Star Lotulelei back on top of draft boards after heart scare

Star Lotulelei (left) sat out combine drills, but soon after was given a clean bill of health.
Star Lotulelei (left) sat out combine drills, but soon after was given a clean bill of health.
leah hogsten/associated press

Every player has fits and starts along the way, the bumps that all must endure as they navigate through life.

On Feb. 25, Star Lotulelei’s path to the NFL almost came to an abrupt halt.

During the medical testing every draft prospect goes through at the combine, an echocardiogram of Lotulelei found an irregularity called ejection fraction. His left ventricle was only pumping at 44 percent efficiency, below the norm of 55-70 percent.

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Doctors didn’t ban the University of Utah defensive tackle from working out, but advised him not to participate in combine drills until he saw a heart specialist.

When that issue arose, the surefire first-round pick had clubs pushing him down their draft boards.

So Lotulelei’s time in Indianapolis essentially consisted of interviews with teams, though he did not meet with the media. After all, answering questions about a potential heart condition isn’t all that appealing.

A test when he returned to Salt Lake City showed improvement, and Lotulelei was able to participate in Utah’s pro day on March 20. He put up numbers comparable with the other top defensive tackles in this year’s draft: 38 reps in the bench press, 30-inch vertical, 7.76 seconds in the three-cone drill, and 4.65 seconds in the short shuttle.

A week later, cardiologist Josef Stehlik signed a letter, which was sent to NFL teams, giving Lotulelei a clean bill of health. The efficiency in his left ventricle had returned to a normal level, and doctors said a virus could have caused the irregularity.

Lotulelei’s name was back at the top of draft boards.

“His biggest quality is his ability to stuff the run, his natural athleticism,” one AFC scout said. “People, I think, are trying to compare him to Haloti [Ngata of the Ravens]. I don’t think he’s as athletic as Haloti is, but he’s a similar type of run player. I think he can play with a little bit better motor, but he’s a bona fide first-rounder, that’s easy.”

The scout compares Lotulelei with Cullen Jenkins of the Giants. Lotulelei has more brute strength than explosive strength, but he’s able to “move laterally and press gaps, press the edges of the offensive line in, but he’s just not a dynamic interior pass rusher. He’s not that type of guy.”

Though the scout sees Lotulelei as more of a two-down player because of his excellence against the run, he may have no choice but to develop into a three-down player to justify his status as a high first-round pick.

Florida’s Sharrif Floyd, also a top-rated defensive tackle, is more of a three-down lineman at this juncture, the scout added.

For a man who measures 6 feet 2½ inches and 311 pounds, Lotulelei has kept a very low profile since the combine, refusing almost all interview requests. He did meet briefly with a small group of reporters after his pro day, saying in part, “I think I showed I can move around very well for a big guy . . . so I’ve just got to get into a little better shape and I think I’ll be good.”

He even released a statement on why he declined his invitation to be at Radio City Music Hall for the opening night of the draft, saying that the invitation was “a tremendous honor,” but he preferred “to stay at home to share the moment with all of the people that have supported me in my life.”

Lotulelei mentioned getting into better shape, but it wasn’t too long ago that he wasn’t in shape at all — among the first bumps in his football career.

Growing up, he longed to play at Brigham Young, watching football games with his father, who had attended the school.

He got his wish when he signed a letter of intent with the Cougars to play beginning in the 2007 season. But he didn’t qualify academically and found himself delivering furniture during what would have been his freshman year.

The physical labor ended up benefiting Lotulelei (pronounced lo-too-leh-lay): He gained a good deal of muscle on the job, helping him gain weight that would eventually benefit him as a defensive lineman.

He enrolled at Snow College, a junior college in Ephraim, Utah, and though he was out of shape, weighing in at around 350 pounds, he recorded 52 tackles, including 11 for loss, and five sacks for a team that lost the NJCAA championship game in overtime.

While at Snow, Lotulelei got his grades together, but to preserve a year of NCAA eligibility, he didn’t play football in 2009. He still was recruited by Oregon State, Utah State, Utah, and BYU again.

He felt Utah had shown the most interest when he was at Snow, and so he opted to become a Ute.

In his second year there, Lotulelei played well enough to be considered a first-round pick. He won the Pac-12’s Morris Trophy, given to the conference’s best defensive lineman as determined by its offensive linemen, and was also first-team all-conference.

But the married father of two daughters, Arilani and Pesatina, bypassed the chance to leave school early so he could get his degree.

And after that final season — another first-team All-Pac-12 year that saw him named to six All-America teams — NFL personnel executives regarded him as highly as they had a year earlier.

After all of the bumps, ones related to academics, fitness, even at one point the feeling that he wasn’t as enamored with football as he once was, and then the heart scare, Lotulelei is finally on a straight path to the NFL.