VIRGINIA — Taquarius “T.Q.” Wair doesn’t really remember the fire that dramatically changed his life and nearly killed him. He was, after all, only four, but he has heard how he survived — by perhaps the strongest of all devotions, that of a child to his mother.

“I was in the room that was on fire, and my mom just called my name, and she said I walked to her,” said Wair, who suffered severe burns that required countless surgeries.

Wair’s 6-year-old sister wasn’t so lucky. She was later found dead in an upstairs room, hiding under a bed in a home their mother had just purchased.

Wair’s struggle certainly wasn’t over, and still isn’t, but the 2019 graduate of Minneapolis North recovered to the point where he was able to excel in high school football. This fall the freshman running back has played college football for Mesabi Range. Wair’s story was chronicled in a moving video by ESPN first aired in August.

The Norsemen fell to Central Lakes on Sunday with a 30-2 loss in the first round of the Minnesota College Athletic Conference playoffs.

Mesabi Range coach Tom Inforzato said Wair has proven to be an inspiration to his teammates and coaches.

“T.Q. has been through a lot — a lot — but he never complains,” Inforzato said. “We’ve got some kids who have gone through tough times and have backgrounds that aren’t as easy as some other people. Everyone has their own story to tell, but when you look at what T.Q.’s been through, it really puts things in perspective.”

Taquarius Wair talks about how he became interested in football a few years after he was severely burned. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Taquarius Wair talks about how he became interested in football a few years after he was severely burned. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Learning to live with it

Wair doesn’t remember crying and screaming as gauze stuck to his wounds, nor does he know how many surgeries he has had.

“A lot,” he said. “I don’t know, just a lot. I can’t tell you an exact number.”

And there will be more to come.

While the ESPN video implies kids were mean to him growing up, Wair, who sat down with the News Tribune on Wednesday, downplayed it. Oh, he would hear whispers and see people do double takes, but he is used to it and doesn’t let it bother him.

“I wouldn’t call it teasing,” Wair said. “I was one of the popular kids in school.”

But get to know him, even a little bit, and he’s just T.Q.

For sure, if Wair was ever teased, he certainly won his classmates over. During a dramatic moment in the ESPN video, the audience gave him a roaring ovation when he was introduced during high school graduation, and Wair, overcome with emotion, kept screaming, “I made it, I made it!”

“I went through a lot of stuff as a kid, and I was graduating high school right then, and I was going to college, so I felt good,” Wair said.

As good as Wair felt there, he is generally happiest on a football field.

When you watch him there, he just looks like another football player.

“Yeah, I do,” Wair said, proudly. “I wouldn’t say that’s my favorite compliment, but I like it.”

Taquarius Wair takes a handoff during a recent practice. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Taquarius Wair takes a handoff during a recent practice. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Wair’s mobility was initially very limited, but surgery after surgery, it all came back to him. However, it wasn’t without a cost. While other kids his age were playing outside, he was in a hospital bed. Wair, who speaks quietly, with a little raspiness to his voice, was asked what was it like going through all that.

“I just had to put all that stuff (of being a kid) on pause, and once I got through it, life would be normal,” he said. “And then I could do anything I wanted. So surgery would stop me for a month or two, but however long it takes, you have to do it. It’s who I am. If I want to do something, I’m going to do it. Like my mom said, I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”

Wair started playing football at about age seven and fell in love with the sport right away. His older brothers played it, and you can bet he was going to play it, too.

“And I was good,” Wair said, drawing a laugh.

Wair’s left hand got burned worse than his right, so it’s harder for him to grab onto things with his left hand, but he has adapted over the years. His fingers are stubby, but he can catch the football with his left hand now.

“To be honest, I don’t even notice,” Wair said. “I’m still able to do everything.”

Taquarius Wair holds his hands on his lap while talking with a visitor lately. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Taquarius Wair holds his hands on his lap while talking with a visitor lately. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

From Minneapolis to Mesabi

Wair said he decided to attend Mesabi Range because coach Inforzato was the only person to come see him. Minneapolis North had just lost to the eventual state champion, Caledonia, in the Class AA state quarterfinals.

Inforzato has a strong connection with Polars football coach Charles Adams, who vowed to make sure Wair went to college.

“When I played football here at Mesabi (in 2000-2001), my roommate was from north Minny,” Inforzato said. “When I came back to Mesabi, he called me and said make sure you take care of my boys down at North.”

Wair, 5 foot 10 and 185 pounds, is the traditional “scatback,” a little small but quick. And that’s after he packed on 20 pounds of muscle since high school. During the regular season, he rushed 14 times for 121 yards and a touchdown, averaging 8.6 yards per carry playing behind a couple sophomore running backs. He also plays a key role on special teams. Inforzato said Wair could be a featured back next year. Wair would like to play football at a four-year school.

Mesabi Range head football coach Tom Inforzato talks with Taquarius Wair during a recent practice. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mesabi Range head football coach Tom Inforzato talks with Taquarius Wair during a recent practice. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“Coach Adams had texted me some names, so I checked out about four or five kids, and Taquarius was one of them,” Inforzato said. “I like him as a player. He brings a lot to the table, and he’s a tough kid, and this was prior to me knowing anything about his background. I didn’t know anything about his story, but learning more about his past, you really feel for him.”

And Inforzato was going to make sure his players also learned Wair’s story.

Mesabi Range football players gathered in the college auditorium to watch the ESPN video shortly before the season started.

“I teared up,” said another Minneapolis North product, Deshone Stinson. “I see T.Q. every day, and we’ve gotten closer. I knew his story before, I but had never seen the video until then. The video brought everything together nicely, and to see it on the big screen, it really hit home.”

For Inforzato, “Coach I” as he’s called, the message of gathering his team to watch the video was simple, yet powerful. A quick glance at Mesabi Range’s roster and you see players who hail from all over, Pittsburgh to Miami to New Orleans to north Minneapolis, many with hardscrabble backgrounds who all made the potentially life-changing decision to come up to northern Minnesota to play ball.

“It was just kind of a wakeup call for everybody, trials and tribulations,” Inforzato said. “You watch that and you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t have it that bad.’”

 Taquarius Wair (right) listen as teammate and friend Deshone Stinson talks about him recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Taquarius Wair (right) listen as teammate and friend Deshone Stinson talks about him recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

At 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, Stinson, a left guard, comes across as a gentle giant. He first became friends with Wair’s older brother, and he said he wasn’t taken aback the first time he saw T.Q., saying he’s not the type to be judgmental.

Now as college roommates and teammates, Stinson has been like a big brother to Wair. Stinson said T.Q. has an infectious personality and indomitable spirit.

“That’s the thing with T.Q.,” Stinson said, smiling. “He’s funny, but he doesn’t know it. He’ll say something that’ll just make you laugh, and then he’ll look at you like, ‘What?’ And you’ll just keep laughing. He’s a special person, very much so.”

And an inspiration.

While Wair would never call himself that, he doesn’t mind people knowing his story. His mother cried the first time she saw the ESPN video, it had all come together so nicely, and T.Q. agreed.

“It was dope,” he said, drawing another big laugh. “What’s my message? Don’t give up, in anything you do. There’s going to be some obstacles in your lifetime, but you have to deal with it right way — and don’t look back.”