Middle Class

Times Staff Writer

As the starting middle linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, the player who makes all the defensive calls and adjustments, Lofa Tatupu's top objective is to avoid getting burned on a play.

The rookie out of USC has, however, been burnt for an entire week.

As a result of losing a Rose Bowl bet with fellow Seahawk linebacker D.D. Lewis, a former Texas Longhorn, Tatupu had to wear a burnt-orange, disco-ball-shiny sweatsuit to and from team headquarters every day for a week. When he wasn't wearing it, Tatupu kept it hidden under a towel in his locker.

"It was so ugly," he said. "Burnt orange? Come on, man. I don't know if anybody can make that look good."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- or maybe in the eye of the bet-winner.

"It was a real good feeling to see him in that orange," Lewis said. "We could have used him at Texas. I think he adapted to it well."

So what else is new? Tatupu, runner-up in the voting for NFL defensive rookie of the year, is Mr. Adaptable. Shortly after the Seahawks made him their second-round pick in last spring's draft, he stepped in and took over the most complex job in their defense, part tackler and part traffic cop.

Despite a rather modest finish to the regular season, Tatupu led the Seahawks with 104 tackles -- though only 15 in the final four games -- and was a force for a defense that gave up only 59 yards rushing against Washington last weekend in a 20-10 divisional playoff victory. Seattle plays host to Carolina today in the NFC championship game.

Few people expected Tatupu to make such a significant impact so soon in his pro career. Coaches at USC urged him to stay for his senior year, arguing he'd have a far better chance of going in the first round after another season with the Trojans. But while Tatupu probably did get a less lucrative deal than he might have, he clearly had no problems making the step up in competition.

An observer watched him on every play during Seattle's three-day mini-camp after the draft and noted that only twice did Tatupu guess wrong and take a false first step away from the play. Those are All-Pro instincts.

Simply put by defensive tackle Chartric Darby: "He did not play like a rookie."

And Tatupu wasn't treated like a rookie, either. From the first day of training camp, he was guiding veterans this way and that. By Week 5, he was on the field every play for the defense, staying in on passing downs with fellow rookie linebacker Leroy Hill when the Seahawks went to their nickel package.

"I felt confident coming in because of the preparation I had at USC under Coach [Pete] Carroll and all the coaches there," Tatupu said. "They got me ready. They had me running the defense pretty much down at SC. It's the same defense, just with a lot more terminology. I'm in charge of what some people call audibles -- we call them checks -- shifting the line to get people lined up, getting people in the right spot.

"If you can get one person to do that, it makes everybody else play that much faster. The faster people play, the more productive they are."

No one could argue Tatupu's production Dec. 5 in a 42-0 victory at Philadelphia on "Monday Night Football." He had seven tackles, broke up four passes and intercepted a fifth, returning it 38 yards for a touchdown. Not a bad showing in the national spotlight.

"He's done a lot more in his first year than I did in mine," said his father, Mosi Tatupu, a former USC and New England Patriot running back so remembered for his special-teams play that there's an award named after him.

Over a five-year span, Mosi watched his son go from:

* A lightly recruited high school linebacker and quarterback at smallish King Phillip Regional in Wrentham, Mass., to ...

* A University of Maine freshman who played his way into a starting linebacker role by midseason to ...

* The signal-caller of a defense that helped USC win consecutive Associated Press national championships to ...

* A defensive leader on a Seahawk team making its first legitimate Super Bowl run since 1984.

Mosi didn't overload his son with advice after Lofa was drafted, but he did tell him to be wary of cagey old pros. Back when Mosi was a rookie in 1978 -- an eighth-round pick -- he was duped by veteran linebacker Steve Zabel.

He and Zabel had been knocking heads for two weeks, and both were ready for a break. ... or so Mosi thought. They agreed to take it easy on a play, pretend for the benefit of their coaches that they were going full speed. Tatupu stuck to the deal; Zabel didn't.

"He set me up," Tatupu recalled with a laugh. "He told his linebacker corps, 'Watch this.' ... I came out acting aggressive, but I was only pretending. He comes in and head slaps me, knocks me down and goes and hits the quarterback. I get screamed at by my running backs coach. Zabel came back laughing and said, 'Welcome to the NFL.' "

Added Mosi, who played for the Patriots from 1978 to '90 and now is an assistant coach at Curry College in Milton, Mass.: "Never take anything for granted with vets. You're there to take their jobs. They're going to try to make you look foolish."

That was the tidbit Mosi passed on to his son. Any more than that might get tuned out. Lofa, after all, is his own man. Father and son actually have the same name, but Lofa wasn't comfortable living in his dad's considerable shadow. So instead of answering to their first name, Mosiiula, he goes by a shortened version of their middle name, Mea'alofa.

Even as a kid, he was fiercely independent. When he was 8 and his father was an assistant coach on his Pop Warner team, he refused to keep a trophy that was engraved with his entire name. He wanted it to read Lofa.

"Here," he said, handing it his stepmother. "That's not me. You can keep it."

Mosi, who plans to attend today's game, has learned to tread lightly when it comes to venturing into his son's world, or offering a helpful nugget.

"I did tell him one other thing," Mosi said. "I told him, 'You've got great hands. Instead of knocking the ball down, you should be catching them.' "

Lofa, who has become a lot more comfortable giving directions than receiving them, responded with the anticipation and quickness of a true pro:

"Yeah, Dad? You try it."

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