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Star Lotulelei ready to shine in the NFL

SALT LAKE CITY — Star Lotulelei isn’t like most other guys. The former University of Utah defensive lineman, who is projected to be one of the top picks in this week’s National Football League draft, has declined opportunities that many future pros wouldn’t turn down.

Lotulelei opted not to accept an invitation to be in New York City for the draft, choosing instead to watch the proceedings on television with family and friends at his parents' home in South Jordan. Months earlier — as a senior with the Utes — Lotulelei politely passed on several national magazine and broadcast requests.

“That’s Star. Star is not a guy that enjoys the limelight. He would rather just kind of do his thing,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “And it’s not to say that he’s cocky or arrogant because that’s the exact opposite of what he is. He’s very humble. He’s got a lot of humility. He’s just a great person and he just doesn’t feel real comfortable being in the spotlight.”

That’s fine, Whittingham continued, because Lotulelei marches to the beat of a different drummer — and in a good way.

“Star just likes to be with his family,” Whittingham said. “That’s his deal.”

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake agrees with the description of the All-American. Sitake added to it by recalling a newspaper photo shoot last summer when Lotulelei would only participate in it if all of his teammates on the defensive line were included, not just the other starters.

“That’s just the kind of guy he is. He doesn’t want to bring a lot of attention to himself,” said Sitake, who just couldn’t imagine Lotulelei hanging out at Radio City Music Hall for the NFL draft. “I think going to New York and going through that whole thing would be just horrible for him to do that. Plus, he wants to share it with his family and friends. That’s just who he is.”

Lotulelei readily acknowledges that he’s a very private guy — family oriented and a real homebody. The 23-year-old and his wife, Fuiva, are the parents of daughters Arilani and Pesatina.

“It’s never been my dream to be famous. It’s never been the goal to be in the newspapers or the magazines,” Lotulelei said. “It’s just to get to a point where I can provide for my family. That’s what is most important to me.”

The spotlight, Lotulelei continued, is something he can do without. His focus is on giving his family everything they want, everything they deserve.

“That’s pretty much all I need,” he said. “That’s all I want.”

On Thursday, most likely sometime in the first 10 picks, Lotulelei’s longtime dream will become a reality. As per his wishes, he’ll learn his NFL destination in the company of family and friends in Utah — far away from the hustle and bustle of draft headquarters in New York City.

It’s a decision Lotulelei made a long time ago.

“I can’t take them all to New York, so I want all of them to be there and share the moment with me,” he said.

Lotulelei estimates that about 50 people will gather at the family home to watch the draft. They may do so, however, without him.

“I don’t think I’ll even be watching it. I’ll probably just let my family watch and maybe just send me a text or call me,” Lotulelei said. “I don’t know if I even want to be in the house. But we’ll see. I might take a little bike ride to the park or something, or go hide and play video games or something like that.”

As the big day approaches, Lotulelei admits he probably won’t sleep at all the night before. He anticipates being real nervous.

“I’m just looking forward to Thursday and looking forward to where me and my family are going to make home for the next couple of years,” Lotulelei said. “That’s probably the most exciting part.”

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The journey, though, hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. An abnormal heart test at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February led to some serious concern about Lotulelei’s future. NFL officials asked him not to participate in the combine until the issue was resolved. His left ventricle was working at just 44 percent efficiency, well below the normal range of 55-70 percent.

“When I got the news it was definitely a shock. But as far as being nervous and not knowing what to expect, I think my family was a lot more nervous than I was,” said Lotulelei, who explained that his body felt fine and he had no symptoms of an abnormality. “So I think it was definitely a bigger deal for my family — especially for my wife and for my parents — just because they didn’t know what was going on and what our future held.

“When we finally got cleared and everything worked out, it was definitely a relief,” he added.

Before Lotulelei passed extensive follow-up tests on his heart — the problem was likely associated with a viral infection from a cold that temporarily altered things — there was time for reflection.

The second opinion Lotulelei received shortly after returning to Utah from Indianapolis indicated something similar, although the condition was improving.

“When they told me that, it was disappointing and it was definitely kind of hard to deal with,” Lotulelei said. “But just having my family there, they’re such a great support system with my parents and my brothers and sisters, my wife and my kids. It definitely made it a lot easier.”

There were mixed emotions at the time. Lotulelei has dreamed of playing in the NFL since he was a little kid and has long planned on it being a way to support his family financially. The thought of it all being taken away didn’t sit well.

