Lofa Tatupu re-emerges as Seahawks’ leader

Excuse Lofa Tatupu if he sounds a little too Disney for a middle linebacker. He’s just telling you how he feels.

It’s December, and he’s on the football field, and the Seahawks are in the mix for a playoff berth. His professional life is right again, and off the field, he can’t stop grinning and anticipating the birth of his first child — a boy — due in February. His words are stuffed with optimism.

“It’s everything you dream of,” Tatupu says. “Not to sound cliché, but it is. It’s magical. In the NFL, when you’re in the hunt this time of year, every little thing matters — every practice, every game, every day. It’s football at its most intense. I love it.

“I know it hasn’t looked pretty for us this year. But, really, it doesn’t matter. We’re right there.”

There’s no better spokesman for the Seahawks’ rise from dreadful to hopeful than Tatupu. Not coincidentally, his injury woes the past two seasons mirrored the team’s descent to last place. Likewise, his improved health this season reflects the progress the 6-6 Seahawks have made in coach Pete Carroll’s first season.

While it’s a stretch to declare that Tatupu is back to his 2007 form, when he was the best middle linebacker in the NFC, he has enjoyed a solid comeback season after missing 11 games in 2009, mostly because of a torn left pectoral muscle. His finest moment of the year came Sunday. Tatupu’s touchdown on a 26-yard interception return was the biggest play in the Seahawks’ 31-14 come-from-behind victory over Carolina.

But one sterling play doesn’t speak to all that Tatupu has accomplished in 2010. Of more significance is that he’s still on the field, playing through aches, leading the defense and helping keep the locker room united. Tatupu has always been more steady than dazzling, the ultimate player of substance.

Just being there — in the right place, always — is what Tatupu does best. So he looks back on last season as a nightmare because an injury put him in the wrong place.

“Depressing is the word I’d like to use,” Tatupu says when asked about 2009. “Believe me, I understand the significance of the meaning of that word. I’ve had family members, people close to me, diagnosed with depression. So in no way am I making light of that word or using it for effect. I was depressed.

“I felt like I had been stripped of everything. I was lost. Time stands still. I was heartbroken. It’s like losing your love. What I went through, all of those feelings that came from not being able to help my team, I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy.”

Before last season, Tatupu had missed only one game in his first four NFL seasons. So the torn pectoral muscle last year was a big deal. But Tatupu has a philosophy: “If you can run, you can play.” So he didn’t understand why the doctors wouldn’t clear him.

“I just didn’t get it,” Tatupu said. “Leroy Hill had a groin injury last year and missed six-to-eight weeks, and I was like, ‘Leroy has a problem with his groin, and he can get cleared, but I can’t get cleared?’ They told me that, if I want to be worth anything later in my career, I ought to opt for the surgery.”

Tatupu couldn’t stand watching the Seahawks play without him, but he used the time away to his advantage. He studied offense and tendencies of offensive coordinators to become an even smarter player. He has improved his eating habits and learned to rest his body better. He followed the example of old teammates such as Patrick Kerney and realized that, even though he’s only 28, he needed to start working to extend his career.

In February, Tatupu’s father, Mosi, who was a 15-year NFL player, died. This has been the most trying year of Lofa’s NFL career, but despite the physical and emotional pain, he is back, in the right place, once more. Carroll, who coached Tatupu at USC, is reunited with the linebacker.

Tatupu is on pace for 83 tackles, the fewest of any full season that he has played, but his impact is greater than numbers.

His knowledge of the defense has been a big help to the Seahawks this season as they’ve shuffled their defensive line because of injuries.

“I think he’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do,” Carroll said. “I think he’s hung in there tough. He’s helped the young guys — the changes and the transitions that we’ve been through — as best he could.”

Fresh from a long visit to the trainer’s room, Tatupu smiles. Yes, he says, he has some aches, but what NFL player doesn’t? He’s fine. He’s healthy enough. And as the Seahawks make their playoff push, he emphasizes one thing.

“The only thing better than playing in December,” he says, “is playing in January. This is fun. This is why we play.”

And this is why you should be thrilled No. 51 is back.