Panthers rookie Star Lotulelei has been an indispensable force on a Super Bowl contender in 2013. How did he get there?
(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports)
Poor Demar Dotson never had a chance. Lined up on his own 45-yard-line, the offensive guard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed to protect his quarterback for just one yard. One yard would move the chains for the first down and one yard would give the rather stagnant Tampa offense some hope. That hope, however, was immediately run down and squashed (much like Dotson) by an unyielding force.
The unyielding force, Star Lotulelei, exploded off his three-point stance and drove the 6’9”, 315-pound Dotson nearly eight yards past his starting point. Doston was left almost as a turtle fighting off its backside on the grass while Lotulelei made his way to Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon. Lotulelei proceeded to swing his heavy arms around Glennon and force the quarterback to throw the ball out of bounds in giving the Carolina Panthers defense yet another momentous stop.
But although the rookie’s path into the opposing offense that Sunday afternoon was a relatively unchallenged one, his road to a National Football League field was anything but.
Lotulelei’s unconventional journey began in his native Tonga. Sure—the Tongan names of Haloti Ngata, Chris Kemoeatu and Deuce Lutui will catch the ears of many football fans. But since the Polynesian sovereign state isn’t exactly a hotbed for NFL talent, Lotulelei moved to the states and played his high school ball in South Jordan, Utah.
As the premier defensive lineman for the Bingham High School Miners, the then-240-pound teenager dominated his way through the Class 5-A division. During his senior year in 2006, Lotulelei racked up an astronomical 72 tackles off the line to go along with seven sacks. The Miners went 14-0 and captured the state title under head coach Dave Peck. Peck recalled his memories of the dominant Lotulelei in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
“I mean, there were times when we’d watch him do something and say “Whoa, man, that was incredible.’ He had those moments.” Peck said. “You could just count on him, play after play. He started to become who he is.”
Coming out of high school, Lotulelei originally opted to attend Brigham Young University. But after failing to qualify academically for BYU’s recruitment, Lotulelei was left without a classroom and without a playing field.
Lotulelei subsequently dipped into the realm of obscurity soon after his senior season. Less than a year later, the once third-ranked player in the entire state of Utah took a job at a local furniture store instead of attending college. The promising prospect that was shoving aside lineman, sacking quarterbacks and squashing running backs was suddenly moving loveseats, armoires and recliners to the grandmas in northern Utah.
“I probably wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time,” Lotulelei said in a piece with the Deseret News back in 2012. “I probably should have listened to my parents, who told me to go finish school and play football.”
After spending his would-be freshman season as a mover, Lotulelei enrolled at Snow College in Ephraim. In his one season at the Utah junior college, the 300-pound defensive tackle filled up the stat sheet with 52 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. Lotulelei led Snow to 2008 National Junior College Athletic Association Championship Game against Butler Community College. Butler would go on to defeat Snow 37-30 in a heated double overtime contest.
At 19 years old, Lotulelei decided to take another year off. This time, it came for the benefit of his revived football career. By essentially forfeiting would what have been his sophomore year at the junior institution of Snow College, Lotulelei preserved an extra year of eligibility at an NCAA Division I school. He got that year. And that school—Utah.
The University of Utah, amongst others, recruited Lotulelei off his NJCAA campaign in 2008. Other schools vying for his services included Utah State, Oregon State and his former desired destination, BYU. Lotulelei ultimately decided on Utah, citing their desire to reel him in as a major factor.
“The Utah coaches came down to Snow a couple of times. They showed they really wanted me,” he said. “It showed me they really cared. So coming here [utah] wasn’t that hard of a choice.”
It was here, at Utah, where Lotulelei seemed to re-embark on the journey that was headed towards a professional football field.
His first season as a Utah Ute began on the bench. Although he played in all 13 of the program’s games in 2010, Lotulelei ended up starting in just three. He did, however, make the absolute most out of those final three games. In his matchup against San Jose State, the defensive tackle staged his “coming out party.” He chalked up a season-high five tackles and was credited with half a sack. He finished his first season at Utah with 21 tackles.
