your arm when you can just say you’re loyal?’” he said. “I think it’s artwork, too. A lot of people say that every tattoo has to have a meaning, but at the same time, I think tattoos are really cool-looking, they’re really aesthetic. I think it’s just showing how we can express ourselves more through art.”
Fellow offensive lineman Calvin Throckmorton got his first tattoo as a high school graduation gift from his parents. The tattoo of Mount Rainier on his right bicep took a total of eight and a half hours to complete.
Throckmorton planned the design for about two to three years before actually getting the ink.
“I was really nervous,” Throckmorton said. “Obviously, getting something permanent like that on your body is a little nerve-wracking. But that’s why I spent so much time thinking about it and really planning what I actually wanted, and then I really didn’t have any fear or doubts about it once it was actually on.”
This past June, Throckmorton, a junior at Oregon, got his second tattoo. The new one took nearly seven and a half hours to complete and it is a bear on the inside of his right arm.
Throckmorton said he wants to get a sleeve at some point. He wants to add to his Pacific Northwest aesthetic by getting a design of Bigfoot, a creature he believes exists somewhere in the forests of Washington and Oregon.
Throckmorton sees his tattoos as a way to show his own narrative.
“I knew it was a way to express who I am,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve always really gravitated towards them, because I think it’s a way to tell a story about yourself without saying anything.”
Correction: The story originally stated that Habibi-Likio got his first tattoo at age 14, but has been corrected to say he was 17.
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