DETROIT – There have been moments this season when Mike Holmgren looked at Lofa Tatupu and felt a tinge of nervousness in his stomach.
There was the time when Dallas' Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen rolled over the Seattle Seahawks' rookie linebacker like a garbage truck picking off an errant trash can. That was nothing compared to the heart-stopping scene in the playoff win over Washington when Holmgren looked 40 yards downfield and saw Tatupu defending – of all things – a wide receiver. Holmgren couldn't get the attention of interim-defensive coordinator John Marshall fast enough.
"I politely buzzed John," a grinning Holmgren said the day after the win, "and I said, 'John, is that what you wanted?' "
It's not every day a coordinator or head coach will cede such dangerous responsibility to a rookie, let alone one who is already saddled with most of the defensive calls. But Tatupu has been a rarity of the highest order – a player who some personnel people panned going into the draft, then changed their minds so drastically over the course of the season that they contended he got robbed when he finished second in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
Thought to be too short (5-foot-11) and too slow (4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash), he was even tagged with the maybe-you-should-be-a-safety lament at the league's scouting combine. Eighteen games later, Tatupu has become Seattle's pivotal defensive element leading into Super Bowl XL.
"He is the reason why USC lost the national championship (last month) and the reason why we are here," Seahawks safety Michael Boulware said. "It's amazing how he's stepped into a leadership role and been able to make the big plays and keep everyone calm. He's been a big asset."
Not bad for a player who scouts claimed was making a mistake by leaving USC to become a low draft pick. Now Tatupu is yet another exhibit why the NFL draft is an inexact science. Not only has the second-round selection been Seattle's outright starter at middle linebacker – a decision that raised quite a few eyebrows in league circles during training camp – but he has been both reliable and clutch.
Headed to the Pro Bowl after Chicago's Brian Urlacher bowed out, Tatupu compiled regular-season statistics (105 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions) that stack up well against the rookie numbers of current dominant middle linebackers. And despite starting his 17th and 18th games of the season, Tatupu hasn't hit a wall in the playoffs. He led the Seahawks with 10 tackles in the divisional playoff win over Washington – even drawing an offensive pass interference on that infamous 40-yard pass pattern that had Holmgren squirming.
Tatupu followed that up with arguably the two most important defensive plays in the NFC championship victory over Carolina. Not only did Tatupu knock Panthers running back Nick Goings out of the game in a tremendous collision (which left both players with concussions), but he also picked off a Jake Delhomme pass meant for Steve Smith to help set Seattle's defensive tone.
Those were two performances displayed prominently in Pittsburgh's film sessions this week, as Tatupu has become the No. 1 key for the Steelers' offense. It didn't take long for the superlatives to begin flowing from the Pittsburgh locker room, too. Steelers fullback Dan Kreider labeled him "an exceptional player" on film, while wide receiver Hines Ward called Tatupu Seattle's version of "Troy Polamalu," likening him to the other USC player who most believe will be the best defensive player on Super Sunday.
"I'm amazed," Polamalu said of Tatupu, who sat out Polamalu's final season at USC as a transfer. "It's amazing that any rookie could come in and do so well.
"I never really got to play on the same field with him (at Southern Cal), but we all knew he was going to be a great linebacker in college. … His football development and maturity have come a long way."
How far has Tatupu come? Try all the way from I-AA University of Maine, which is where he began his college football career when he couldn't get a sniff from Division I programs. A quarterback and linebacker at King Philip High School in Plainville, Mass., Tatupu was seen as too small and too slow to play linebacker for a major program. The son of former Patriots fullback Mosi Tatupu, he was offered the opportunity to walk on at Boston College but chose instead to take a full scholarship from Maine.
Ultimately, it was an atmosphere in which Lofa never felt comfortable. He wasn't a full-time starter at linebacker and felt lost at a school better known for being a weigh station for future NHL players. He might have flamed out there had it not been for Mosi, who pieced together a highlight tape and sent it to former Patriots coach Pete Carroll, who had taken over USC's program. Carroll liked what he saw and offered Lofa a scholarship. One year later, Carroll had a defensive centerpiece that would help lead the Trojans to a share of the 2003 national championship and an outright title in 2004.
It's worth noting that, in his first game for USC, Lofa Tatupu called the defense and finished with 12 tackles against Auburn, including 3½ for a losses. His impact in Seattle took slightly longer, but not much longer. He supplanted Niko Koutouvides as the starting middle linebacker in training camp and took control of defensive huddles from the onset.
"He came in a mature young man," defensive coordinator John Marshall said. "He knows football. He's got a great feel on the field and in the film sessions. More importantly, Lofa is a man. He's a strong-willed young man that's able to take coaching and take advice."
"I knew (he would be special) from the first day when he took over the huddle," defensive tackle Chartric Darby said. "Anytime you take over the huddle, that's the linebacker's house."
Tatupu's real estate is growing. He has obliterated the questions that dogged him going into the draft, when many personnel people suggested he was making one of the biggest mistakes of all the underclassmen. While he has never taken to gloating about those misperceptions, there are still sparks there.
"That took so much for me to leave the (USC) program," Tatupu said. "As bad as it is, it's time to be selfish, and (players) have to think of their opportunities and their families. USC made a lot of money off of us and as much as we love the program – we love the school – but it's time for us to move on with our lives.
"That's a chapter in our lives we'll never forget. Ultimately, this is a job opportunity. It's funny, you always see coaches leaving their programs and it's 'Ah, well, it's noble and he's doing a great job trying to help another program.' They never get to the bad end of it, having to sit out a year or any penalties. They get a bigger contract. That's the business aspect of it. It's sad but it is business."
Stroll around Seattle and you will find banners hanging from light posts adorned with Tatupu's face and "LOFA" in block letters. Within the franchise, he has become more of a locker room presence. Behind closed doors, teammates have enjoyed some of his colorful moments with Holmgren.
In one game early in the season, when Tatupu was removed from Seattle's nickel package, he went to Holmgren and asked to be given additional special teams duties if he wasn't going to be an every-down linebacker. Holmgren snapped at him on the sidelines and told him to go sit down with the defense. After that, he wasn't taken off the field in the nickel package.
And of course, there's the favorite story: Tatupu's plea for Holmgren to introduce the special teams before the Dec. 11 game against San Francisco because, as he matter-of-factly put it to Holmgren, "They deserve it."
"Right from the get-go, he has displayed unusual leadership qualities for a young player," Holmgren said. "Coming into the league, the veterans on every team run things. The rookies kind of find their place and eventually take over. Lofa has established a leadership position on the football team right from the beginning, not only as a football player on the field but also as an off-the-field guy in taking guys to dinner and organizing team functions. It is a very, very unusual set of circumstances."
Then again, this is a rookie who's been an unusually good player. Only a few months after many critics looked at Tatupu and saw a player of limited ability, they now look at him and see another stalk in the league's budding crop of new defensive stars.
As it turns out, too small and too slow looks just about right in Seattle.