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Tight End Tough
Rockhurst Standout Dan Tapko Bringing His Versatile Talents To Oklahoma Next Season

Dan Tapko had expected great things to happen this past season. The Rockhurst High senior wanted to help lead his team to its second state title in four years and in the process show why he is one of the top prep prospects in the nation.

However, Tapko’s plans didn’t go exactly as he had hoped. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end’s season was nearly derailed multiple times as he battled injuries and other health issues.

“It was a little bit of a letdown,” said Tapko, the top-ranked high school player in Missouri according to “I tore my MCL week seven. Then I had been battling some hereditary conditions (colitis). I had been diagnosed with that in the season. It made the whole season kind of hard to get through. I cramped up in almost every single game I played. The one game I didn’t cramp in, I tore my MCL. So from that standpoint, it was hard.”

It didn’t end there for Tapko. After missing four games, he returned during the postseason and played in two playoff games and the state title game.

“In the state championship, the first drive of the third quarter, I reinjured my MCL,” said Tapko. “I didn’t even get to finish that game. It as very tough. I was on all sorts of steroids for the colitis. On top of that, when I got hurt, the steroids prevented me from getting back as quickly as I wanted to. It was tough fighting two things at once and one hurting the other.

“It was definitely a mental challenge on a day-to-day basis to get through everything. But it worked out. We won state. I fought through it.”

That is the type of attitude Tapko has carried with him throughout his prep career — no matter what obstacle is put in front of him, he does his best to knock it down.

Rockhurst coach Tony Severino said it’s that passion and perseverance that makes Tapko such a special athlete.

“Off the field, he’s very unassuming. He’s not real flashy,” said Severino. “But on the field, he’s tough. He’s one of those tough guys that has a linebacker-type mentality and look about him. (He’s) one of those guys that would help an old lady across the street, then be the first guy in a bar that would help somebody out in a fight.”

In the big picture, Tapko is also among the top-15 tight end prospects in the nation. It’s easy to see why his coach believes Tapko would fit in nicely among the nation’s elite programs.

Yet to look at Tapko’s statistics, it would be hard to imagine he was one of the top pass catching tight ends in the country. Despite missing four games, he led the Hawklets this past season with 16 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown. It was a down year compared to his junior season in which, when he hauled in 26 receptions for more than 500 yards.

But numbers do not tell the entire story when it comes to Tapko’s importance to Rockhurst, which also won the Class 6A state championship in 2007.

“Obviously, he was our main guy,” said Severino. “Dan was fortunate enough to play in it as a freshman. We have had him up since his freshman year. He went through a minor setback with his knee right before the playoffs. But having him up to that point, he basically won a couple of games for us. One from the defensive standpoint, blocking a crucial extra point in an OT win. And his pass-catching ability — we really missed him when he wasn’t in the ballgame as a tight end because he was our No. 1 receiver.”

The Rockhurst coaches weren’t the only ones to see Tapko’s true value.

“Tapko is a prospect who brings good size and some versatility to the table,” said one recruiting analyst. “He plays both tight end and defensive end in high school, and an argument could be made for him at both positions in college. He has the size and frame to be able to fit and grow into either spot. While he is a solid defensive end, we feel he will fit best and be able to make a greater contribution on offense as a tight end. He has good height and the frame to add more good bulk and will likely fit best as more of an in-line tight end. He can be a physical and productive blocker.”

Tapko’s list of college suitors began accumulating during his junior season and included Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Wisconsin. But Tapko had one program in mind before the recruiting process even started.
He knew where he wanted to go and was patiently waiting for an offer from Oklahoma.

“It was always the dream school,” said Tapko. “It was what I had been looking forward to since I was a little kid, to have a chance to play there. I’ve been a Missouri fan my whole life, but Oklahoma was always that much better than Missouri. No offense to Missouri, but Oklahoma was always just a premier team in the Big 12, along with Texas. But Oklahoma is a little closer to home, and I always felt Oklahoma did things a little differently than Texas.
“There is something about Texas that just didn’t appeal to me.”

Tapko committed to the Sooners last June — not just because it is his dream school, but because Oklahoma’s offense fits his style.

“The way they use the tight end in a traditional set. It was something that drew me as opposed to a place like Missouri which runs the spread offense. They don’t usually use the tight end to block too much. I wanted to be in a blocking and receiving role.”

Two years ago, when Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham missed the entire season with a knee injury, the tight end position was at its lowest point. Since then, the Sooners have started stockpiling players at the position.

Despite that, it didn’t surprise those close to Tapko when he chose the Sooners.

“I think that was No. 1 going into it,” said Severino. “That was going to be his first choice when he talked about it because he knows how they play their tight ends. A number of schools were recruiting him as a defensive end. He is that good. He could play off the edge on defense. And he could end up doing it. Who knows?”

During the recently concluded season, Oklahoma showed it isn’t afraid to play freshman. With his colitis under control and his knee mending, Tapko has a shot to make an instant contribution.

“If maybe I get a little bigger in the offseason, I can step in next season and help them out at tight end,” said Tapko. “If not, redshirt. Right now, I’m hoping to get a chance to rotate in a little bit next season. Obviously, they are looking to be No. 1 in the nation. I want to be playing a role in hopefully a national championship. That would perfect. I went into high school, and we won a state championship. And I finished with a state championship. To win a national championship the next year would be very special.”

His current coach believes big things are in store for Tapko at the next level.

“I always say he’s a Tony Gonzales-type tight end,” said Severino. “He can flex, match up with linebackers but also run blocks great. Dan’s one of those guys who if he stays healthy and gets the right opportunities, he could be a Sunday-type guy. He could be that good.”

(Editor's Note: This story appears in the Jan.-Feb. Issue of Sooner Spectator. To subscribe, call toll free 1-877-841-8877.)