Deuce Lutui is about to play in the biggest game of his professional career thus far. And he'll be doing it in front of local fans and family.
The former standout at Mesa, AZ High and USC will be front and center (well, next to center) on the Cardinals' O-line Sunday, protecting QB Kurt Warner from a marauding Eagles defense that recorded 48 sacks this past season. The 6-4, 328-pound guard will be looking to pancake a few Eagles on the way to, hopefully, his first Super Bowl trip.
Deuce's connections to Cardinal football began with his cousin Vai Sikahema, also a former star at Mesa High, who played for the Cards during the last two seasons in St. Louis and the first three in Arizona when they were the Phoenix Cardinals. Vai was the first Tongan-born player in the NFL, a successful two-time Pro Bowl return specialist who became even more famous for his goalpost-punching celebration, which he brought out as a Philadelphia Eagle in 1992.
An aspiring boxer pounding the posts in the town of Rocky? The fans loved it. Sikahema once fought in the National Golden Gloves, and it was also a tribute to his dad, who once hoped Vai would be a pro boxer.
Following in Vai's footsteps (at 5-9, probably not as large as Deuce's) would be difficult, but Deuce, after a couple years in two community colleges, ended up at USC, flattening opponents in protection of Heisman Trophy-winner (and current teammate) Matt Leinart. When the Cards drafted him in the second round of the '06 draft, it completed a chain as strong as the ties of a close family. Vai, though a successful sports anchor for Philly's NBC affiliate, has remained close to his cousin, the ties of a proud island people being much stronger than team colors. No doubt he will be pulling for Deuce, but he will more likely be pulling for Philadelphia, where he lives and works.
Except, maybe, for the guy who goes against his cousin. Then, it's a family thing.