To understand why Star Lotulelei Jr. has such a distinctive first name, it’s best to ask Star Sr. We stopped in a Salt Lake City suburb to visit with the Panthers tackle’s parents, who told with pride the story of their son’s journey from Tonga to a Utah furniture store to the NFL’s biggest game
SOUTH JORDAN, Utah — At Super Bowl Opening Night, a reporter asked Star Lotulelei the origin of his name. “I don’t know,” the Panthers’ defensive tackle stumbled. “I’m going to have to ask my father. I’m starting to get that question a lot. I just know my name is Star Jr.”
Star Lotulelei Sr. watched on television. He thought about texting his son. There is a story behind the name, and an important one. Maybe, he says, it is time to tell it.
Begin in Tonga. The nation of 100,000 (one-eighth the size of Charlotte) is composed of 177 islands in the South Pacific. Nearly 70 percent of Tongans reside on the largest island, but not the Lotuleleis, who lived on a landmass roughly the size of five football fields. There is not much industry in Tonga. You either work from the ocean or the land. The Lotuleleis harvested taro and tapioca, then sold the produce on the streets. They lived, like most around them, in a one-room hut constructed from coconut leaves and mud.
Lotulelei Sr. was his parents' first-born. His uncle selected the name, choosing Sitalaiti, which means star light. “He had in mind that I would be the hope of the family,” Lotulelei Sr. says. “That I would become something so I could salvage my family from the poor conditions.”
He pauses. He is in suburban Salt Lake City, in a cul-de-sac neighborhood, in the 2,600-square-foot home where he raised nine children. There are four bedrooms, two garages, leather couches and tan walls decorated with dozens of family portraits and black script quotes: HOME, FAMILY, BLESSING. It is bursting with natural sunlight and laughter from children. Seven of Lotulelei Sr.’s 16 grandchildren are scurrying around.
Upon entering the home, visitors are greeted with one prominent piece: a framed certificate of Lotulelei Sr.’s Ph.D at BYU. “I put that there so all my children and grandchildren can see it,” he says. “And remind them of the opportunities that were never available to me back home.”
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Dave Peck received a call that a promising player was transferring to South Jordan’s Bingham High in 2006. Imagine the football coach’s sly grin when Star Lotulelei Jr., 6-foot and massive, walked into his office. “Did I just win the lottery?” Peck says.
Nearly 70 players tried out for the team that year; Peck allowed only two players to play both ways. Star Jr. was the centerpiece of the offensive and defensive lines. Division I schools were smitten, and Star Jr. chose BYU. When he was younger, his father used to bring home VHS tapes of the Cougars, and the Lotuleleis would huddle around a small TV and watch. But when it was time for Star Jr. to sign his official letter, the admissions department balked at his GPA.
BYU told Star Jr. they could work it out. Go to community college, get your grades up, and come to Provo a year later. Star Jr. declined. He told his parents he would quit football. “I think he was mad at himself, embarrassed,” his dad says. “The thing is, the love for the game was always secondary for Star. He was good enough, and he liked playing with his friends. But he didn’t have the passion for it … yet.”
Star Jr. took a job hauling furniture for $10 an hour. He was out of the house at 7 a.m., returned by 4 p.m. and despised every minute. This wasn’t exactly a surprise. When he was 10, Star Jr.'s parents secured their son a job delivering newspapers. “He would sit in the back of the van as his older sisters did all the work,” his mother, Pesatina, says.
Two months into his furniture delivery job, Star quit. After work, he had been going to Bingham High and standing on the sideline to watch his younger brother Lowell practice. Star Jr. realized he missed the sport. He enrolled at Snow Community College and joined the team.
* * *
Pesatina laughs when she is reminded that her son might be the only member of the Carolina Panthers who has yet to dab. It turns out Star Jr. is a great dancer. “And the dab,” Pesatina explains, “is very similar to a Tongan dance. But Star is sometimes shy of showing his personality.”
Star Jr. lived in Tonga for the first nine years of his life. His father had worked his way through schooling in Hawaii, studied accounting, and now was settling logistics to migrate his nine siblings and parents to the U.S. (which he eventually did).
At first Star Jr.’s teachers were concerned about his behavior. “He never talks. Is he like this at home?” Pesatina remembers a grade-school teacher once saying.