“It was definitely a little scary,” Lotulelei explained. “But like I’ve said, I felt pretty confident in my body and the way it was feeling.”

Soon thereafter, Lotulelei received full clearance from Dr. Josef Stehlik of the University of Utah Health Sciences Center. In a report released through Lotulelei’s agent, Bruce Tollner, Stehlik noted that Lotutlelei underwent a treadmill stress test, ambulatory EKG monitoring and heart imaging. Stehlik concluded that Lotulelei had complete normalization of the heart muscle function.

The “thorough and comprehensive” cardiac evaluation led Stehlik to conclude that it was safe for Lotulelei to “participate in professional athletics without restrictions.”

It remains to be seen, however, if the turmoil will have an impact on when Lotulelei will be drafted.

“There’s definitely going to be teams that are still a little standoffish. They don’t want to risk it and I can totally understand that,” Lotulelei said. “But I feel like my game and my playing here at Utah has shown teams enough that they will be confident to take me and take a chance on me. So, as far as everything, I’m cleared and everything’s ready to go.”

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Lotulelei has overcome adversity before. After a stellar career at Bingham High School, he stopped playing football for a year and was moving furniture. He eventually enrolled at Snow College before transferring to Utah for his final three seasons of eligibility.

“It’s definitely been a long, long road — a long process, a very hard road — but all that has just made me stronger,” Lotulelei said. “It’s what has put me and my family in this position now.”

Although the experiences were sometimes “very humbling,” Lotulelei noted that he’s grown from it all. He credits his wife for keeping him level-headed and is grateful that his family has been so supportive.

While Lotulelei was playing football and attending school at Utah, Fuiva worked as a cashier at a restaurant in West Jordan. Lotulelei said she “deserves everything” and he’s eager to provide it.

Support, which includes Star’s parents bringing the young family into their home and assisting with the kids over the past couple of years, made Lotulelei’s heart scare more difficult to handle.

“It would have been real disappointing for my family,” he said. “I would have felt like I let them down, even if I couldn’t have helped it.”

The sacrifices made will result in rapid rewards. After signing his first NFL contract, Lotulelei’s wish list is topped by a desire to buy a car for his wife and parents.

“Hopefully I can do that,” he said, “So we’ll see what happens.”

Utah alum Sione Pouha, who has played in the NFL since 2005, is confident things will work out well for Lotulelei.

“I think he was born ready,” Pouha said. “He’s already demonstrated it on the field and I think whatever team he goes to, they’re going to be very, very, very fortunate. They’re getting a very good football player and more of a man as well.”

Although ticketed to go as high as No. 1 overall at one point, Lotulelei isn’t worrying about it as the draft approaches. It’s never been a goal of his.

“Whether it’s top 5, top 10, would just be like the icing on the cake. It won’t be a let-down if I’m not the No. 1 pick, or top 5, or top 10 — anything like that,” Lotulelei said. “As long as I have a chance to show what I have or go out to a team, that’s all I need. All I need is for a team to take a chance on me.”

Lotulelei is confident that whatever team that takes him will be satisfied and he’ll “find a place somewhere for me and my family.”

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Lotulelei leaves behind quite a legacy at Utah. He was a first-team All-American as a senior and a two-time first-team Pac-12 all-conference honoree. In 2011, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound tackle won the Morris Trophy as the conference’s top defensive lineman.

During his three-year tenure with the Utes, the two-time captain racked up 107 tackles, 22.5 tackles-for-loss, seven sacks, five fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles. As a junior, Lotulelei was named Most Valuable Lineman in Utah’s Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. He decided to return for his senior season to improve his skill set for the NFL and complete course work on his degree.

“I’ve got all the respect in the world for Star. He’s meant so much to our program in the three years that he’s been here as a leader and a player,” Whittingham said. “(He’s) a great example to the younger players and we are going to miss him. He was a tremendous player and brought so much to the table for us.”

Sitake is also appreciative of Lotulelei’s contributions up on the hill. He considers Star something special.

“I’m excited to see who is going to take him, where he’s going to end up playing and what team I’m going to have to root for just to support him,” Sitake said. “We’ll see how it goes. I don’t even know where everyone’s predicting him to go, but I’m just excited for him overall.”

Lotulelei’s accomplishments and the sacrifices he and his family have made, Sitake added, is “going to pay off.”


Twitter: @DirkFacer