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Mosi Tatupu dies at 54; USC fullback became a special-teams staple for New England

Mosi Tatupu dies at 54; USC fullback became a special-teams staple for New England
Mosi Tatupu spent four seasons with USC and 13 with the New England Patriots. (Associated Press)
Mosi Tatupu, a former USC fullback who became celebrated for his special-teams play in 13 NFL seasons with the New England Patriots, winning the loyalty of fans known as Mosi's Mooses, has died. He was 54.

Tatupu, a native of American Samoa who grew up in Hawaii, died Tuesday at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, Mass., the Patriots announced. The cause was not given.

Tatupu played four years at USC beginning in 1974, when USC won a share of the national championship. An eighth-round draft pick of the Patriots in 1978, Tatupu was a mainstay of New England's special-teams lineups and appeared in Super Bowl XX in 1986, which the Chicago Bears won in a 46-10 rout.

Along with Manu Tuiasosopo at UCLA and Jack "The Throwin' Samoan" Thompson at Washington State University, Tatupu was among a cadre of football players of Samoan heritage to make their mark in the 1970s. Tatupu's son Lofa is a Pro Bowl linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks.

With his stocky 6-foot, 225-pound frame and determined attitude, Tatupu played an important role as a blocking fullback in USC's I-formation offenses of the 1970s, clearing the way for star tailbacks Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell and Charles White.

Tatupu "was one of the smartest, toughest players I've ever known," former USC coach John Robinson said Wednesday.

During their time at USC, Robinson used to say that Tatupu was "about as easy to tackle as a Coke machine."

Reminded Wednesday of Robinson’s quote, Davis called Tatupu "a refrigerator."

"He didn't say much," Davis added, "but, oh my, he was a beast on the field."

In Tatupu's freshman season, under Coach John McKay, the Trojans went 10-1-1, beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and were declared No. 1 by UPI and other polls. Oklahoma, which went 11-0, won the Associated Press poll.

The sturdy fullback gained 1,277 yards on 223 carries and scored nine touchdowns at USC, and in 1977 was named offensive player of the year and most inspirational player. He played in two Rose Bowls with the Trojans, who went 37-10-1 during his four years on the team.

Tatupu was listed at fullback with the Patriots, but he became a fan favorite for his all-out effort on special teams -- kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage, punt return, extra points and field goals.

Named to the 1986 Pro Bowl, Tatupu finished his NFL career with 2,415 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns scored. After 13 years with the Patriots, he played five games with the then-Los Angeles Rams in 1991 before retiring.

"We used to tease him because he played great in the snow, and he was from Hawaii," Don Hasselbeck, a former Patriots tight end and teammate of Tatupu, told the Boston Herald on Wednesday. "He had that running style, a great low base, he played so hard."

Mosiula Faasuka Tatupu was born April 26, 1955, in Pago Pago, American Samoa, the son of a middleweight boxing champion. One of seven children, Tatupu moved with his family to Honolulu when he was 4.

A three-sport athlete at Punahou School, he starred in football and set a then-record Hawaii high school rushing total of 3,367 yards. He was recruited to USC, where he studied sociology and elementary education.

After his NFL career ended, Tatupu became a teacher and also coached his son's high school football team in Wrentham, Mass. From 2002 to 2007 he was an assistant football coach at Curry College in Milton, Mass.

A complete list of survivors for Tatupu, who was divorced from his wife, Linnea, was unavailable.

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.