The ties that bind

  • By Scott M. Johnson / Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, August 9, 2005 9:00pm
  • Sports

No matter how many times he broke through the barriers and tore down the walls of doubt, Lofa Tatupu could never escape the name.

It was the one thing that stayed with him, even when he inexplicably tried to rid himself of its burden.

He is Mosiula Mealofa Tatupu, just like his father, although Lofa has always gone by his middle name.

He is Mosiula Mealofa Tatupu, son of former NFL running back Mosi Tatupu, which has always carried heightened expectations.

He is Mosiula Mealofa Tatupu, and finally he is at peace with that.

“Now that I’ve grown up, I know that I’ll never get out of his shadow,” Lofa Tatupu said earlier this week. “And that’s fine with me now. I’ve learned to appreciate it, and it’s a shadow I’m happy to be in any day.”

Now that he is a Seattle Seahawks rookie linebacker, and a two-time national champion from USC, Lofa Tatupu has finally made a name for himself.

So it’s time to give back.

Mosi Tatupu and his ex-wife, Linnea, live on opposite ends of the country but are bonded by their two children and their modest means. Despite a 14-year career in the NFL, Mosi Tatupu has seen his football compensation slowly disappear. Now 50, Tatupu is just trying to scrape out a modest living as a high school special education teacher and part-time college coach.

Thirteen years since he last played in an NFL game, Mosi Tatupu is about to benefit from the league’s wealth again. Only this time, it’s through his son.

“Things didn’t really work out the way it was planned,” Lofa Tatupu said of his father’s financial situation. “Although he had 14 years in the league, we had a couple bad advisors (and) agents. That’s why I left school (early), to help out my family any way I can.”

Generosity has been a way of life in the Tatupu family. As Mosi Tatupu found out, that isn’t always a good thing. His willingness to help others out of financial trouble paved the way from football millionaire to struggling single father.

“You make your own bed,” Mosi Tatupu said of the financial troubles that have plagued him since a divorce 10 years ago. “We had our shot in the NFL, and it was good. If you didn’t prepare for life after football, it was your own fault.”

A football life

Father and son may share the same name, but their personalities have always been very different. Mosi Tatupu is reserved and peaceful, his feelings often concealed beneath a cloak of mystery. Lofa is emotional, like his mother, outgoing and social.

But they always had football. Lofa loved the sport his father played, even though Mosi never pushed it on him.

People saw something in Lofa even as a child, not so much because of his build – he was always smaller than kids his own age, and a lot smaller than his Samoan cousins – but because of his name. If he was a Tatupu, people would say, he must have good football bloodlines.

But Lofa was never really interested in being the next Mosi Tatupu. His name was Lofa Tatupu. Even at an early age, he was always his own person.

“He was fortunate to be born with strong character and a sense of self,” said Linnea Tatupu, Lofa’s mother and Mosi’s ex-wife.

That sense of self exposed itself when Lofa won his first football championship, at the age of 6. When he was presented with his trophy, Lofa immediately handed it to his mother and asked her to throw it away.

The name on the trophy was not LOFA TATUPU. It was MOSI TATUPU.

“I don’t want it,” Linnea Tatupu remembers her son telling her. “This isn’t my name. My name is Lofa.”

Lofa Tatupu, now at peace with his famous name, smiles and shakes his head at the memory.

“When all you hear is, ‘Your dad, your dad, your dad,’ it’s frustrating,” he said recently. “You work so hard as a kid, and then to see Mosi Tatupu – not even Mosiula. I just couldn’t get out from under it.”

Linnea Tatupu was also a major part of Lofa’s football growth. She was the one who convinced him to play linebacker instead of running back – “If you want the ball, you have to go take it from someone,” she said – and when Lofa was 14, Linnea took him to the gym where she trained boxers so he could feel what it was like to get hit.

Most important of all, she gave Lofa some advice that would stay with him forever.

“I’ll never forget my mom telling me when I was young that my dad worked very hard to get his name to where it was,” Lofa said earlier this week. “She said that she would be really upset – she used other words – if I did anything to tarnish it.”

The name. There was always the name.

