Tatupu: "A Seahawk For Life"

Seahawks.NET
Posted Mar 22, 2008


The Seahawks did not give Lofa Tatupu a $42 million contract extension with $18 million in guarantees for his measurables. Nor is he getting the payday of his life for his ability to do one thing or another specifically. No, the Seahawks are paying this much money for the intangibles, and the body of work, of one very special player.

And they're getting one hell of a bargain.

The details are simple -- six more seasons after his rookie contract ends in 2009. He'll make $27 million in the first three years of the deal. For a player who instantly became the heart and soul of Seattle's defense after being selected with the 45th pick in the 2005 draft -- the Seahawks having traded up to insure that they'd get the former USC linebacker -- it's a worthy reward.

What the Seahawks are paying for above all, as Mike Holmgren touched upon in the Friday press conference announcing Tatupu's contract extension, is the kind of confidence that rare players bring to the field. After years of trying to find the answer at middle linebacker, the Seahawks never had another question after Tatupu arrived for his first minicamp in 2005.

Like Tatupu himself, there's more to this new contract than meets the eye. Four teammates -- defensive end Patrick Kerney, defensive tackle Craig Terrill, safety Deon Grant and cornerback Jordan Babineaux -- restructured their own contracts so that Tatupu could become, as team president Tim Ruskell put it, "a Seahawk for life". It is this culture of unselfishness and team-think that is Tatupu's greatest gift to the Seahawks. In a very real sense, he was rewarded by the machine he created.

The deal had been brewing since the summer of 2007, as Fletcher Smith (Tatupu's agent) and John Idzik (the Seahawks' personnel finance man) put the particulars together. "It kind of epitomizes what we are as a team, and the players who make up our team," Ruskell said of the deal's architecture. Tatupu could have delayed the deal and received more money on the open market with another great season. Elite middle linebackers aren't exactly common, and Tatupu has never missed a Pro Bowl. But the man himself wanted to leave money on the table for others -- like defensive teammates Leroy Hill and Marcus Trufant -- who may sign long-term deals of their own.

"I don't want to be anywhere else," Tatupu said. "I'm more than happy here. I don't know what else you could ask for -- I'm just grateful for the opportunity and the way things have turned out. I couldn't picture myself in any other uniform, and now I don't have to. I love my team. I couldn't ask for a better group of teammates, coaching staff, everything. I'm just grateful to be here, and glad it could get done."

Ruskell, who cut his teeth as an area scout and personnel executive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1990s, said that Tatupu's presence in Seattle is as important an achievement for him as some of his greatest finds for that legendary Bucs defense.

"I couldn't be more proud of this guy. Everyone knows what we went through when we took him -- we were blasted for (taking him in the) second round and all that. And that's not what I'm proud of. I'm proud of what he's done. We made an effort (in trading up) to get there, and we took some heat, but that's not important.

"What's important is what he's done, and what he's meant to this football team. He's the heart and soul of this defense -- I know Coach Holmgren will talk about that. As I look back on my career personally, in terms of picks I've been involved with, I'll look back on this one as one of my favorites of all time. When people ask me about that, I think of John Lynch and Ronde Barber, and Derrick Brooks, guys like that, and Lofa's right up there with them. There are a couple of Hall-of-Famers in there.

"Having said all that, we are as proud of what Lofa is as a person and what he's done in the community in terms of visiting the schools, and when we ask him to see a patient who may be terminally ill, he's never batted an eye and he's done that. He won't toot his own horn about that, but if you could read some of the letters and phone calls we get after that, it's an amazing thing. It just epitomizes what a Seahawk should be."

Holmgren echoed Ruskell's admiration. "When you get into the draft -- and we're approaching the draft this year -- you put a lot of work into determining the measurables at a particular position. Weight, speed, all the things that our scouts work very, very hard to judge. One of the more difficult things to just with any player is what's inside of the player. The competitive nature of the player. The intangibles. Clearly, in Lofa's case, as Tim already stated, we were very sure of the type of player we were getting.

"He has not let anybody down in the field -- in fact, he has gone way over what anyone could expect from any player who's played as long in the league as he has. He's very much the quarterback of our defense, he's very much a leader of our football team."

Holmgren, who has worked with some of the NFL's all-time greats, then made a startling admission. "(Tatupu) is the first player I've seen at any position, as a head coach in this league, where I don't worry about what he does at all. He's going to get people lined up, and he's going to play the game the way it's supposed to be played, and his example on the field and off is what we'd want each of our players to be."

Pretty heady stuff from a man who's run offenses with Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice, won a Super Bowl with Reggie White, and almost took another one with Walter Jones.

Tatupu takes the compliments in stride -- for him, it's about what's next. Starting with the task of leading a defense that's finally rounding into shape after several years of tinkering. "If you look at all the guys they've brought in -- (Julian) Peterson, (Patrick) Kerney, even (Leroy) Hill in the same draft with me. The two new safeties (Deon Grant and Brian Russell)… every year, it's just been that much better as far as defense is concerned. I'm just grateful to work with guys like that, and those guys who were mentioned -- Craig, Babs, Kerney and Deon. To restructure (their deals) says a lot about their character and the kind of guys they are."

On this momentous day that no doubt fills the hearts of every Seahawks fan with a great sense of relief, it's important to remember just how unpopular the pick was in 2005. Tatupu was seen as an overachiever by most, a heady player who would run into trouble at the next level because of his size and speed deficits. Many draft "experts" thought the pick was crazy. One well-established prognosticator said that Tatupu was a two- or three-round reach. Still, the Bengals and Colts were watching Tatupu, and the Seahawks had good cause to move up to get him.

Three seasons, three Pro Bowls, 337 tackles and one defense defined after that initial selection, the formerly underrated, too-slow/too-short misfit is among the best things to happen to the Seahawks in the greatest years of the franchise. NFLDraftScout Senior Draft Analyst Rob Rang was one of the few who had Tatupu's gifts scouted correctly from the start. Rang's Seahawks.NET draft-day prediction that "in three years, everybody in Seattle will be wearing Lofa Tatupu jerseys" proved supremely prescient, and he has the last word on the early legacy of the Seahawks' very heart and soul.

Few athletes in Seattle's professional sports history have taken over a fanbase so quickly and completely as Lofa Tatupu has over his early career. While it may remain premature to list Tatupu among the city's all-time greatest sports figures, his production, high character, and role in the Seahawks' run to the Super Bowl have him on track to do so.

And fortunately, for many more years.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.



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