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Star Lotulelei: A hard worker, a family man and a joker (no, really)

Each day, Shaq Lawson plops into a chair beside new teammate Star Lotulelei in a defensive meeting room at the Bills' practice facility and begins running his mouth.

"I'm a guy, I'm going to crack jokes, I've got to crack jokes everywhere," Lawson explained, the gregarious defensive end asserting that Lotulelei responds in kind. "Star actually cracks a little jokes. You'd be surprised. That big, with a scary face, crackin' jokes!"

The assertion seems suspect. Lawson's the one known for his boisterous personality.

The soft-spoken Lotulelei … is not.

He's the unflappable defensive tackle who exudes maturity, the one often lauded by coaches and teammates for his no-nonsense approach and a work ethic surpassed only by his brute strength.

Lotulelei's quiet leadership and run-stuffing prowess prompted the Bills to sign the former Carolina Panthers lineman to a five-year, $50 million contract in March, Buffalo's richest free-agent acquisition of the offseason.

Listed at 6-foot-2 and 315 pounds, Lotulelei is a load, and the Bills are counting on him to take on multiple blockers, free linebackers to make plays, and help plug a run defense that last season ranked 29th in the league, bottoming out after the midseason trade of Marcell Dareus.

The Bills were particularly susceptible up the gut, surrendering 4.8 yards per rush inside the tackles, tied for worst in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

[RELATED: How soon will the Bills' O-line improve?]

Lotulelei, 28, recorded just 25 tackles, including six solo stops, and 1.5 sacks in 16 games last season, with a pass breakup and fumble recovery. His pass rush was graded as a liability by Pro Football Focus, and his overall grade ranked 68th among all interior defensive linemen.

But Bills coach Sean McDermott, who served as the Panthers' defensive coordinator for Lotulelei's first four seasons in the NFL, and general manager Brandon Beane, in Carolina's front office when Lotulelei was drafted in the first round in 2013, know the superior player they've added.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has learned quickly, calling Lotulelei a "tremendous" addition to the team, impressed with how the veteran handles himself in practice and team meetings.

Star Lotulelei is expected to be a big addition to the center of the Bills' defensive line  (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

As for those meetings, Lotulelei denied involvement in any shenanigans.

"I just sit back and observe everybody and listen and laugh," he said. "That's all I do."

And the jokes, well, they're more chop-busting wisecracks than punchlines.

Pressed for an example, the Tonga native explained: Lawson once lumped him in with fellow defensive linemen Tenny Palepoi, who is of Samoan descent, and Albert Havili, a Hawaii native.

"He said the three of us just look alike," Lotulelei said. "Little comments like that."

Lotulelei declined to reveal any more.

"There are other jokes that I can't repeat," he said.

Defensive end Jerry Hughes said he's never heard Lotulelei tell a joke.

"No," Hughes said flatly. "Now that is something I would love to hear. Because if there's anyone, Shaq is definitely the funny man in that room. You'll walk in that room and he'll find something to crack a joke about. If Star is back there cracking jokes, hopefully he's writing them down, because we need to hear something from the big guy. Something to make us chuckle."

Lotulelei's teammates see a happy but quiet guy, a man who means business.

"It was just the way I was taught growing up," Lotulelei said. "I've never been a real loud guy. Growing up, not only from my parents but from cousins, I've always learned not to be loud. You don't have to be loud to be heard. And you don't always have to be heard.

"So, I just kind of keep to myself. I observe. And I just do my job. I try to help the team in any way that I can. And then go home. Just get my work in and go home. That's it."

Finding the heart

Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short grew to know Lotulelei during their five years together in Carolina.

They first met on the sideline at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, where both players were held out of workouts because of injuries, Short a strained hamstring and Lotulelei something potentially more sinister.

"He wasn't a guy of many words," Short recalled, but he was friendly, despite having a lot on his mind.

Doctors had flagged an echocardiogram during Lotulelei's physical, preventing him from competing and putting his pro playing career in jeopardy before it even began.

For a man who had once struggled with a lack of motivation, poor grades and weight issues and overcame those roadblocks to reach the NFL's doorstep, a heart condition seemed a cruel twist of fate.

The oldest of 10 children, Lotulelei moved to the U.S. when he was 9, leaving behind the family's one-room hut on a tiny island in the South Pacific for student housing in Provo, Utah, where his father earned a doctorate from Brigham Young University.

Lotulelei briefly dabbled in youth football as a child but didn't play true competitive ball until his freshman year of high school, and so sparingly in his first year, he hardly counts it. But Lotulelei was a natural, a big-bodied lineman able to take on two blockers at once, and by his senior season helped Bingham High win the 2006 state championship.

He'd committed to BYU, his dream school, his father's alma mater, but he failed to academically qualify.

Rather than attend junior college, Lotulelei took a job moving furniture, which he hated. The low-paying manual labor inspired him to return to the classroom and football field. In 2008, Lotulelei enrolled at Snow College, a two-year school about 75 miles south of his parents' home. That's where he met Fuiva, a volleyball player and fellow Tongan who eventually became his wife.

