Laiatu Latu: Indianapolis Colts Rookie Files

After having football taken away from him, Indianapolis Colts defensive end Laiatu Latu vows to play every down as if it were his last.
UCLA Bruins defensive lineman Laiatu Latu (15) celebrates after intercepting a pass against the North Carolina Central Eagles during the first half at Rose Bowl.
UCLA Bruins defensive lineman Laiatu Latu (15) celebrates after intercepting a pass against the North Carolina Central Eagles during the first half at Rose Bowl. / Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Making it to the NFL is an incredibly difficult journey.

Less than 1% of all high school football players in America eventually play for an NFL team. The challenge is immense, with kids dedicating their entire lives to a shot at playing professional football.

But when they finally achieve their dreams, all the blood, sweat, and tears they have poured into the game becomes worth it.

Every NFL rookie has a unique story of how they got to this point. These stories draw fans to the players, seeing the personal side of their heroes. They feel a closeness with the player, leading them to passionately cheer when watching that player give it his all on Sundays.

And that is what “Rookie Files” is all about. This series on Horseshoe Huddle gives you the backstory on every rookie for the Indianapolis Colts. Going player by player, we look at their journeys to the NFL and what makes each unique while also detailing how they help the Colts. First up, Laiatu Latu, who will never take football for granted after having the game taken away from him.

From All-Around Athlete to Four-Star Recruit

Football player Laiatu Latu sets up in a white and red jersey before a play.
Jesuit High School defender Laiatu Latu (48) sets up in his pass rushing stance before a play. / Anthony Brunsman-Max Preps

Latu was born on December 31, 2000, in Sacramento, Cal. Latu's mother, Kerry, raised him and his three siblings after Latu's father left the family when Latu was young. Kerry supported her children by working multiple jobs but always made time for them despite her schedule. The love she has for her children is evident.

Latu loved all sports at a young age and was a standout in whatever he played. He partook in football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and even rugby. Latu was a do-it-all athlete whose love of competition motivated him to play year-round.

Of those sports, football and rugby became Latu's loves. He played both with his brother, Keleki – now a tight end at the University of Washington – as the two created a tight bond. As Latu continued to excel in both sports, it was natural for him to continue playing in high school.

Latu enrolled at Jesuit High School, a private Catholic school outside of Sacramento. The 150-pound Latu started on the JV team as a freshman, having not yet filled out his frame enough to be on varsity. It only took a year for Latu to add the weight and strength.

Latu quickly acclimated himself to the varsity level, becoming a pass-rushing menace. Latu burst onto the scene as a junior, racking up 65 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and 12 sacks. His breakout campaign helped lead Jesuit to 10 wins as Latu was named first-team All-Metro.

The senior season out of Latu was something to behold. The four-star recruit tallied 94 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss, and 15 sacks, earning Latu first-team All-State honors. Overall, Latu finished his high school career with 178 tackles, 50.5 tackles for loss, and 27 sacks. Latu also lettered in rugby at Jesuit, leading the team to two national titles.

“Latu is one of the most talented players I have ever coached in my life,” Jesuit Head Football Coach Sean Morris said. “I was very fortunate to have coached (him) since he was a 10th grader at Jesuit. He was eager to learn and had tremendous talent. He became a student of the game and dedicated (himself) to getting better every week.”

As the No.6 defensive end recruit in the country and the No.20 overall recruit in California, Latu received offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Alabama, and Tennessee. But Latu wanted to stay out west and play close to his family. With schools like USC, Oregon, and Cal in his final five, Latu decided on Washington to continue his football career.

Latu was excited for the next chapter of his football journey to begin. Little did he know that Washington would be where the game would be taken away from him.

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The Devastating Injury

Football player Laiatu Latu, wearing a purple jersey, tackles an opposing player.
Washington Huskies linebacker Laiatu Latu (56) sacks California Golden Bears quarterback Chase Garbers (7) in the second quarter at Husky Stadium. / Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Latu began his tenure at Washington in 2019 as a reserve, working hard to earn playing time. He saw action in 12 games off the bench and looked poised to take on a starting role as a sophomore. But tragedy would strike before he could play another snap.

During fall practice before the 2020 season, Latu suffered a neck injury. The injury did not seem serious at first, but Latu could not shake the numbness in his neck. Latu missed the Huskies' COVID-shortened 2020 season as team doctors hoped the neck would heal on its own.

When no progress was made, action was needed. It was determined Latu had a nerve issue that required neck fusion surgery, the same procedure former Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning underwent in 2011. The final hope was that the surgery would allow him to play football again.

But Latu did not receive the news he was looking for. In the spring of 2021, Washington doctors determined that it was unsafe for Latu to play football again, forcing the pass rusher to medically retire. Although Latu was never examined physically by the specialists he met with – he met with them over Zoom calls due to COVID restrictions – the physicians believed the nerve injury was too severe. Latu and his family were crushed.

“Horrible,” Kerry Latu explained to the Los Angeles Times when they heard the news. “Just gut-wrenching.”

While the news was heartbreaking for Latu, something inside him said he had not played his last down of football. This would not be how his playing career would end, as Latu was not satisfied with the doctors' findings nor how they came to their conclusions.

"It just wasn't handled in the right way," Latu remarked. "I didn't have any physical examinations with any doctor at that time so really it was just an opinion of somebody's without even looking at my physical, without giving me a test. ... I feel like they were just doing what they felt best, but at the same time, I feel like it wasn't really handled in the best way."

Latu was out of football for the 2021 season but continued to work toward stepping back on the field. He served as a student assistant for the Huskies while rehabbing his neck and working on his craft. Latu also returned to playing rugby, impressing enough that the Seattle Seawolves offered him a contract. But Latu was not going to give up the dream of playing football.

