Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Especially now, in the first week of this first football season without his father.
Lofa Tatupu was named after Mosi, his dad, and this game has always bonded them.
"It has been tough," Lofa says, "Not to be able to call him during camp. I might tear up. I'm sorry."
He stops to swallow the lump in his throat. The pause is heartbreaking.
Mosiula Mea'alofa Tatupu. That is the full name of Seattle's starting middle linebacker, named for his father,
15-year NFL veteran Mosi Tatupu, who died in February.
Their middle names were different, but he was his father's son. Dad coached him in high school in Massachusetts, and when Lofa went looking for a college to transfer to after his freshman year at Division I-AA Maine, Mosi kept knocking on the door at his alma mater, USC, to convince Pete Carroll and the Trojans' coaches to give Lofa a shot.
But now Mosi is gone, passing one evening back in February. He went downstairs for a nap like he did every evening. A friend came down and found him on the couch holding something in his hand.
It was a prayer bead, one that Lofa's mother, Linnea Garcia-Tatupu, had given Mosi years before. The friend who found Mosi had never seen him holding it during his nap until that night.
"Almost like he knew," Lofa said.
It is a peaceful image from a tragic loss. Mosi, who suffered from high blood pressure, died from a massive heart attack. He was 54.
And so the son prepares for the first season without his father.
Lofa Tatupu, 27, is coming back from a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2009 season after six games. The real uncertainty is whether he can return to the Pro Bowl form he showed his first three years in Seattle.
He was a star from the start in Seattle, a second-round pick in 2005 who solidified a position that had been a revolving door and made the Pro Bowl each of his first three seasons.
But the past two seasons have been riddled with injuries, from the thumb he broke in the 2009 season opener to the knee that was periodically drained, to the pectoral muscle that was torn off the bone.
Can he get back to playing at that level?
"Honestly, if I don't make another Pro Bowl, yeah that's upsetting," Lofa said, "But that's not the bowl I'm worried about."
He is back in the role that he feels most comfortable. The underdog. This is a player whom New Hampshire's coaches deemed too small coming out of high school.
He had to go to Maine before deciding to transfer, and even when USC took notice of him, the Trojans wanted him to walk on until they found out Oregon was going to offer him a scholarship.
Now, he is the heart of Seattle's defense, the one that Carroll is counting on to hold the linebackers together.
"By far, he's the guy that runs that group," Carroll said.
But Tatupu never lost that feeling of being overlooked and underestimated.
"You always got to have that chip, that edge," he said. "I never lost my edge."
If anything, it's sharpened by the loss of the father he is determined to honor this season. That's what he told his dad on the phone.
"Last time I ever spoke to him, I told him I was going to make him proud," Lofa said. "And that I loved him."