Snow advanced to the NJCAA national championship game that season, and several Division I programs began to recruit him once more. Utah showed particularly strong interest.

But Lotulelei's grades remained an issue, his weight had ballooned to more than 350 pounds, and he and Fuiva had a baby on the way.

He wouldn't let them down.

Lotulelei remained at Snow for a second year but didn't play football, instead concentrating on his grades, his weight and his home life.

He enrolled at Utah in 2010, academically qualifying with three years of eligibility remaining.

Lotulelei doesn't love football. He loves his family, and he credits his wife and children with his newfound maturity and work ethic.

Lotulelei could have been a high draft pick after his junior season in 2011, when he won the Morris Trophy, given annually to the best lineman in the Pac-12. But he opted to remain at Utah for another year to finish earning his degree.

As a senior, Lotulelei was named a first-team All-American by The Associated Press and projected as a possible No. 1 overall draft pick.

But his draft stock almost certainly suffered after doctors discovered an abnormality: his heart pumping below peak efficiency.

"It was surprising," Lotulelei said, but he maintains a nonchalance. "I wasn't really scared because I felt fine."

Although Lotulelei was held out of drills at the combine, he was able to participate in his pro day after being cleared by a doctor at Utah, who attributed the earlier abnormal test result to a possible viral infection.

Lotulelei declined an invitation to attend the NFL draft in New York, opting instead to watch on TV with his family in Utah.

The Panthers drafted him 14th overall.

The video feed from his parents' house, where Lotulelei sat on a couch beside his wife and oldest child, showed him wiping tears from his eyes.

'Time to work'

The next day, Carolina drafted Short, the player who'd befriended Lotulelei on the sidelines at the combine.

Short says Lotulelei was among the first to reach out.

It's clear his motivation to succeed is also fueled by his teammates.

"It's your livelihood," Lotulelei said. "For me, it's what I do for a living. It's how I provide for my wife and my kids. And I have other people here that are counting on me to help feed their families, as well. So, it's not only for myself, but for my teammates, as well."

Frazier cited an example from training camp after the team's first preseason game against Carolina, during which three defensive tackles were banged up.

Lotulelei was held out of the next day's practice with a sore neck and upper back, but he insisted on taking reps a day later, during the first practice back in pads, to prevent his teammates from being overworked.

"Star goes to our line coach and goes, 'I'm going to try and go in and take a few reps, because I don't want these guys to have to take all of these reps,' " Frazier said. "This is a veteran guy. No one would have said anything if he said, 'Something is bothering me, I need another day.' For him to do that and go out there and participate, that speaks volumes to his character and his concern about his teammates and the team as well. He's going to be good for us."

Lotulelei dismisses this as nothing special.

"It would have been real hard on the inside guys with all the reps that they were about to take," Lotulelei said. "People make it sound like I did a whole lot. It was just coming in and taking a couple of reps, so we could just ease a little off the rest of the guys.

"Training camp is time to work, and even though I was hurt — when people are hurt, you can understand they're going to need a day off, and if circumstances were different and we hadn't lost three guys, I probably would have taken that day off — but we lost three guys and that was just it. That's just who I am.

"I'm not going to leave my teammates out there to dry. They're out there grinding. I want to be out there grinding with them."

'The only weird thing'

Lotulelei's former teammates are in the visitors' locker room at New Era Field, packing to leave after a come-from-behind victory against the Bills in the first game of the preseason.

The Carolina defensive linemen were thrilled to see Lotulelei, who visited the team hotel the previous night.

"He's a hardworking dude," defensive end Wes Horton said. "He comes to work with the right mindset every day. A big, strong, physical dude. He plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He's a great rusher. He uses his strength to create and counter momentum and he just comes to work every day. He's quiet, but he does his job, and you can expect him to make a lot of plays."

Short took Lotulelei's departure particularly hard.

"It was sad, man, because he was probably the person that I was closest to in Carolina, and we just built that camaraderie," he said. "We'd go over each other's house and play with each other's kids and just be around each other's family. And when I found out he was leaving, man, I was happy for him, because it's a new step and he got his family in a better place. I mean, shoot, he's doing good for himself, doing good for his family. So, I congratulate to him."

After the game, up the tunnel, in the hallway between the home and visitors' locker rooms, Lotulelei compared joining the Bills to being a new kid on the first day of school.

It's a little awkward at first, but eventually you grow comfortable, make new friends and life goes on.

Lotulelei insists it wasn't strange lining up against the Panthers, playing against his former teammates for the first time.

His answers are short, his voice quiet.

"You definitely miss the guys," Lotulelei said. "But that's how the business goes. I'm not the first guy to go through it. I'm not going to be the last. It was fine."

Short bounds out of the visitors' locker room and spots his old friend being interviewed.

"Hey, Star, what's up with your man?!" Short hollers. "He was asking me a lot of questions about you, man!"

Suddenly, the no-nonsense façade begins to crack, a wide smile splits his beard, and Star Lotulelei, of all people, begins to joke.

"The only weird thing," he says, "is seeing this guy."

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