Within a week, Utah natives Karl Malone Jr., Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi all left NFL rookie camps, walking away from opportunities they pursued for most of their lives.
Who would do that?
Only in a culture that worships the NFL would anyone ask that question. People who know what competing at that level requires in a brutal sport and a cold business wonder the same thing about those who do choose pro football as a way to make a living.
Who would do that?
There’s nothing I’ve enjoyed more than tracking NFL players with Utah ties, spending the entire season hoping some of them will reach the Super Bowl and become material for the Media Days that I’ve attended for 14 years. Those are good subjects, with varying stories of how they advanced to that stage of their profession.
But I know this: Only those whose hearts are truly in it, who love the game that much and are willing to make sacrifices in hopes of creating any kind of careers for themselves, should even try. Nobody should view any of these three as a failure, regardless of how briefly they lasted in the league before moving on.
Malone, born in Salt Lake City during his father’s legendary Jazz career, made himself into a two-year starting offensive tackle for LSU in the Southeastern Conference. Lotulelei (Bingham) and Mokofisi (Woods Cross) were local high school products who added to the University of Utah’s proud tradition of defensive linemen and were chosen as Ute co-captains.
None was drafted in April, but each earned a free-agent contract and was added to a 90-man roster — Malone in Houston, Lotulelei in Denver and Mokofisi in Green Bay. They became NFL players. Well, sort of. This is where the myth of professional sports clashes with the reality. To make it, they would have needed to survive cuts to 53 players in late August, with a select few of those who were waived becoming practice-squad players.
That’s a tough way to live.
“It’s a grind,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said this week. “It’s not for everybody. It’s physically challenging, it’s mentally challenging.”
Fui Vakapuna understands. The former East High and BYU running back chased pro football for four years as a seventh-round draft choice. He went to four training camps with four teams, spent time on two practice squads and was active with Cincinnati for nine weeks, but never dressed for a game.
“We know how the NFL works now. It’s basically a meat market. It’s cutthroat,” his wife, Leonne, once told me. “Everyone thinks it’s a glamorous life. It is, if you’re Tom Brady and you’re getting paid millions of dollars.”
Or if you’re Star Lotulelei, Lowell’s older brother. As a first-round pick of Carolina, Star has played in a Super Bowl and made $9.6 million in his first five seasons. In March, he signed a five-year contract with Buffalo for a guaranteed $24.6 million.
Lowell Lotulelei got $15,000 to sign with the Broncos and gave it back when he left last week, according to Denver’s 9News.com.
Of the three rookies with Utah ties, Lotulelei was given the best chance of making a final roster, considering Denver’s need for defensive linemen. Malone and Mokofisi would have faced tougher odds of lasting through the summer.
Malone’s retirement was the least surprising, because he completed his degree last year and considered forgoing his senior season at LSU to work toward joining the U.S. Marshals Service. He’s the only one of the three who has made a public statement about his decision, saying the knee injury that caused him to miss half of the 2017 season has not fully healed and he’s eager to begin his law enforcement career.
Mokofisi’s agent told Packer Report his client is “taking a break” from football. Mokofisi’s only social media trail is a retweet of what former Ute teammate Hava Lutui wrote last week, the day when Lotulelei retired. Lutui, whose college career was shortened by injuries, tweeted, “Life is more than just playing football.”
In recruiting, Utah’s coaching staff undoubtedly will use this figure: $72.3 million. That’s the amount of NFL salaries former Ute players received in 2017, thanks largely to Alex Smith, Eric Weddle and Star Lotulelei. Yet these recent developments are “a case in point of everything that we emphasize so much,” Whittingham said. Football is “going to come to an end for everybody. Now is when the value of their degree becomes magnified.”
I’m as guilty as anyone of rolling my eyes when coaches talk about graduation rates and academic success. That’s wrong. I should be celebrating football players who use their scholarships as an avenue to careers outside of the NFL, as Fui Vakapuna eventually did.
He tells the story of opening a door to a 300-seat BYU classroom as a freshman and being so intimidated that he turned around and spent the hour in the locker room. He later thought about leaving school for the NFL after his junior season, but assistant coach Robert Anae persuaded him to stay and get his degree. He did so, graduating in sociology. He’s now an assistant to the athletic director for student services, advising BYU’s 600 student-athletes.
“If I can make it,” he said, “I know anybody can make it, guaranteed.”
He’s talking about real life, not the NFL. Vakapuna has succeeded. Others can, too, beyond football.