Sunday, May 20, 2012

FARINELLA: After season off, Tatupu looking to prove himself BY MARK FARINELLA SUN CHRONICLE STAFF Sunday, May 20, 2012 2:00 AM EDT

Former KP standout gets fresh start in Atlanta
Every now and then I like to fill you in on how some of our area's most accomplished athletes are doing in the professional ranks. So it was that I called the Atlanta Falcons last week, seeking to catch up with one of King Philip Regional High's all-time greats.

Lofa Tatupu, following a year out of football, has signed with the Falcons in hopes of regaining the form at middle linebacker that led him to three Pro Bowl berths with the Seattle Seahawks. He's so committed to the task, in fact, that he politely declined (through the Falcons' media relations staff) to be interviewed during the team's preseason conditioning period.

"At this point in time, we'd just like to take a pass on it," said Brian Cearns, the Falcons' football communications coordinator. "Lofa's focused on the offseason and getting ready for the year right now, and would just like to kind of lay low for a while."

Well, that's that. Having been around professional football for almost 40 years now, I can certainly understand why an athlete might want to go into bunker mode and shut out the distractions. This is a very important offseason for the Southern Cal product via KP and the University of Maine, and I'm sure he wants to give it his undivided attention.

But I hope he also knows how diligently his local fans support him and want to know how he's doing; no matter where I go in the towns we cover and beyond, people stop and ask about the progress of Tatupu and our other local emissary to the NFL, Arizona Cardinals' fullback Anthony Sherman of North Attleboro. No, I haven't forgotten about Nick Schwieger, former Bishop Feehan and Dartmouth standout, who's getting his shot with the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted rookie running back. But he's just at the beginning of his road. Tatupu, entering his seventh NFL season, is a lot farther along on his journey.

The last couple of years have been a pretty big speed bump for Tatupu, unfortunately.

He was riding high with the Seahawks after becoming their second-round draft pick in 2005 and leading their young defense to a Super Bowl in his rookie season. Three Pro Bowls later, the Seahawks extended his rookie contract through 2015, six years for $42 million including a guaranteed $18 million.

But suddenly, injuries started to dog the fiery middle linebacker. A torn pectoral muscle ended his 2009 season prematurely, and sore knees bothered him throughout the next season. And the Seahawks' fortunes were plummeting at the same time, prompting a coaching change from Jim Mora to Pete Carroll, Tatupu's former coach at USC, in 2010.

You'd think it would be a match made in heaven, right? The first thing Carroll did after the 2010 season was over was ask Tatupu to take a massive pay cut. Tatupu balked, he was released, and he spent the next year out of football as a result.

Fortunately, the Internet is vast and infinite. A search of the vastness brought me to a post-signing "five questions" interview that Tatupu did with Jay Adams of the Falcons' website, and I dutifully offer some of those responses here. Adams asked Tatupu if the quick transition from high-salaried starter to street free agent was hard to accept.

"That was definitely foreign territory for me," Tatupu said. "But it was kind of, at this point, like I know I can play, you know? I did just finish 2010. I finished that season. I played all 16 and I felt like I played well within the scheme we were in. I don't think it played to my strengths, necessarily, but I'm going to do whatever I can, whatever I'm told to do, to help us win and be successful. Not that I ever sat back and was like, 'I'm the man,' but it definitely does bring a taste of reality to you."

Adams asked Tatupu what it was like to be idle while the NFL was in full swing last season.

"When you've been playing the game since you were 7 years old, every part of it is engrained in you," he said, "and when you're playing in college, you've got more of a job - you're regimented. So, I'm waking up at 6, 7 o'clock like, 'I'm supposed to be somewhere right now.' My body knows, even though I don't have anything to do or anywhere to go, I feel like I should be at breakfast right now, going to my 8 o'clock meeting after that. That was kind of the weirdest part about the whole thing."

The time away from football hopefully will have given Tatupu's sore knees a chance to heal and strengthen for the challenge ahead. If he can prove to the Falcons that he can still play at a high level, he's got a legitimate chance to start at middle linebacker in their base 4-3 defense.

So far, Tatupu said, he feels welcome in Atlanta - although he and his wife were in the process of selling their Seattle house and trying to find one in Massachusetts when this opportunity arose.

"From top to bottom, this organization and the guys they've brought in, they've been great, standup guys," he said. "I don't see attitudes or egos coming between any of us. I look forward to working with them, but also getting to know them off-field. It's tight. It's like a family here. Some teams don't have that feel and people just kind of go in their opposite directions."

But he also told Adams that he knows he has something to prove. His accomplishments in Seattle are in the past, and the future remains uncertain.

"I have to earn the respect of my teammates and earn their trust, but also earn a place on this roster." he said. "That's why I came here because they said I could compete for a starting spot, and I don't expect anything to be given to me. I just wanted the opportunity to fight for a spot."

That's exactly what he's doing, allowing no distractions along the way. Local fans will have to be satisfied with highlights or NFL cable-TV packages to follow him; unlike Sherman and the Cardinals, who'll be the Patriots' foes in the Gillette Stadium home opener, they won't be able to see Tatupu in person unless the Patriots play the Falcons in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

Right now, however, Tatupu is just looking ahead to his next workout and his next organized team activity, and is taking his NFL comeback one step at a time.

"I look forward to the challenge, most definitely, yes," he said in the online interview. "I definitely have a chip on my shoulder and I'm looking forward to it."

And I'm definitely looking forward to wishing him well in person later this season.

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