Dressed in a Carolina-blue hoodie and matching shorts, Tafon Mainsah strolled out of the Charlotte Catholic locker room after his team’s 15-12 win over Waxhaw Marvin Ridge in the first round of the playoffs last week looking as if he was a lifelong North Carolina resident. Mainsah looked comfortable in his attire. A natural fit.
Mainsah has certainly played the cornerback and punt returner positions with an equal measure of familiarity this season. Mainsah leads the team with three punt returns for touchdowns while chipping in 25 tackles and a team-high three interceptions for the Cougars. He’s also broken up seven passes, second on the team only to defensive end Jamie Choulas.
Mainsah’s presence in the secondary, said Charlotte Catholic coach Jim Oddo, has been vital this season, especially as the Cougars have been forced to replace much of last year’s defense, including backfield standout David Herlocker, who also was a force in the return game.
“He hawks the ball well, he’s a good cover guy and he tackles well,” Oddo said of Mainsah. “When he plays zone, he’s unbelievable. He can see the quarterback’s eyes and he’ll jump the ball. He can sit back and hawk the ball as well as anyone we’ve had in a long, long time.”
But much like his Tar Heel fandom and his North Carolina residency, Mainsah’s fluency on the gridiron is still pretty new.
Mainsah began rooting for the Tar Heels when basketball coach Roy Williams joined the program after leading the University of Kansas to prominence. Back then, Mainsah was a youngster in Wichita, Kan.
In those days, Mainsah was a soccer player. As the son of immigrants from Cameroon in Central Africa, soccer was the go-to sport for Mainsah, and really the only one he cared to play as a child. As he got older, he branched out into other sports such as basketball – he still plays guard on the Cougars hoops team – but continued on a competitive tract with soccer, joining select travel teams, even earning a coveted spot on an Olympic Development Program. He played the sport as a freshman and sophomore at Kapaun Mount Carmel High in Wichita, helping the Crusaders to a state semifinal appearance as a 10th-grader.
During the summer before his junior year, his mother, Lillian, got a job in Charlotte, and the two moved to the Queen City. The fresh start presented a unique opportunity for Mainsah, who said he’d been curious about the sport of football but always had opted for the pitch over the gridiron.
“When I moved over here, I was like, ‘I want a change. I don’t really want to play soccer in college – I think it’ll be more exciting to play football,’” Mainsah recalled. “So I made the decision to change.
“I just wanted to try it out.”
Following the move, Mainsah said he visited Charlotte Catholic and watched a football practice.
“I saw how intense it was,” Mainsah said. “I knew pretty quickly how much football meant to the Charlotte Catholic community. I saw pictures of the crowds and how big and crazy they were, and I was like, ‘Dang, this could be pretty cool.’ You’re playing for a lot more, and you just want to uphold that tradition.”
While his soccer teams in Kansas attracted some pretty big crowds, seeing the fan setting during last year’s Cook Cup game against rival Charlotte Country Day gave Mainsah a pretty good indication about what was in store for him.
“When I came out for warmups and to see how packed that place was, it was an adrenaline rush,” Mainsah said. “There’s nothing compared to it.”
In a glimpse of what was to come, Mainsah picked off two passes in his inaugural Cook Cup game and put together a solid first year playing football as a cornerback.
Which came as a surprise to Oddo.
“I didn’t think he was gong to be able to play, to tell you the truth,” said Oddo, who cited Mainsah’s late start in the program. “But all of a sudden, he got there and everything lit up (for him). I guess that came from not having that experience but getting it real quick.”
Mainsah explained that he had watched enough football to know his way around the field when he first began playing. Plus, many of the skills that made him a successful midfielder in soccer, especially his footwork and field vision, translated directly to his new sport.
“You have to have the vision to see your players (in both sports),” said Mainsah, who added that defending a pass in football is similar to fighting to head a ball at midfield in soccer.
“You have to have some strength about you and some vertical ability,” Mainsah said. “That definitely transferred over to the football field.”
The biggest difference, said Mainsah, has been the difference in roles.
“It was a little bit different because, as a midfielder in soccer, you touch the ball every single possession,” Mainsah said. “At cornerback, you might not touch the ball the whole game.”
And there are plenty of times, admitted Mainsah, that he misses soccer, times he second-guesses his decision, especially given the fact that the Cougars’ soccer team is among the best in the state.
“Sometimes it crosses my mind that maybe I should’ve stayed with it, but, really, I just want to (be able to) pay for college,” said Mainsah.
So far, it looks as if the decision to switch sports might pay off from that standpoint. Mainsah said he’s received recruiting interest from football programs such as Wofford, Richmond, William & Mary and even Wake Forest.
It seems those programs have noticed Mainsah’s strong play this season, which he chalks up to an increased comfort level on the field.
“My confidence and comfort have definitely raised,” Mainsah said. “I see things a whole lot differently (this year). It seems like things are slowing down and not moving so fast. It’s a whole lot different from last year.”
While he might not have the ball at his feet every play anymore, that doesn’t mean he has any less responsibility for his team. In fact, his role should become even more vital if the Cougars are able to progress deeper into the Class 3AA state playoffs, starting Friday, Nov. 9, with a second-round home game against Weddington.
“Obviously everyone knows (running back) Elijah Hood is going to be (the playmaker) on our offensive side of the ball,” Mainsah said. “Maybe if he’s a little slow that day, I should be the guy that should be able to pick things up.
“I definitely think of myself as a leader as a senior and just a guy that can make a play, hopefully.”
And that, said Mainsah, is an idea with which he’s completely comfortable.