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How Laiatu Latu's journey of perseverance through adversity brought him to Colts in first round of 2024 NFL Draft

Latu's love of football propelled him through some legitimate adversity he faced during his collegiate career. 

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Maybe the most telling thing Laiatu Latu said upon arriving in Indianapolis Friday afternoon came when he was asked what his interests outside of football are.

"None," Latu said, laughing, with a much more proud than sheepish grin. "it's crazy."

He's going to fit in just fine here.

As Latu sat for about 15 minutes answering questions in the media room at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, his deep appreciation and love for the game of football shined through. This is a person who has not taken the last two years for granted, let alone the last 24 hours. He's spent time reflecting on the journey that brought him to become the first defensive player selected in the 2024 NFL Draft – a journey that's been steeped in adversity and perseverance.

Latu sustained a neck injury while at Washington in 2020, which led the program to medically retire him later that year. Latu did not agree with the decision and did not appreciate how it was handled – the decision was made against his wishes, and without a physical examination – but he never gave up on his goal of playing football.

"What the doctors were telling me I didn't agree with because I didn't feel that at the same time," Latu said. "It was easy for me not to give up. It was easy for me to be confident with everything. Obviously, it was emotional because I'm being told and I can't control what they're telling me. So obviously it's emotional, but I never got in a negative mindset. I never got down on myself. I always believed that I was going to work towards this."

After Washington handed down the decision, Latu's mom asked him what he wanted to do.

"I don't want to give up football," Latu replied.

Though he did come somewhat close to playing rugby.

After Latu underwent surgery on his neck and was medically retired, he started playing club rugby at Washington, and had a tryout with a professional rugby club in Seattle. He was offered a contract by that team, the Seattle Seawolves, and could've had an opportunity to play rugby overseas.

But Latu still believed he could play football. He told the Seawolves his passion still was in trying to get back on the gridiron.

Without any direction from Washington – Latu said he was never placed in physical therapy following his surgery, leading him to rehab on his own – he began devising pass rushing drills to run, alone, on the Huskies' practice field. He studied football's top pass rushers – Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, J.J. Watt, Maxx Crosby among them – and worked tirelessly on his craft despite a clear path to ever playing again. Washington's defensive line coach, Ikaika Malloe – who Latu considers a father figure – encouraged him to do whatever he needed to try to play football again.

Latu kept believing he could play, and he kept working to be ready for when – not if – the opportunity were to arise.

"I just had to take it upon myself where I was taking little tools, little techniques (and) little drills from a pass rush coach here," Latu said. "I would see T.J. Watt or J.J. Watt do this in a game so I'm going to take that and mix it into my drill. It was a bunch of just really falling in love with the sport, falling in love with my craft and just learning as much as I can during that down period because I did tell myself I was going to be at a stage like this."

Then Latu's mother, Kerry, got him a visit with Dr. Ronald Watkins, a neck specialist in California. Watkins gave Latu the green light he had hoped for: He was cleared to play football again.

A few serendipitous connections then led Latu to his next stop. UCLA's football program referred out to Watkins, and Malloe was just hired by the Bruins. The combination of a clean bill of health and a coach to vouch for Latu as a player led him to transfer to UCLA in January 2022.

Latu rewarded UCLA's faith in him with more sacks than any other Power 5 player had in the 2022 and 2023 seasons. All the self-motivated work he put in with no one else watching and few caring about him paid off.

This is the kind of journey that only happens because of a deep love and appreciation for football, but also because of a remarkable mindset in the face of news that could've ended his career.

And now he's in Indianapolis as the No. 15 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The Colts see Latu as a major addition to their defensive line – a ready-made, polished, technical pass rusher with multiple moves already in his toolbox. Latu on Friday pointed to what longtime edge rusher Von Miller believes: "Keep three moves in your bag."

"I like to work a lot of things because I see pass rushers as being in comfortable and uncomfortable situations," Latu saiod. "I like to rep consistently certain moves and break it down into slow motion and to really see how I'm feeling in certain ways. I see that come out come game time. Like I might be running, and I might not even throw a move, it's just a reactionary thing that comes out from the heart – from the extra work I was putting in and the consistency that I was doing that. It just translates to the field."

But in addition to those moves, Latu's motor – his unrelenting energy to the whistle – stands out on tape. And, like so much else with his career, it comes from, as Latu said, "having football taken away from me."

"No one can be ready for adversity like that," Latu said. "I just have a different appreciation for the game. I love every minute being out there on that field."

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