“No, he is comfortable at home,” she said. “That’s because he knows everybody.”
Truth is, Star Jr. is a homebody. When he enrolled at Snow College, it was his first time not sleeping under his parents’ roof. He called after a few days to say he was homesick; the Lotuleleis visited every weekend, bringing trays of Pesatina’s famous chicken thighs.
In year two at Snow, he met Fuiva, a volleyball player. Turns out, Star Sr. already knew Fuiva—he was friendly with her father in Tonga. “She comes from a good family,” Star Sr. told his son. “Be good to her.”
When Star Jr. earned a scholarship at Utah, transferring to play in Division I, he married Fuiva. Utah coaches asked Star Jr. to live on campus, but he opted for the basement of his parents’ house. At that point Fuiva and Star Jr. had their first child, a daughter Arilani. “He told me, ‘I know I need to work hard for her,’” Pesatina recalls.
Commuting to Utah wasn’t exactly easy, especially in football season. The hours were longer than shifts lifting couches, and the work more strenuous. Star Jr. would leave home at 4 a.m. to make a morning lift and would not return until 9 p.m. after classes and practice. When his name bubbled as a potential first-round pick if he left after junior year, Star Jr. thought about it carefully. “For a high percentage of us who migrated here, it’s enticing to make that kind of money and provide for your family,” Star Sr. says. “But he said he wanted to get closer to his degree, so he stayed.”
* * *
The morning that Star Jr. left to go to Indianapolis for the NFL combine, Pesatina had a bad feeling. Star Jr. was sniffly, and his throat a bit sore. I hope his cold heals, Pesatina thought. Later in the afternoon, Star Sr. received a call from his son’s agent. “Hey, Brother Lotulelei, what are you doing?’” the agent asked.
“I’m just at home,” he said.
“Good,” the agent said, and then instructed Star Sr. to sit down. The NFL doctors flagged his son’s physical. There was something wrong with his heart, but they did not know what. Pesatina sobbed through the night. She imagined Star Jr. alone in a hotel room worrying about Fuiva and Arilani.
He stayed in Indianapolis for four days. He sat in meeting after meeting with NFL coaches and GMs, knowing some of these men might have already scratched him off their boards. He returned to Utah, where he took test after test, each doctor telling him, “We don’t know yet.”
And then after one extra-long appointment at the University of Utah Hospital, Star Sr. received a text from his son: “It seems that I'm OK.”
The Lotuleleis were overjoyed. Star Jr. could participate at Utah’s Pro Day, which would turn out to be the most-attended in school history—and that doesn’t include the nearly 50 Lotuleleis who lined the facility, cheering for each of Star Jr.’s 38 reps in the 225-pound bench press (which would have placed him first among defensive linemen at the combine).
Although Star Jr. slipped from his projected top-5 ranking, he was selected in the first round by the Panthers, at No. 14.
* * *
Among Star Jr.’s first rookie splurges? A truck for his dad. Growing up, they drove a Plymouth that wouldn’t fit all of the Lotuleleis, forcing Star Jr. to share the floor with his brother. “I’ll buy you a truck once I make the NFL, dad,” Star Jr. promised.
Star Jr. made another splurge for the Super Bowl week. He paid to send his parents, Fuiva’s parents and his eight siblings (plus spouses) to Santa Clara. He insisted.
The Lotuleleis also have ingratiated themselves with the Panthers. While waiting in the family section after games, Luke Kuechly always insists on giving Pesatina a hug. Star Jr. has buddied up with his defensive tackle partner, Kawann Short, who was also drafted in 2013, creating the steamrolling epicenter of Carolina’s ferocious D-line. Short didn’t have a car his first season, and Star Jr. drove him everywhere. Short also shared Thanksgiving with Star Jr. and Fuiva.
After a game in Star Jr.’s rookie season, he took his parents to dinner, where they saw Ron Rivera and his wife. Rivera came over to the table to introduce himself. “We love having Star on the team,” the coach said. “He does his job, and he does it well.”
“I was so proud of him when I heard that,” Star Sr. says.
He had another reason to be proud last fall when Star Jr. and Fuiva had their third child, this time a son. The boy may not know the importance yet, but in time he undoubtedly will: His name is Star, the third.
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