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Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history: No. 28 Joe Salave’a

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Position, years at UA: Defensive tackle, 1994-97

Honors, accomplishments at UA: Earned honorable mention all-conference honors in 1995, a second-team nod in 1996 and a first-team award in 1997. … Led the team in sacks and tackles for a loss in his final two seasons.

Why he made our list: The Samoan-born Joe Salave’a was simply a tough son of a gun, described best by a story from his freshman season.

A dislocated left wrist sent him from Arizona Stadium to the emergency room of University of Medical Center, where he implored the staff to hurry. When X-rays were negative for a break, he was rushed back to the game with his injured wrist, forcing two fourth-quarter fumbles as the Wildcats rallied to beat UCLA 34-24.

“He had a motor and a way of playing,” coach Dick Tomey told TucsonCitizen.com. “The group that he played with, we had a lot of guys like that. He fit right in. He played with tremendous passion.”

Salave’a is ninth in school history with 21 1/2 sacks. He had 29 tackles for a loss in his final two seasons, seemingly always playing through some ailment but refusing to leave the lineup. He was a heart-and-soul defender for UA as much as anybody through the 1990s.

And he did something that almost assuredly will never happen again.

Salave’a played in the East-West Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl after the 1996 season and was preparing for the NFL when the NCAA passed legislation that allowed another season of eligibility to initial partial qualifiers, such as Salave’a, provided they graduate in four years.

After several weeks of pondering his future, Salave’a came back for his second senior year and then became a two-time participant in each of those postseason All-Star Games for seniors.

Tomey was so appreciative that Salave’a returned that he flew with the defensive tackle to Samoa during spring break in 1997 to thank his parents in person for their support.

Life after college: Salave’a had a productive nine-year NFL career after being a fourth-round pick, No. 107 overall, by Tennessee. He spent four years as a backup in Tennessee, then tried to hook on with other teams in 2002 before landing with the San Diego Chargers for one season. His more-productive years came with the Washington Redskins from 2004 to 2006, when he started 26 of 42 games in which he appeared.

Salave’a twice took part in the NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship, and his old coach, Tomey, gave him his first coaching break, hiring him to guide the defensive line at San Jose State in 2008 and 2009. Salave’a, who was out of college coaching in 2010 after Tomey retired, then joined Mike Stoops’ staff at UA for the 2011 season.

When Rich Rodriguez did not re-hire Salave’a at Arizona for 2012, the ex-Cat joined new Washington State coach Mike Leach in Pullman, where he will coach the defensive line for the second season.

In partnership with the Arizona Republic, we are counting down the top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. Leave your top 10 at AG’s Wildcat Report on Facebook, and check out azcentral.com for the countdown of ASU’s Top 50 football players.

No. 50 — LaMonte Hunley

No. 49 — Hubie Oliver

No. 48 — Rob Gronkowski

No. 47 — Jim Donarski

No. 46 — Ontiwaun Carter

No. 45 — Steve McLaughlin

No. 44 — John Fina

No. 43 — Glenn Parker

No. 42 — Bobby Lee Thompson

No. 41 — Marcus Bell

No. 40 — Fred W. Enke

No. 39 — Ka’Deem Carey

No. 38 — Juron Criner

No. 37 — Dana Wells

No. 36 — Tom Tunnicliffe

No. 35 — Bruce Hill

No. 34 — Chuck Osborne

No. 33 — Brandon Sanders

No. 32 — Sean Harris

No. 31 — Mike Thomas

No. 30 — Bobby Wade

No. 29 — T Bell

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