And all those tackles, of course. The Seahawks’ current middle linebacker is the only player in franchise history to lead the team in tackles four consecutive seasons – and he did it in his first four seasons (2005-08).
From the minute he stepped on the field as a rookie, after being selected in the second round of the 2005 draft, it was apparent that Tatupu’s uncanny instincts set him apart. During the Saturday practice of the team’s post-draft minicamp, he was on the field for dozens of snaps. His first step did not go in the same direction the ball ended up going only a few times.
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The Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team, as selected by the readers of Seahawks.com:
He did not read … and … react to plays. It was more readandreact. And still is.
“One thing you can’t teach is instincts,” Tatupu said Tuesday, following a rehab session related to his recent arthroscopic procedures on both knees. “For whatever reason, I was blessed to have that.”
His knack for finding the ball – and production that follows – did not go unnoticed by his teammates, or the readers of Seahawks.com. Tatupu has been voted a defensive co-captain in each of his six seasons, and he also was an overwhelming choice for a berth on the Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team.
The other linebackers on the reader-selected 35th Anniversary team are Chad Brown, Rufus Porter and Fredd Young, who combined to lead the team in tackles six times and earn eight Pro Bowl berths. But Tatupu not only got the most votes among the ’backers (3,539), only four players on the team generated more – Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent (5,004), the Hall-of-Fame-in-waiting duo of defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy (4,172) and left tackle Walter Jones (4,065) and defensive end Jacob Green (3,990).
Tatupu isn’t just one of the best players in franchise history; he also makes those around him better.
“Lofa adds more than most guys because he helps the people around him play well,” said Pete Carroll, who coached Tatupu at USC and now is his coach again with the Seahawks. “It’s not just his play, it’s the way he communicates, it’s his savvy, it’s his ability to identify situations and take advantage of the coaching and the game plan and all that.
“He’s just uniquely qualified and so we feel much more together when he’s out there just because of what he brings.”
It’s those traits – not to mention an impassioned endorsement from Carroll at the Trojans’ Pro Day workout in ’05 – that prompted the Seahawks to trade up in the second round to select a player who many deemed too short (listed at 6 feet); too slow (ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds at his Pro Day workout); too this (he transferred to USC after playing quarterback for one season at Maine); and too that (other schools “Told me I wasn’t a Division I-A athlete”) to be worthy of the 45th pick.
“They were laughing when the Seahawks made the pick,” Tatupu said of the pundits who challenged the Seahawks’ sanity. “Definitely, that’s always been a chip on my shoulder. It just fuels the fire.”
But it’s Tatupu and the Seahawks who have been enjoying the last laugh. He stepped in immediately to solidify a spot where the team had used eight different starters in the previous seven seasons.
“If they’re going to put you out on the field from the start, a lot is expected of you,” Tatupu said.
He exceeded those expectations, from the start. And his contributions have been across the board: 551 tackles in the regular season, including a career-high 123 in 2006; 66 tackles in the postseason, making him the franchise leader; 10 interceptions, including three in a 2007 game against the Philadelphia Eagles and two returned for touchdowns; 8½ sacks, including four in his rookie season; 41 passes defensed; seven forced fumbles; three Pro Bowl selections, the most for a linebacker in club history.
Connect the dots between those numbers and it creates a portrait of a player who is respected around the league.
“Lofa plays hard, man,” Chicago Bears Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said prior to the Seahawks’ second-round playoff game in January. “He’s a smart player. I remember when he first came in the league, watching him. He’s always tapping D-linemen, telling them where to go, changing the defense. And he plays fast.
“I have a lot of respect for Lofa.”
That assessment leads us back to those Tatupu instincts, and the fact that he grew up the son of an NFL player – Mosi Tatupu, a former running back and Pro Bowl special teams player for the New England Patriots who passed away last February. Tatupu’s given name is Mosiula, after his father; and his just-born son’s middle name is Mosi. Lofa is a shortened version of his middle name, Mea’alofa.
“My dad was a running back and I’ve heard a lot of coaches say, ‘All a linebacker is is a running back without the ball,’ ” Tatupu said. “You’re trying to find the hole that he’s going to end up in. Just as if you had the ball and you’re on the opposite side.”
One of those coaches was Nick Holt, one of Tatupu’s position coaches at USC and now the defensive coordinator at the University of Washington.
“He said the best linebackers used to be running backs, because they can read and they know where the openings are going to be by the flow of the line,” said Tatupu, who also played quarterback in high school and his first season in college.
So is the indelible connection between son and father, who coached Lofa at King Phillip Regional High School in Wrentham, Mass.
“My dad also covered kicks and made a name for himself by making tackles, which is funny for a running back,” Tatupu said. “So maybe it’s something I inherited from him.”
Whatever the reason, Tatupu feels fortunate to have that extra sense and realizes he would not be the same player without it. It also helped that there were other “too-everything” linebackers like Zach Thomas (5-11) and London Fletcher (5-10) already making plays in the NFL.
“Those are the guys I looked up to,” Tatupu said. “You watch them and that’s what jumps out – their instincts. When you don’t have some of those skill sets that a lot of other guys have – be it height, speed, whatever – I think instincts come into play a lot more. You maybe hone your skills in a little better when you have to rely on them.
“I think with linebackers you have to be born with it. If you’re going to be successful at this level you’ve got to have that ability to sense things and have a certain level of awareness to play this position. It worked out for me.”
Did it ever.