Perspective, perseverance highlight Latu's draft journey

Apr. 26—INDIANAPOLIS — Laiatu Latu is at no loss for perspective.

Three years ago, he was fighting to restart his football career following neck surgery at the University of Washington.

Friday, he sat at a podium inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center as the first defensive player selected in the 2024 NFL Draft.

It's a surreal experience that still has yet to sink in.

"It doesn't feel real," Latu said. "When I woke up, I thought I was dreaming. I woke up a Colt — it's a crazy experience."

There was a time it seemed nearly impossible.

Latu missed the entire 2020 season at Washington with a neck injury and underwent cervical neck fusion in 2021. The Huskies' team doctors declined to clear the edge rusher, and he was urged to medically retire.

It's a fate Latu refused to accept.

"What the doctors were telling me I didn't agree with because I didn't feel that at the same time," he said. "It was easy for me not to give up. I was easy for me to be confident with everything. Obviously, it was emotional because I'm being told (to retire), and I can't control what they're telling me.

"So obviously it's emotional, but I never got in a negative mindset. I never got down on myself. I always believed that I was going to work toward this."

While Washington urged Latu to pursue a coaching path, he designed his own workouts and even played rugby — a sport he starred in as a high-schooler.

"I was really close to playing rugby," he said. "Not so close that I wanted to, but two months after my surgery I took up club rugby out in the Rainier Beach area. Then I get asked by the Seattle Seawolves to come do a camp. I killed the camp, and they wanted me to sign with them.

"I told them that my passion is football, and I'm working towards getting back and getting on a team, and he respected that."

The Seawolves are no joke.

The franchise won the first two Major League Rugby championships and have played in the final four times in the league's first six seasons.

Latu wasn't sufficiently tempted.

His quest to return to the gridiron finally turned when his mother received a text from Dr. Robert Watkins — a renowned neck surgeon who performed Peyton Manning's procedure.

"She knew I wanted this really bad, and she didn't give up on me," Latu said. "It came that day when we got that text. She got that text, and she flew me and her out to L.A. to go see him. From that day on, it was clearance and the green light."

Freshly cleared, Latu transferred to UCLA.

He played in 25 games over the next two seasons, led the nation in tackles for loss last year, was named a first-team All-American and won the Lombardi Trophy as the country's best offensive or defensive lineman.

There's a consensus he had the best pass-rushing tape in this year's draft class. But the buzz was dulled somewhat by concerns around the neck injury and — to a lesser extent — his age.

Latu will be 24 by the end of his rookie season.

Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard was undaunted by those concerns and made Latu the 15th overall pick in Thursday's first round.

He said the team asked "a ton" of questions to doctors throughout the process and came away satisfied with the answers.

The Colts also had a very good feel on Latu from a personal standpoint, despite spending very little in-person time with him during the pre-draft process.

"(Scouts) Matt Terpening and Chris McGaha did a tremendous job on the character, plus we have a great relationship with (former UCLA head coach) Chip (Kelly)," Ballard said. "So we had a lot of inside information on who he was. A lot of times the ones we know — and we visited with him at the (NFL Scouting) Combine — guys we know, he fits what we stand for in every way.

"There are some guys you bring in that (you) dig, dig, dig on. He was one we had a really good feel for after the Combine. I thought we didn't need more information, and the character was really strong."

So was the on-field performance.

Indianapolis clearly had Latu as the top defensive player on its board, and Ballard said "there were four or five really elite players, and he was one of them, so we feel fortunate to get him."

The Colts set an Indy-era franchise record with 51 sacks last season, but there clearly was a push to add an elite edge rusher this offseason.

The team reportedly pursued veteran Danielle Hunter in free agency, before he signed with the hometown Houston Texans.

Latu should compete with Kwity Paye and Samson Ebukam to start immediately, and he is the most polished pass rusher drafted in the Ballard era.

"He's a natural rusher," Ballard said. "He's a three-way rusher where he has got a great long arm down the middle, and he's got a great feel of when to counter inside, and he can win on the edge. He's kind of got all of it."

None of it would have been possible without Latu's uncommon perseverance.

He was told to give up the game he loved, and he refused to listen.

It's left him with a unique perspective on his new profession.

"Having football taken away from me — before having it taken away, I never took for granted football," Latu said. "I loved it so much. I looked up to my big brothers that were at U-Dub (Washington), and I tried to take after them. No one can be ready for adversity like that.

"I just have a different appreciation for the game. I love every minute being out there on the field."