Patriots players and management were saddened by the news Wednesday of the death of Mosi Tatupu, a fullback and special teams ace for the Patriots for 13 seasons.
“I know that I share a heavy heart today with Patriots fans everywhere who have learned of Mosi Tatupu’s passing,” said Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft through a team press release. “I was shocked by the news this morning. My sons and I loved to watch Mosi. He was one of our favorite players for more than a decade.”
Tatupu, 54, a native of America Samoa who played 13 seasons for the Patriots, died Tuesday, but the cause of death was not known, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Barry Markowitz, a family friend, told the Star-Bulletin, “He had some health issues.”
The Patriots drafted Tatupu in the eighth round of the 1978 draft out of the University of Southern California. He was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and was a schoolboy football star at Punahou High in Honolulu. He held the Hawaii state record for career yards for 17 years, according to the newspaper’s web site.
“You probably couldn’t ask for a better teammate than Mosi,” said former linebacker Andre Tippett, also through the Patriots’ press release. “It was the way he approached the game. He worked hard. He practiced hard. He had a way about him. He always had an upbeat attitude, he was happy all the time and just pleasant to be around. He had a special connection with the fans and his teammates. Everybody loved him.”
Tatupu was the head coach at King Philip High in Wrentham, where he coached his son, Lofa, who is now a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. He also coached running backs at Curry College in Milton.
“It’s a tremendous shock. I didn’t know that he was ill, if he was ill, we’re not sure how he died and that doesn’t seem to have been released at this time … It’s shocking sudden news to us,” said Steve Schairer, who is now the athletic director at King Philip, but was the lacrosse coach during Mosi’s time as head football coach.
Schairer said the school is discussing plans to honor Tatupu, and also said a plaque will be added to the school’s wall of fame.
Mosi Tatupu had 612 carries and 2,415 yards in his 14-year NFL career. After 13 seasons with the Patriots from 1978 to 1990, Tatupu played five games for the Los Angeles Rams in 1991 before ending his playing career.
Tatupu was primarily a blocking back and short-yardage specialist on offense, but was highly regarded for his special teams skills. He made the 1986 Pro Bowl as a special teamer and was named the NFL Alumni’s Special Teams Player of the Year.
“As a teammate, he was one of the best. He was one of those guys that made life fun whether it was in the locker room or on the practice fields,” former quarterback Steve Grogan said. “He had a smile that radiated. The fans appreciated him because he was a lunchpail kind of guy and did whatever was asked of him — whether it was on special teams, on the goal line, in blocking or catching situations. I think Patriots fans really appreciated that.”
Tatupu played in 202 NFL games, including Super Bowl XX, when the Patriots lost to the Bears 46-10. He had 18 career touchdowns. He had his own cheering section at Patriots home games, “Mosi’s Mooses.”
“They are great fans, but just to have your own section is an honor,” Tatupu said in a 2004 interview with the Globe. “It inspired me to play harder because they were cheering for me and backing me up.”
Curry College coach Skip Bandini said this morning that “the world is not a better place” with Tatupu gone. After coaching running backs for six seasons at Curry, Bandini said Tatupu took time off this past season to spend time with his family in the Seattle area.
“He missed them and stuff and he wanted to go to spend time with them, and I’m glad he did it,” Bandini said.
Bandini added, “He was all of our players’ favorite coach and he was all of our coaches’ favorite coach. … You’re not going to meet a better person on the planet.”
At Southern California from 1974 to 1977, Tatupu was a member of the Trojans’ 1974 national championship team. He ran for 1,277 yards on 223 carries in his Trojan career and was USC’s Offensive Player of the Year and Most Inspirational Player in 1977.
Patriots receiver Wes Welker won the 2003 Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation’s best special teams player.
“Mosi Tatupu was one of the first truly great special teams players. He set the stage for a lot of us to follow,” Welker said. “It was an honor to win a special teams award in his name back in 2003 and then have the opportunity to meet him here in New England. As a Patriot, I have learned even more about the impact that Mosi had on this franchise and in this community. He will be sadly missed. My heart goes out to his family.”
For a look at Tatupu’s career, check out our photo gallery here.
Monique Walker and Brendan Hall of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.