Latu's mother would not let her son's dream die either. She researched for countless hours, looking for cases of athletes medically cleared from serious injuries. Through her research, Dr. Robert Watkins – the man who performed Manning's surgery – continued to come up.

Latu and his mother met with Watkins in southern California as a last 'Hail Mary' attempt. After nearly three hours of extensive tests, Watkins determined Latu's neck had sufficiently healed, and he was finally cleared to play football.

Latu and his mother were overjoyed, embracing each other when they heard the news. Although Latu had been cleared, he was not out of the woods yet. Would any team give him another chance to play?

A Second Chance

Football player Laiatu Latu in a white jersey battles Mark Redman in a black jersey.
UCLA Bruins defensive lineman Laiatu Latu (15) battles against San Diego State Aztecs tight end Mark Redman (81) during the first half at Snapdragon Stadium. / Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

With Latu now cleared by a respected orthopedic spine surgeon, he returned to Washington with the news, hoping he would be allowed to rejoin the team. However, the school's medical staff refused to reverse their decision. If Latu would play football again, it would not be for the Huskies.

Latu would enter the transfer portal looking for a new home and a second chance. While Latu was in the portal, Ikaika Malloe, Latu's position coach at Washington, took a job offer to join Chip Kelly's staff at UCLA.

Malloe had become very close to Latu at Washington. He became a surrogate father to Latu, offering support to the young player throughout his journey and developing a bond off the field. When Malloe took the job at UCLA in December of 2021, he would have never forgiven himself if he had not tried to take Latu with him.

Malloe talked to Kelly about Latu, sharing his story and how he had recently been cleared to play. What Kelly revealed in his response was shocking.

“While at UCLA, I tell Chip Kelly, 'Do you mind at least taking these MRIs and see if our team doctor will accept and have Laiatu join us at UCLA?',” Maloe remarked on the Wake Up Call with KB and Andy. “So I give him the doctor’s name and Coach Kelly said, ‘Are you sure that’s the doctor?’ And I said, 'I’m sure, why, do you know him?' And he said, 'Yeah that’s our team doctor.'”

As it turns out, Watkins, the man who had just cleared Latu months prior, was the team doctor for the UCLA Bruins. With his former coach and the doctor who examined him in the fold, the decision was easy. Latu headed to southern California yet again.

However, there were still a few more hoops for Latu to jump through. While Watkins had cleared him to return, the rest of the UCLA medical staff had to clear Latu as well. Latu was limited to individual drills in the spring until he could be cleared for full contact.

After passing every test thrown his way, UCLA finally cleared Latu for full contact in April of 2022. The pass rusher from Sacramento was back, and he was not about to take a single snap for granted. Latu was ready to show the world how much he had been grinding since the last time he stepped on the field in 2019.

Latu quickly ascended to one of the most feared pass rushers in all of college football over the next two seasons. In 25 games at UCLA, Latu finished with 85 tackles, 34 tackles for loss, 23.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, two interceptions, and three passes defended.

With that type of production, the awards flooded in. Latu was named a unanimous All-American in 2023. He also captured the Rotary Lombardi Award (best college football lineman) and the Ted Hendricks Award (best defensive end in college football).

Latu had gone from an unknown to one of the most dominant players in college football while at UCLA. His pass-rushing ability was unmatched, and Latu began receiving first-round buzz as he entered the 2024 NFL Draft. Latu attended the Reese's Senior Bowl, showing off a plethora of moves to get around opposing tackles and get after the quarterback.

While Latu more than proved his ability on the field, questions about his medicals were prevalent through the NFL draft process. Latu expected teams wanted to get a first-hand look to determine whether there were any lingering effects from the surgery.

After going through numerous checks, Latu passed every time. One team that was satisfied with the medical checks was the Colts, who had Latu graded as one of their elite players. So, when the Colts were up at No.15, Latu was an easy choice.

As the pick was called in, the Colts draft room erupted, and Latu shed a few tears. The Colts felt like they got the best defensive player in the entire draft, while Latu had just realized his dream.

How Latu Helps the Colts

Football player Laiatu Latu stands with a blue Colts jersey at the NFL Draft.
UCLA Bruins defensive lineman Laiatu Latu poses after being selected by the Indianapolis Colts as the No. 15 pick in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Latu brings a pass-rushing prowess the Colts do not currently have on their roster. The 23-year-old is a natural pass rusher who can bend around offensive tackles and uses a bevy of moves to get after opposing quarterbacks.

While Latu does not reach the typical length and explosive thresholds the Colts hold for their pass rushers, he is still a fantastic athlete who registered a 9.37 RAS throughout the pre-draft process. Latu is a very polished prospect who can use whatever move is needed to beat whoever he lines up against.

Latu will compete with Samson Ebukam, Kwity Paye, and Dayo Odeyingbo for starting snaps at defensive end. The Colts already have a talented defensive line, but Latu figures to add consistent pressure to opposing quarterbacks and increase the overall impact of the team's pass rush. If Latu adjusts to the NFL game quickly, he could be a starter for the Colts before the end of the season.

The player comps given to Latu throughout the pre-draft process were T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Trey Hendrickson of the Cincinnati Bengals. If Latu reaches that ceiling, the Colts could have their first dominant pass rusher since Robert Mathis.

The game he so dearly loves was all but taken away from Latu for good. By almost losing football entirely, Latu plays every snap as if it is his last and is obsessed with perfecting his craft. Given what Latu has been through, do not be surprised if he reaches his full potential.

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Andrew Moore


Andrew Moore is the Senior Analyst for Horseshoe Huddle and an Indianapolis Colts expert. Andrew is also the co-host of the Horseshoe Huddle Podcast and the former co-host of A Colts Podcast.