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Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Cardinal’s Journey From Tonga to Tampa

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Guard Taitusi Lutui, known as Deuce, has brought a “playful warrior mentality” and a Tongan brand of football to the Cardinals.

Published: January 29, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. — Taitusi Lutui laughed with the guy from “The Tonight Show,” the one who said his bowl haircut looked awfully super.

He laughed with his Arizona Cardinals teammates, the ones who call him Deuce and tease him for the love songs that fill his iPod. And he laughed with reporters who asked what he would receive from the king of his native Tonga if he won the Super Bowl.

“Probably a big, fat pig,” Lutui said, leaning back and laughing so hard his belly shook.

In the Lutui family’s native Tonga, they play rugby instead of football, live in a monarchy instead of a democracy, and watch the Super Bowl on Monday instead of Sunday.

From this — from Tonga to Tampa with stops in Arizona and California — Lutui grew into a guard with massive girth and a matching sense of humor who plays a decidedly Tongan brand of football for the Cardinals.

“I will say this about Polynesian kids in general: They love football,” said Pat Ruel, Lutui’s position coach at Southern California. “Because back in their culture, there has always been this warrior mentality. Not so much that intensity about it. But almost a playful warrior mentality.”

Lutui, the Cardinals’ playful warrior, described Tonga as a tiny island — the kingdom is actually an archipelago of 171 islands, 48 of them inhabited — as a country on the international dateline, the first to receive the new day, as a place filled with humble and passionate people who love family above all else.

Lutui treats his elders like royalty and regards his parents as the king and queen of the household. Asked if that made him a prince, he laughed again and joked that Prince Baby Huey may fit better.

“People are less fortunate there,” he said. “They live off the land and their family and their love for God.”

Lutui’s family emigrated from Tonga to Mesa, Ariz., when he was months old. They joined the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mesa, where his parents will go Sunday to pray for their “little big boy,” Lutui said.

Because of their religious obligations, the family could not travel to Tampa for the Super Bowl. But that has not stopped Lutui from sharing Tonga stories with reporters and his teammates.

“Deuce is proud of his roots, and there’s no secret about that,” his teammate Reggie Wells said.

Perhaps Lutui would not be here, either, had Ruel not gone to U.S.C. from the Giants, noticed that Lutui weighed more than 385 pounds and talked the coaching staff out of benching him. Instead, Ruel told Lutui he needed to lose at least 40 pounds and then moved him from tackle to guard.

Lutui met with a nutritionist and spent extra time in the weight room, and sure enough the weight melted away. By the middle of his senior season, Lutui was projected as a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick. By the end, scouts projected that he would be taken in the first two rounds.

“It was almost like he was released,” Ruel said. “Those 40 pounds made him a new man. Turns out he could run like a deer. I’ve never seen a big man move like that.”

The Cardinals selected him in the second round in 2006, and it is Lutui, not his more celebrated U.S.C. teammate, quarterback Matt Leinart, who will start for the Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

This did not surprise Ruel. He viewed Lutui as a first-round talent, a player, he said, with a “special makeup,” the kind of guy who chuckled when telling an Oregon defensive tackle he would make him his “Samoan slave.”

The kind of guard who laughed when defenders took swings at him, who sang the fight song after practice, who never showed a trace of anger. For months after the Cardinals drafted him, Lutui called Ruel once a week to thank him.

“I missed the guy when he left, and I never really stopped missing him,” Ruel said. “I’ve never been around a guy who enjoys football as much as he does.”

A longtime Cardinals fan, Lutui still has the ticket stub from the first game he attended, in 1990, when he sat in the metal bleachers at Sun Devil Stadium. He said he once joined fellow Cardinals fans in lobbing soda cans at Deion Sanders, an opposing cornerback.

From Tonga to Mesa, from Los Angeles and back to Phoenix, Lutui never lost his laughter.

Under Russ Grimm, the Cardinals’ offensive line coach, Lutui helped turn one of the worst offensive lines in football into a more consistent unit. And now, a Tonga native turned Cardinals fan, he finds himself in the biggest game of all playing for the team he rooted for.

“Super Bowl and Arizona Cardinals are in the same sentence,” he said. “You might think they don’t go together, but, hey, it’s ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not!’ We’re here. Here to stay.”

Someone asked Lutui if Tonga would knight him if the Cardinals won.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a king already,” Ruel said.

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