Coming off the heels of a strong finish the year prior, Lotulelei was entrusted with a starting spot in the middle of Utah’s defensive line. In 13 games, he collected 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Utah made it to 2011 Sun Bowl against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets where Lotulelei was named the game’s Most Valuable Lineman with six tackles and a fumble recovery. The NCAA brass recognized his efforts in his junior season as he was named to the All-Pac-12 Conference team and was named the 2011 Morris Trophy winner.
Deciding to forgo the 2012 NFL Draft, Lotulelei returned to Utah for his senior season where he registered another impressive year. Lotulelei nabbed 42 tackles (11 for loss), 5.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and four pass breakups in 2012. Even with is rocky transition into the D-I program, he was still considered an elite draft option for the 2013 proceedings.
ESPN analyst and NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper listed Lotulelei as a top-five talent in his year’s class. “Lotulelei is one of those rare defensive tackles with the potential to become dominant,” Kiper wrote. Kiper, as well as a handful of other writers, projected Lotulelei to end up as the draft’s No. 1 overall selection in late December of 2012.
His draft stock then hit an abrupt and unforeseen speed bump during the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. Despite having no prior history of physical complications, an echocardiogram test revealed that Lotulelei’s heart was pumping blood into his body at just 44 percent. An average rate in which the left ventricle pumps out blood is considered anywhere from 55 to 70 percent. The test, by rule, forced Lotulelei out of further combine workouts and damaged his once sky-high draft stock.
After going through NFL doctors, tests on Lotulelei’s heart from his alma mater at Utah came back with encouraging results. Utah doctors determined that Lotulelei’s supposed heart condition was actually a symptom of a viral infection the defensive tackle picked up prior to the workouts.
Regardless, teams were wary of drafting a player with any kind of medical condition—whether the results were true or not.
Attending the NFL Draft is one of the more gratifying experiences in a young football player’s life. You go to New York City, you get your named called by the most powerful man in football Roger Goodell and you get some pretty sweet national television time on ESPN and the NFL Network.
But for Lotulelei, that time was spent at his South Jordan home with his family. He didn't wear a snazzy suit and he didn’t get the once in a lifetime chance at hugging Commissioner Goodell at the podium. Instead, he sat on his couch in sweatpants and watched the draft from his television.
The picks went by. Teams that could have utilized Lotulelei—Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Arizona, New York, San Diego, Oakland—all opted for other prospects. When the 14th pick rolled around, Lotulelei got the call. That call came from the Carolina Panthers.
Carolina General Manager Dave Gettleman, who had just been hired by the team a few months prior, took the gamble with the very first draft pick of his Panthers career on Lotulelei.
“What Star does is he impacts the game on every snap in terms of the run game and the pass game,” Gettleman said shortly after the draft.
And how has Star repaid his faithful general manager? Well, he’s only the anchor of the NFL’s second-best defense of 2013. With Lotulelei in the middle of the line, the Panthers’ defense has allowed a lowly 15.1 points per game. Star quickly became a major impact for the Panthers, helping transform a 7-9 team from a year ago to a perennial Super Bowl contender in 2013.
Lotulelei has thrown his name into the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation with his 42 tackles and 3.0 sacks. Teammate and fellow defensive leader Greg Hardy has taken note of Lotulelei’s importance to the NFL’s most feared defenses.
“He’s not a star, he’s a superstar,” Hardy said. “And this superstar is a beast. I see some crazy things for his future. When and if he does keep developing, he’s going to be unstoppable.”
For guys like Hardy and Lotulelei, the amazing ride otherwise known as the 2013 season has not ended. After ripping off 11 of their last 12 games, winning the NFC South Division Championship and clinching a first-round bye for the postseason, there’s more for this Panthers defense to accomplish—a Lombardi Trophy. And what’s that to Lotulelei? He’s already moved couches in Utah, right?