UCLA gives rise to the comeback tale of transfer linebacker Laiatu Latu

UCLA's Laiatu Latu runs during a game at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu looks for a sack against Alabama State on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. He had two sacks that day, completing a two-year comeback from a neck injury.
(Don Liebig / UCLA Athletics)

The celebration started before the first play, the first tackle, the first victory.

As he prepared for UCLA’s season opener, Laiatu Latu looked at the coach who had stood with him this entire time. They had been through so much.

So much doubt. So much heartache. So many doctors.

Was this really happening?

For nearly two years, they had heard one medical expert after another crush their spirits with the same word: No.

No, you can’t play. No, you can’t resume your career. No, you’re not going to come back.


“A lot of tears have been shed in my office,” said Ikaika Malloe, the Bruins outside linebackers coach who had consoled Latu at Washington before recruiting him to make the same southbound journey to Westwood he did in hopes of happier times.

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Now they were crying through their smiles. Latu had never questioned whether this day would come.

Yes, this was really happening.

“Really,” Latu said this week, his comeback complete, “I just feel like I got my heart back.”

It felt like the sort of injury that would resolve itself quickly.

In the already surreal buildup to the 2020 season, games canceled and players sitting themselves out amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Latu took a hit in preseason practice. The neck injury he sustained didn’t deter him.

Feeling strong and healthy, he continued to work out as if he would come back soon.


Laiatu Latu sacks a quarterback in 2019.
Washington linebacker Laiatu Latu sacks California quarterback Chase Garbers on Sept. 7, 2019, in Seattle.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

But the numbness never went away, worrying doctors. Latu was sidelined for one game. Then another. A truncated season passed without his playing one down.

Surgery didn’t solve anything.

It also didn’t discourage Latu, given his faith in himself.

“I love the game so much and I can’t see myself not playing, and I’ve got to play to my full potential,” Latu said. “That’s what really kept me going.”

A handful of specialists who met with him over Zoom, poring over medical records but unable to examine him, returned the same verdict: Playing again was too dangerous. In a worst-case scenario, he risked being paralyzed.

I’m just looking around the Rose Bowl, like, damn, this is crazy.

— UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu, on returning to the field

Before Washington started spring practice ahead of the 2021 season, Latu was told he would have to medically retire. Taking stock of how he felt, Latu refused to accept this was the end.

“I told them that I didn’t feel like I was done,” Latu said.

Latu’s single mother, Kerry, helped him research doctors who might clear him.

In the meantime, Malloe became a surrogate father.

Knowing that Latu often mused about becoming a firefighter, Malloe tried to connect him with the Seattle Fire Department. Being men of faith, the coach and his pupil attended Bible study together.

The spiritual component became even more important to Latu after he realized he had never thanked God for successful appendicitis surgery in middle school.

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Malloe kept Latu involved with the Huskies, treating him as a de facto student assistant coach who studied practice film and devised drills for fellow linebackers.

While Latu remained optimistic, continuing to work out as if he were preparing for another season, Malloe felt helpless at times.

“From a coach’s point of view,” Malloe said, “the only thing we can do is rely on what the doctors have said.”

Latu wanted the final say. He thought about college and NFL players who had persevered through similar injuries.

For the record:

10:14 p.m. Sept. 26, 2022

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the high school Laiatu Latu attended. He graduated from
Sacramento Jesuit High.

When Malloe accepted the UCLA job in December, Latu was already in the transfer portal, searching for another chance. Malloe said he might be able to offer it with the Bruins, who had recruited Latu out of Sacramento Jesuit High.

“I said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Latu recalled of the exchange, “ ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

Latu arrived in Westwood with no assurances he would play again.

Limited to individual drills in spring practice, it was sometimes hard to feel like a part of the team. But just putting on pads and a helmet again was enough to energize the redshirt junior. He studied every detail of what was happening around him, taking one mental repetition after another in preparation for his own return.

Finally, in late April, around the last week of spring practice, a doctor delivered the message Latu had long wanted to hear. He would clear him to play.

Kerry Latu cried when her son called with the news, their conversation his only revelry.

UCLA's Laiatu Latu stands on the sideline at the Rose Bowl
After a rough first game back after medical retirement, UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu led the Bruins with two sacks and a forced fumble against Alabama State.
(Sam Lazarus / UCLA Athletics)

“I didn’t really celebrate,” Laiatu said, “it was just time to get to work.”

The training staff prescribed exercises to strengthen his neck. On the field, he would have to relearn old techniques in a new way, coaches encouraging him — and his teammates — to tackle without involving their heads.

“It changed my teaching altogether,” Malloe said, “in terms of protecting these kids and what they do and how they do it out on the field.”

In the Bruins’ season opener against Bowling Green, Latu took his coach’s advice a bit too literally, refusing to use his head when he foolishly committed a block in the back. The infraction wiped out teammate Darius Muasau’s touchdown on a fumble return, prompting Latu to immediately apologize.

All was forgiven last weekend when Latu starred against Alabama State, logging a team-high two sacks and forcing a fumble when he hit the quarterback.

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“Really, really happy for Latu,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “But like anything in this game, you get it because you work for it and you deserve it, and he deserved what has happened to him.”

No matter what happens the rest of the season, it might be hard to top the high Latu felt just walking back onto the field for his first defensive series.

“I’m just looking around the Rose Bowl,” he said, “like, damn, this is crazy.”

Nearby, Malloe beamed, calling it “like a proud parent moment.” It was celebration time, for the player and his mentor, the day’s most significant victory assured.