USC's Lutui Overcomes Tragedy With Family
USC's Lutui Overcomes Tragedy With Family
Apr. 25, 2006
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Taitusi ``Deuce'' Lutui spent his teenage years taking care of his family.
He ran errands, paid the bills and attended to his parents' medical needs 24 hours a day. He even translated English.
If it meant missing a few football practices or skipping nights out with his high school buddies, he considered it worth the sacrifice.
The truth was, Lutui didn't have a choice.
When he was 6, Lutui was riding in the family van when it flipped over several times. His 4-year-old sister, Diana died. A brother and his father were in comas and his mother was seriously injured. Lutui had to help.
``The tragedy that me and my family overcame allowed me to live life, not regret it,'' he said.
Lutui insists his experiences _ and his family _ are the reasons he has achieved dreams he never thought possible.
He has emerged as one of the NFL's top guard prospects and recently visited Tampa Bay, Detroit, Carolina, Philadelphia and New York, faraway places to an immigrant boy from Tonga who moved to Mesa, Ariz., when he was a few months old.
At Southern California, Lutui won a national championship and established himself as one of the nation's top offensive linemen. Most now believe the 6-foot-3, 330-pound guard will be chosen Saturday in the NFL draft, virtually assuring him of a huge payday and long-term financial security.
But in a draft where some players have their character questioned routinely, Lutui is a rarity. His roots are so grounded he insists his first major purchase won't be a fancy car or big home, but diapers for his 15-month-old son, Inoke.
``I think it (the accident) really did make him who he is today,'' said Max Hannemann, Lutui's agent. ``At a young age, he and his brothers had to take care of the family. They had to work for everything, so they stayed humble and I think that's why he's so mature today.''
The accident gave Lutui a different perspective on life. In his world, family comes first.
Lutui's father, also Inoke, was outspoken and humorous before the accident. But he had amnesia and is now quiet and reflective. His mother, Mele, needed help managing the finances and taking care of a family that lost a child.
So Lutui pitched in any way he could.
``I was taking care of my mom and dad, catering to their needs,'' he said. ``That was all part of the growing up process.''
Not surprisingly, he intends to watch the draft at his parents' house with his wife, Pua, and son.
But Lutui will also likely spend some of the waiting period reflecting on how he made it here _ and the accident that transformed him from boy to man at an early age.
``I had to grow up fast,'' he said.
On the field, Lutui was a late bloomer. Despite his hulking body, he wasn't even sure he had a future in football until he emerged late in high school as one of the nation's top recruits.
He originally signed a letter of intent to play at Utah, where he could have been blocking for last year's No. 1 pick, Alex Smith.
Instead, grades and dedication to his family forced him to choose a more circuitous route. He started at nearby Mesa Community College, where he proved a masterful blocker. Then Lutui got another big break when he went to Southern California.
He arrived in Los Angeles in 2004 _ when the Trojans suspended right tackle Winston Justice for allegedly pulling a pellet gun on another student. Weighing 396 pounds, Lutui seemed a perfect fit and started all 13 games for the national champs.
When Justice returned in 2005, Southern Cal coaches moved Lutui to left guard, and somewhere in the background of Reggie Bush's many spectacular runs, Lutui was usually visible. NFL scouts noticed, too.
``I think they all know what Deuce brings to the field,'' Hannemann said. ``There's no doubt he can play.''
The biggest concern for NFL front offices is Lutui's weight. Some wonder whether Lutui, who has lost 66 pounds in two years, can stay in shape.
Rather than dieting to trim down, Lutui said he adhered to a strength program administered by Southern Cal coaches. It worked. He played at 385 as a junior, 360 as a senior and has lost another 30 pounds since January.
Now, the hefty kid who never thought he'd get a shot in Division I football, who spent his teenage years by his parents' side and his college days playing in front of them, now finds himself on the brink of a lifetime opportunity. He can offer more than help to his family _ he can provide them with permanent stability.
``I never thought I'd be in the place where I am,'' Lutui said. ``But this has been a goal for me. I dearly love the opportunity for my parents, to have their happiness.''