Kragthorpe: Star Lotulelei owes NFL Draft status to Bingham influence
By Kurt Kragthorpe
Tribune columnistFirst published Apr 24 2013 08:48AM
In the landmark 2006 state championship game, the victory that heralded Bingham High School’s return as a flagship football program in Utah, one player clearly stood out among the others. Alta running back Sausan Shakerin gained 276 yards in a losing effort against a Bingham defense that included lineman Star Lotulelei.
The Miners’ 21-19 win gave them their first state title in 60 years. And a lot can happen in barely more than six years.
A visit to Bingham, where coach Dave Peck details Lotulelei’s history in a room featuring Bruce Hardy’s Sports Illustrated cover photo and other displays commemorating the school’s achievements over 100-plus years, drives home this point: Star’s story is not so much about who he was, but who would he would become.
"He’s a totally different person," Peck said. "He’s grown up a lot."
Once a "lazy" student, by his coach’s account, Star is now a husband, father and good example to a brother, Lowell, who will follow him in the University of Utah’s program. Lotulelei also is about to become only the sixth first-round draft choice from a Utah high school.
One of the NFL’s top prospects of 2013 was on the Rice-Eccles Stadium field that November day in ’06. But who could have known that, right then and there?
"If you’ve never had one," Peck said, "I don’t know that you could ever say that."
Peck continued, "I mean, there were times when we’d watch him do something and say, ‘Whoa, man, that was incredible.’ He had those moments."
There also were moments when Peck wondered if Lotulelei ever would make it academically. Part of Lotulelei’s legacy at Bingham is the "Star Rule," as instituted by Peck.
No longer is a 2.0 GPA acceptable for football eligibility. The standard is 2.5, in the interest of better preparing athletes for college. Having committed to BYU, Lotulelei failed to meet NCAA requirements. He joined Utah’s program only after attending Snow College.
"We needed to do more for these kids," Peck said. "We needed to expect more. … There was more than one time when I had [Lotulelei] in a room like this, and he was in tears, because I was this close to saying, ‘If you don’t get it done in the classroom, I’ll get rid of you right now.’ "
Lotulelei stuck around, completing a high school football career that began at Timpanogos in Orem. That school produced Paul Kruger, a Super Bowl champion as a Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman, but originally a Timberwolves quarterback.
Lotulelei transformed from the "tall, skinny kid" that former coach Frank Bramall remembered being incredibly shy as a freshman. "He went from this timid kid to just terrorizing on the field."
By his sophomore year, Lotulelei had grown from about 210 pounds to 240 and "turned a 180," Bramall said, becoming more outgoing. And then he moved to Bingham, in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley.
As a senior, playing for a 14-0 team, "You could just count on him, play after play," Peck said. "He started to become who he is."
Alta battled the Miners evenly in the Class 5A title game, losing only when Jordan Pendleton helped break up a two-point conversion attempt. Pendleton went on to BYU, where his career was derailed by injuries, just when he was becoming a defensive force.
Shakerin played for Utah, where he was Lotulelei’s teammate in 2010. His career ended that season, because of recurring concussions, after he’d rushed for a total of 303 yards with the Utes.
Lotulelei was not as celebrated as Pendleton or Shakerin in ’06, but he stayed healthy and developed, on and off the field. From a memorable high school championship game, he’s the enduring Star.