FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Last year, Lofa Tatupu was only 28 years old and four years removed from an All-Pro season as a middle linebacker.
Yet, after undergoing surgery on the lateral meniscus in both knees following the 2010 season, he ended up having no takers when Seattle cut him a few days into training camp. He received a couple of invitations to work out. One, he said, appeared simply to be a ploy by a team to pressure its own player into signing. (It worked.)
Tatupu said he was a victim of circumstance. Not only did the lockout hurt him, but when he received offers, they were at outside linebacker, which he had never played. He wasn’t sure he could do it. As a result, he sat out the entire season and contemplated retirement.
“I thought it was over,” he said. “I was ready to send those papers in.”
But after having signed with the Atlanta Falcons in March, gone through offseason team activities and now the first day of minicamp on Tuesday, the 6-foot, 250-pounder feels confident.
“I know now that I can play it,” Tatupu said of his new position. “If somebody had brought me into camp right away, let me play outside, yeah, I could’ve done it. But I didn’t have those 30 days of film, you know, 12-hour days. … Just the regular camps to go and learn. Everyone learns different ways, whether it’s the film room, the walk-through or making a mistake on the field, you know. That’s definitely how I interpret things and my mind functions. I need to see it all.”
He will turn 30 midway through the season – which still seems relatively young – but Tatupu said his younger teammates let him know about his age. His battle at middle linebacker with second-year player Akeem Dent will be perhaps the most intriguing of Falcons training camp because of what it means to the team, but also to see if one of the NFL’s best players at his position over the last five years can redeem himself and return to form. When Tatupu’s agent called him with interest from the Falcons, he said the juices began flowing again.
“I was like ‘absolutely,'” he said. “He told me the options and I go, ‘Yes, I’m going to go work out right now.'”
He said he has had to knock some of the rust off, but he said the hardest adjustment will be not being with his family on a daily basis. In some ways, Tatupu’s comments on Tuesday – his first since OTAs began in May – show a mind that in some ways was starting to consider life after football.
After his late father Mosi’s 14-year career – all but one of them as a backup running back and special teams player with New England – his father became a successful coach at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, Mass. Lofa was his quarterback and middle linebacker, which is why Lofa said they won most of their games through special teams play. (Incidentally, Mosi Tatupu and Falcons defensive line coach Ray Hamilton were teammates for two seasons with the Patriots in 1980 and ’81.)
Lofa said he’d be doing something like his father did in his post-NFL career if he weren’t with the Falcons right now.
“I’ve got to be around the game,” he said. “I think at the high school level, you can reach the kids who want to go forward with it and then just have fun with the guys, just like your buddies, who didn’t go on with it. They’re just out there to have fun. You get to laugh with those kids. You really teach the kids who are going on the fundamentals of the game.”
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said the team is bringing Tatupu along slowly. During OTAs, Tatupu had some unspecified health issues and was held out for a few days and worked with the training staff instead. Smith, a former linebackers coach, said the Falcons will be especially careful with Tatupu during two-a-days in training camp when the team practices in full pads. Smith has a fairly relaxed approach with veterans like Tony Gonzalez, John Abraham and those in the “over-30 club” during two-a-days.
Tatupu said he’s taking nothing for granted. He said his linebackers coach at USC, the former Dallas Cowboy (and current member of the Seahawks staff) Ken Norton, Jr., told him playing football is a privilege, not a right. He has taken those words to heart and says he still has the hunger.
“Football’s football,” he said. “At the end of the day, you can play football or you can’t. … I can play football.”