Lofa Tatupu's departure is tough for one reporter
Are you friends with the players? It is the question I am asked most often about my occupation.
Seattle Times NFL reporter
Are you friends with the players?
It is the question I am asked most often about my occupation. My answer is an inevitable disappointment as I begin droning on about professional obligations, the need for objectivity, and the reality that 24-year-old millionaires generally have better social options than hanging out with me.
But Lofa Tatupu was the closest thing I've had to a friend in a pro locker room. We've never eaten dinner together or had a conversation over beers. The only face-to-face conversations I've ever had with him were either in a locker room or on a football field.
I covered each of his six seasons in Seattle on a daily basis, and found him to be one of the most thoughtful, accountable and earnest people that I have had the fortune to meet in my role as a journalist.
He was willing to talk about his emotions, whether it was his sadness over the unexpected death of his father in 2010 or the excitement he felt at the prospect of being a father. He showed me the sonogram on his iPhone last year.
I didn't prepare for my interviews with Tatupu so much as I looked forward to them. Sports journalism is riddled with monotonously similar questions and boringly predictable answers. Tatupu was different. He was someone you asked a question because you were genuinely interested, curious even, as to what he thought.
There was something very genuine about him. This spring, I reached out to see if he could help me out with a preview of the upcoming draft. I asked him for a very general sketch of what he thought the team needed. This is usually the cue for a cliché about the importance of the line, how you can never have too much size, or that every team can use a receiver with a drag racer's acceleration.
Tatupu responded, apologetically, that he couldn't help out. To comment on what the team needed would indicate that he felt some units on the squad were lacking. He said that was something he just would not do. He said he hoped I understood.
That's the way Tatupu was. Always so earnest.
There were no excuses with him. He broke his thumb in the first half of the first game of 2008 but played the whole season, only to undergo surgery the following spring. He had his knee drained regularly that year, too.
I know that to be true, but not from Tatupu. He never said a word about an injury. Even last season, when he was noticeably less mobile in the final month of the season, he insisted he wasn't any more hurt than anyone else. He underwent surgery on both knees after the season.
To cite an injury was an excuse in his eyes, and excuses didn't affect the only thing that mattered in his mind: the final score.
The Seahawks played a Monday night in Philadelphia during Tatupu's rookie year, and he returned an interception 38 yards in the second quarter to give Seattle a 21-0 lead. A reporter afterward asked Tatupu how it felt to be spotted a three-touchdown lead.
"Spotted?" Tatupu said. "I could've sworn it was 0-0 when we took the field."
Maybe you had to be there to realize how funny it was. Tatupu was the kind of player who didn't like answering the same old questions, and he really disliked being in front of television cameras.
It was impossible not to respect Tatupu's rise to NFL stardom. This was a guy who was so lightly recruited out of high school that New Hampshire wasn't interested. In fact, Tatupu heard one of the coaches there had said he wasn't good enough to play "Wildcat football."
He had to sell himself to USC, his father's school, and the Trojans initially wanted him to walk on, offering a scholarship only after Oregon did. All he did was become a starting linebacker and leader of a national-championship team who made the Pro Bowl each of his first three seasons in the NFL.
Three straight losing seasons for the Seahawks changed some of the perceptions. Tatupu went from being hailed as the "Little Engine Who Could," to being criticized. Injuries have taken a toll, as has the deterioration of Seattle's defensive line.
Seattle's motivations in this move aren't mysterious or all that complex. The Seahawks are getting younger, and they sought to restructure a contract Tatupu signed at a time when he was a cornerstone of the franchise. That's just the hard-nosed reality of a league where teams often choose to risk getting rid of a player too early than hold onto him too long.
It remains to be seen how Seattle's decision to release its captain will pan out. But from a personal perspective, I know there's one Seahawks player I'm going to miss interviewing.
About Danny O'Neil
Danny O'Neil will comment on issues, events and personalities in the NFL. His column will appear on Sundays during the regular season. He also posts most days on the Seahawks Blog.
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