Tatupu connected with fans, teammates

It was a modest beginning for Mosi Tatupu with the New England Patriots in 1978.

Ron Hobson, the respected, longtime Patriots reporter for the Quincy Patriot Ledger, recalled the story Wednesday.

"It was time for their second pick of the eighth round, and public relations director Tom Hoffman said out loud in the draft room, 'We should draft the Samoan running back from USC,'" Hobson said. "[Coach Chuck] Fairbanks turned to him and said, 'Sure, announce his name.'"

So Hoffman stepped forward and informed media members in attendance that with the 215th overall selection in the 1978 draft, the Patriots were picking Mosiula Faasuka Tatupu.

"At that point, they were looking to fill a uniform in the summer as a training camp back," Hobson said. "It was a whim. [Thirteen] years later, he was still on the team, a special teams player of the year. He was just terrific."

That's how Tatupu's solid career with the Patriots began, and it's a story Hobson and Hoffman reminisced about Wednesday morning, saddened to learn that Tatupu had died at the age of 54.

Those who had played with Tatupu shared their own stories Wednesday, painting a picture of a player who always seemed to be smiling, who had a special connection with fans (who created a cheering section called "Mosi's Mooses") and who was a unifying presence in the locker room.

"As much as you want to talk about how teams unite, there is always a bit of a racial divide in the locker room, and one of the things I remember most about Mosi is that he was one of those guys who sat right in the middle of that," said safety Tim Fox, who played for the Patriots from 1976 to 1981. "He had just as many friends who were black as were white. He was a great team builder."

Part of what helped Tatupu position himself as a unifier in the locker room was his background, as he was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and later moved to Hawaii. He was unique among his peers.

Tatupu also stood out for his style of play. Much as linebacker Tedy Bruschi developed a special rapport with Patriots fans in the team's recent championship-filled decade, Tatupu had a loyal following in the 1980s because of his hard-nosed, full-tilt approach as a short-yardage runner and special teams leader.

"What I've found from football fans in this area is that they appreciate a lunch-pail attitude, someone who shows up for work every day, and that's what Mosi did. He could have played in any era," quarterback Steve Grogan said. "I also think his personality, the spirit and fun he showed, transferred to the fans, and that's why they loved him so much."

"It was his work ethic, and I think everyone considered him a workers' man kind of guy," added linebacker Don Blackmon, who said Tatupu tutored him on covering kicks when he arrived as a rookie. "That's just the way he was. Ask Mosi to do anything, and he would have done it. That's why people gravitated to him."

Patriots owner Robert Kraft was one of those fans who admired Tatupu when attending games at Schaefer and Sullivan stadium. "I don't think you could watch a Patriots game in the '80s without becoming a fan of his," Kraft said.

Linebacker Steve Nelson remembered that Tatupu had such a strong bond with fans because "he was willing to be out with them and enjoy them as much as they enjoyed him." Yet Nelson believes that shouldn't be the only way Tatupu is remembered in New England.

"He is just one of those guys that all the players and coaches trusted because he prepared himself and was professional about everything," said Nelson, who later coached alongside Tatupu at Curry College in Milton, Mass. "He was the leader on special teams, had an incredible work ethic and understood his role. He was always prepared to be called upon on offense, whether there was no snow on the ground or it was a short-yardage situation. He wasn't just a popular player; he was a great player."

Tatupu's excellence in snowy conditions, where his ability to maintain balance produced impressive results, defied explanation. After all, snow isn't often in the forecast in Samoa, Hawaii or Southern California.

"A lot of people remember the 'Snow Plow Game' and John Smith's kick won it, but it was Mosi who ran for more than 100 yards that day and that really won the game," center Pete Brock said.

Off the field, Grogan said Tatupu was the owner of a "smile that radiated," while Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett said Tatupu "was happy all the time and just pleasant to be around."

"He had an incredible spirit," Nelson said. "He just made you feel better being around him."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.