Tongan's long road to NFL leads him to Carolina

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) — After a year of moving heavy furniture into cabins in Utah, Star Lotulelei realized the working man's 9-to-5 life simply wasn't for him.

Lotulelei knew right then he needed to make his NFL dream happen — no matter what the cost.

And he did just that.

The defensive tackle was selected 14th overall in the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers on Thursday.

"I learned that football is what I was made for and football is what I need to be doing," Lotulelei said during an introductory press conference in Charlotte on Saturday. "That's what that year off taught me. I needed to be playing football and it was definitely a hard lesson learned."

Lotulelei took a road less travelled to the NFL.

Born in Tonga, he moved to America when he was 9 years old and didn't begin playing American football until he was in high school. He said he didn't understand the game at the time, but caught on quickly.

It didn't take long for him — as well as college scouts — to recognize he was a natural defensive tackle.

A member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, Lotulelei committed to play at his favorite school, Brigham Young University, in 2006.

However, he didn't have the grades to get in.

It was a huge road block standing in the way of his dream of playing in the NFL. He spent the next year out of American football altogether, moving heavy wooden king size beds, dining room tables and entertainment centers for a moving company in Utah.

He hated the job.

Lotulelei enrolled at Snow College, a two-year school in Utah, where he'd play one season before transferring to Utah University.

But Snow would forever impact his life. That's where he met his wife, Fuiva, and a short time later she would give birth to the first of their two daughters.

It changed his life.

"Getting married and having my first child was something that helped me become grounded," Lotulelei said. "It helped me to focus, kind of settle down and figure out what I wanted to do with my life and where we needed to go. I think that is what has gotten me to where I am today.

"I think having a family of my own, wife and kids, it helps out in that area of being a little more mature than some other guys."

While other players spent time partying and hanging out with friends, Lotulelei said he'd return to his off-campus home 30 minutes away to spend time with his daughters, Arilani, 3, and Pesatina, 1, and focus on his academics.

"He just likes to relax and be with the kids," said Fuiva, also from Tonga and a former volleyball player at Snow. "When football's done, he's usually at home. He's pretty good about that."

Once at Utah, there were other obstacles to overcome.

Lotulelei didn't play in 2009 so he could work on his academics and get his weight under control after ballooning to 350 pounds (159 kilos) while at Snow.

But after the season off, his talent began to show through.

He was voted the Utah's co-captain entering his second season and named his conference's top defensive lineman in 2011. He closed out a memorable season by earning defensive MVP honors in Utah's 30-27 win over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

He could have turned pro.

Instead, with a second child on the way, Lotulelei decided to complete his degree in sociology and spend another season getting mentally and physically prepared to play at the next level.

The gamble paid off.

After another dominating season at Utah as a senior, the Panthers fell in love with Lotulelei and wasted no time submitting their pick when he fell to No. 14.

"I mean, you just know," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said of the draft choice. "It's like when you guys met your wives, you knew, you knew."

Lotulelei said family was important to him.

He was invited by the league to attend the draft in New York but declined so he could spend the moment with his wife and two daughters and other members of his extended family in Utah.

He felt like he needed to be with them.

When his name was called by the Panthers, television cameras showed the soft-spoken 6-foot-3, 308-pound (1.91-meter, 140-kilo) tackle breaking down in tears.

All of the hard work, it seemed, had paid off.

"It was real emotional because it's been a long road," Lotulelei said. "I sat out a year after high school and then going the junior college route. I had my first kid when I was 19 years old and got married young. So it's been a rough road, a hard road and to make it to that point of getting picked it meant a lot to me and my family."

He called the moment surreal, but is anxious to get started with a job he loves rather than one he loathes.

"I think emotions won't stop," he said, "until I get the pads and helmet on and get back to football."



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