John Lotulelei's journey has been a challenge, and no one knows it better than Tau Lotulelei.
John Lotulelei, a senior linebacker for Nevada-Las Vegas and Baldwin High School graduate, was among 51 players named as Butkus Award finalists last week. Tau Lotulelei is redshirting as a freshman linebacker for the Rebels out of Maui High.
"It is pretty exciting to be up for an award that goes to the best linebacker," John Lotulelei said via telephone after practice on Tuesday. "I can't really see myself up there, but every day I'm working my rear off just trying to get somewhere."
John Lotulelei is Nevada-Las Vegas’ leading tackler this season, with 43, and has intercepted a pass
UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA-LAS VEGAS photo
Following his path- from unrecruited out of high school in 2009 to Merced (Calif.) Junior College to sweating out his admission to UNLV in summer school in 2011 to team captain this season - shows just how far he has come.
"The route I took, pretty much, junior college was tough. The feeling is great," he said.
"Nobody was looking at me because I didn't take care of my schoolwork. I couldn't play Division I football, so I knew junior college was the only way. The living in junior college is pretty hard, especially in California where it is kind of expensive. Food was always hard to find - there's no training table in junior college."
More school was required even after two seasons at Merced.
"They promised me a spot in the summer if I finished the right amount of classes, which I did," he said. "I know now that school is very important and that is one thing I wish I knew coming out of high school."
That message is one John and older brother Saia Lotulelei have hammered home to Tau. Saia Lotulelei, 28, was a three-time state wrestling champion for Maui High and has returned to compete at York College in Nebraska after dropping out of William Penn after one semester out of high school.
John and Tau talk daily to Saia on the phone.
"Saia is always telling us to look at him and how important school is - he is having to start all over," John Lotulelei said. "(Tau) barely got in here - the last class he took, he was on the verge of failing it and I just told him, 'Come on, you don't want to go to junior college.' I did not recommend that and I told him all the bad reasons why. I'm happy that he is here."
UNLV is off to a 1-4 start this season - three of the losses have been by three points.
"We are still trying to get as many wins as we can and get to a bowl game, that is still our goal," John Lotulelei said.
John Lotulelei's 43 tackles lead the team, and he also has an interception. Last season, he had 60 tackles, and he was chosen by coach Bobby Hauck as one of two Rebels to attend the Mountain West Conference media days over the summer. His teammates voted him a team captain.
"Being the quiet guy that he was last year to a vocal leader on the field, it is like night and day," said J.D. Williams,
UNLV's defensive coordinator. "He is playing very good football. He has incredible talent. We'd be in a lot of trouble without him. John is very special, he is the heart and soul of this defense. The good part about him is he is a born leader, a teacher."
Williams, a first-round NFL draft choice out of Fresno State in 1990, played in four Super Bowls for the Buffalo Bills in a seven-year professional career. He said Lotulelei has NFL potential.
"We get NFL scouts here every day inquiring about him," Williams said.
John Lotulelei factors both football and his studies into his future.
"(The NFL) is probably one of the main reasons I came to college to play football, is for the dream of going on," he said. "Now that I'm a senior and thinking about the NFL and whatnot, I'm focusing on school and the league. By next year I will be getting my bachelor's degree (in interdisciplinary studies)."
John Lotulelei also said coaching is likely when his playing days are over. Meanwhile, he is watching out for his younger brother, who took two online courses over the summer to qualify academically.
Former Baldwin coach Jimmy Morimoto, UNLV's assistant recruiting coordinator, kept a watchful eye on Tau Lotulelei over the summer.
"It was very difficult and I thought I wouldn't have made it, but I guess I just trusted in God, coach Jimmy helped me out, John really helped me out with my work," Tau said. "He always tells me to work hard in school. I know through him that education is more important."
There are benefits to being the younger brother of the best defender on the team.
"He is doing great in football and school, I'm very proud of him," Tau said. "It is cool to be his brother because everyone knows him - he motivates me to play hard and maybe I can become better than him."
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com