My dad, the coach

Lofa Tatupu went on to play quarterback and linebacker at King Phillip Regional High School in Massachusetts, where his father was the head coach. Even after throwing 10 touchdowns as a senior, while running for five more and making 100 tackles, Lofa Tatupu never felt like he’d lived up to expectations.

“You take the coach that you admire and really want to work hard for, take his expectations,” Lofa said. “Pile that on to a dad’s expectations. Then slap that on top of a 14-year NFL veteran’s expectations. That’s what you’ve got every day.”

Mosi tried to treat Lofa like any other player, as hard as that was.

“He made the mistake at practice one day of calling me Dad,” Mosi said. “I yelled at him. I told him, ‘Don’t call me Dad here. Call me Coach.’”

Lofa understood. He knew all about labels. Call people what they want to be called.

Large footsteps

If Lofa Tatupu was trying to escape his father’s shadow, he had a funny way of showing it. Following a freshman year at Maine that saw him lead the Black Bears in tackles, Tatupu transferred to USC, where his father had been a star running back in the 1970s.

Lofa maintains that his father had nothing to do with his decision. He believes that Trojans coach Pete Carroll was the only Division I-A coach who saw something in him, that USC was the only school that would give the 5-foot-11, 215-pound linebacker an opportunity to show he could play with the big boys.

But USC would also bury Tatupu under another wave of father-son hype. The expectations were overwhelming, and Lofa did everything he could to stand beneath their crush. Despite being considered too small to play at the Division I-A level, Tatupu became the defensive leader of a USC team that would win back-to-back national titles.

With nothing more to prove at the collegiate level, he passed up his senior season, declared for the NFL draft, and became a second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks. That was one of the few times Lofa was able to crack his father’s hard emotional exterior.

“My mom, she’ll never stop telling me how proud she is of me,” Lofa said. “That’s the type of person she is. She’s very insightful, and she knows a lot.

“My dad, he’s only said it twice: when I got into (U)SC, and when I got drafted.”

Giving back

Mosi Tatupu was always there for his only son, and now it is time for Lofa to be there for his father.

Mosi made plenty of money during his 14-year NFL playing career – he did not want to get into specifics, other than to say that today’s players make four times as much – but all of it is gone. He made some bad investments, including a Timberline tree project in the Amazon. He helped out some friends and family. Little by little, the money faded away.

“We took on a lot of what wasn’t supposed to be ours to take on,” Linnea Tatupu said, choosing her words carefully so as not to re-open a wound that scabbed over long ago. “Mosi was good to his family. Hopefully, what goes around comes around.”

Things got so bad that Mosi and Lofa spent part of the late 1990s sharing a room in a friend’s apartment while Lofa’s sister, Nea, lived with her mother in San Diego.

“I made sure they got what they needed,” Mosi Tatupu said. “We did as much as we could, but nothing extravagant. I started to cook, instead of eating out. We didn’t go on vacations.”

Lofa Tatupu recently signed a five-year contract that could pay him up to $7 million with incentives, and he plans for his first two major purchases to be new homes for both parents.

Linnea Tatupu lives in a modest home in San Diego, a neighborhood that Lofa calls “a rough area.” Mosi Tatupu is still in Plainville, Mass., teaching at Foxboro High School and coaching football part-time at Curry College.

Although Mosi Tatupu is by no means destitute, his modest lifestyle is a long way from where many NFL retirees are sitting. And yet he’s not looking for handouts. He advised his son to finish school rather than leave early.

Besides, as Lofa maintains, “My dad’s too proud to take anything.”

Asked during a Tuesday phone conversation if he was willing to take financial assistance from his son, Mosi Tatupu laughed.

“I’d say, go for it,” he said. “Surprise me. Go ahead and surprise me.”

After years of giving, Mosi Tatupu is understandably prepared to take something for himself. And the man who took his name is in position to give back.

As if Mosiula Mealofa Tatupu, the son, hasn’t already given enough.

“For Mosi and I, the reward was raising a son who became a strong, goal-oriented man who got the chance to chase his dream,” Linnea Tatupu said. “That’s the biggest reward you could have as a parent.”

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