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Mark Tuinei Was Cowboys Role Model

May 6, 1999 GMT

IRVING, Texas (AP) _ He was back-alley tough and choir-boy gentle.

He was church-parson nice and Jay Leno-funny. At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, he was a jolly Hawaiian giant who could block the meanest defensive lineman the NFL could muster.

He was the kind of player who was a role model to one and all.

He was Mark Tuinei, 39, who won three Super Bowl rings while protecting the health of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.

On Thursday, Tuinei was found dead in his car.

``My job is easy,″ Tuinei used to say. ``I can protect myself. Troy and Emmitt have to hold a football while somebody is trying to kill them.″

Tuinei, who played 15 years for the Dallas Cowboys before bad knees retired him last year, showed up at the Thousand Oaks, Calif., training camp in 1983 with 84 other rookies.

Dallas scouts first noticed him when he played for the University of Hawaii. Tuinei’s tenacity earned him a job with the Cowboys.

``We like the big Hawaiian kid as a defensive line prospect,″ said personnel director Gil Brandt. ``He could develop into a good one.″

As it turned out, Tuinei was one of the best and toughest offensive linemen the Cowboys have ever produced.

He finally made the Pro Bowl in 1994, although his teammates already knew he was their MVP.

Tuinei’s job at left tackle was to protect Aikman from blindside blitzes, which he did expertly, and help grind out holes for Smith to run through.

``Tui,″ as the players called him, did it all then laughed about it in the dressing room after the game, win or lose.

And he never, ever turned down an autograph seeker.

``It was Tui’s nature to be nice to every human being he meets unless they have a different colored jersey,″ teammate Bill Bates once said.

Former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach became friends with Tuinei and said, ``We just all loved the guy. He was just a gentle giant. He was just one of those unsung players that goes out and does their job. He was one of those kind of players every team needs. He was a role model for the NFL.″

``He was like a big teddy bear,″ said former teammate Mike Saxon. ``He loved everybody and everybody loved him.″

The press certainly did, and forgave him for having a name that was hard to spell. Many times he was the only player who would show at Valley Ranch after a tough loss.

``Gentlemen, how can I help you?″ Tuinei would smile.

Teammates admired Tuinei for his toughness and ability to play hurt. He suffered knee injuries almost every year he played with the Cowboys, yet he would suit up on Sunday.

Back spasms finally got the best of him in 1994, causing him to miss a game.

The injuries forced him to retire last year and Dallas had to switch guard Larry Allen to his position to keep Aikman from getting pounded.

For an offensive lineman who doesn’t get much publicity, Tuinei had a million friends. His sudden death was a shock to anyone who knew him or saw him play.

``This is a big loss for the city of Dallas,″ Saxon said.

It couldn’t have been said better.