Star Lotulelei has a perfect build for a furniture mover.
That’s what Lotulelei did during a year in limbo after he signed with Brigham Young but failed to qualify academically.
Lotulelei, the 6-foot-3, 311-pound defensive tackle drafted 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, spent 2007 hauling king-sized beds and headboards into Utah cabins. It was tedious, back-tightening work, regardless of how big the guy is doing the lifting.
“I can’t do the 9-to-5 thing. I learned football’s what I was made for. … It was definitely a hard lesson to learn,” said Lotulelei, who is married with two young daughters. “Trying to move (beds) upstairs and places where they shouldn’t be fit, that was probably the worst.”
Things improved quickly for Lotulelei once he resumed his other vocation. Lotulelei’s journey took him from Snow College to the University of Utah to the NFL, where he landed as a first-round pick after being cleared medically after doctors at the scouting combine diagnosed him with a heart condition.
Lotulelei’s furniture moving days are behind him.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called Lotulelei “the whole package” of size, strength, quickness, athleticism and tenacity.
“I think,” Whittingham said, “he’s the type of guy that’s going to anchor that (Carolina) defensive line for a lot of years.”
From Tonga to Utah
Lotulelei’s parents moved from Tonga to the U.S. when he was 8 because his father, a Mormon seminary teacher who has a doctorate degree from BYU, wanted better opportunities for his family. They settled in Salt Lake City, where Lotulelei played youth football for half a season before his family moved about a half-hour outside of town.
After helping lead his Bingham High team to a Utah state title, Lotulelei headed to Snow when he didn’t qualify at BYU. He played one of two seasons at Snow so he would have three years of eligibility at Utah.
Lotulelei (pronounced lo-too-leh-lay) became a full-time starter his second year at Utah, and seldom saw another 1-on-1 block again.
The double teams didn’t stop him from dominating. Lotulelei finished with seven sacks, 22.5 tackles, five fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles in 38 games with the Utes.
“Essentially when he’s in the game, the inside run game’s nonexistent,” Whittingham said.
After sitting out the combine following his heart diagnosis, Lotulelei did 38 reps in the 225-pound bench press at the Utes’ pro day, matching SMU defensive end Margus Hunt’s total that was the best among all combine participants.
Whittingham said Lotulelei is an unselfish player who never complained. And though there were louder players in the Utes’ locker room, few were better leaders than Lotulelei, a team captain his final two years.
“I’m a real quiet person. I wasn’t the rah-rah captain that’s going to yell at everybody and try to get them hype like that. I try to lead by example,” he said.
“Personality-wise, outside of football, just real laid-back, easy to get to know and just a real easy-going guy.”
During a 20-minute introductory press conference Friday at Bank of America Stadium, Lotulelei was subdued and spoke in a quiet voice.
Whittingham said he never worried about getting a late-night call concerning Lotulelei, who lived with his parents along with his wife, Fuiva, and daughters, Arilani and Pesatina.
“He’s a family man,” Whittingham said. “That’s his first priority.”
Fuiva, who is also from Tonga, played volleyball at Snow and met Lotulelei in the gym. The two became friends, started dating and were married during Lotulelei’s second year.
Fuiva said her husband is quiet at home, too.
“He just likes to relax and be with the kids,” she said. “When football’s done, he’s usually at home. He’s pretty good about that.”
Shunning the spotlight
Utah sports information director Liz Abel was not surprised Lotulelei declined an invitation to go to New York for the draft, and instead watched it at home with his family.
Abel called Lotulelei the “most unusual player” she’s ever worked with because of his humility and genuine disinterest in self-promotion.
After Lotulelei returned to Utah for his final season – despite the likelihood of being a first-round pick had he entered the 2012 draft – Abel approached him about a publicity plan. Lotulelei wanted no part of it.
“We could get you on a bunch of All-American teams, we just need a little bit of help,” Abel recalled telling him.
Lotulelei’s response: “I don’t care about All-American teams.”
Lotulelei, 23, who was a consensus All-American anyway, was reluctant to attend the Pac-12 media day last summer in California before Whittingham made him go.
“He’s very polite and he’s very well spoken and he’s a very good interview,” Abel said. “But he had no interest in going.”
During the season, Lotulelei took care of his required media responsibilities, but frowned on anything that would draw attention to himself.
The Deseret News, a Salt Lake City-based newspaper that covers the Utes, wanted to do a photo shoot with Lotulelei. He declined until the paper agreed to include the rest of the defensive linemen in the shoot.
“He just wants to play football and go home to his family, and not have people make a fuss about him,” Abel said. “He couldn’t care less if you were at a student newspaper or ESPN, there wasn’t anything additional. Nobody was more important than anybody else.”
That humility should serve Lotulelei well as a rookie in his first NFL training camp.
Panthers veteran left tackle Jordan Gross, who also played for Utah, has never met Lotulelei. But Gross sent him a congratulatory text Thursday night after the Panthers picked him.
“I know the (Utah) coaches love him. They’ve spoken highly of him since his first year there,” Gross said. “A great player obviously. A hard worker off the field, married with a family. A committed, settled-down guy that they could count on. And tough (and) smart.
“Literally, they had nothing bad to say about him. I’ve been hoping we were going to pick him all offseason … but I didn’t really think it would happen. It’s pretty cool.”