SALT LAKE CITY — It's only appropriate that somewhere along the line, Starlite Lotulelei would shorten his name to Star, just as he changed his physique.
In both cases he went from one identity to another.
Who wants to have a name like a storybook princess when you can have a name like a screen idol? It doesn't get more bodacious than Star. Yet the University of Utah defensive tackle doesn't talk like a celebrity. Life is pretty much the same as it was before he was an All-America candidate.
"There's been a little change," he admitted. "I'm still treated the same by the people I'm always around. I might get recognized once or twice on the street, but other than that, I'm not treated too differently. I'm the same person."
Well, yes and no.
A few years ago he was an out-of-shape furniture mover with no plans for college. Now he's four months from graduation with a chance to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Then there's his body transformation. He went from 355 pounds of sugar weight to 310 pounds of opponent-crushing agility. From platters of cookies to mounds of veggies.
"He wanted it," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, "and he did it."
Last season Lotulelei was named the Pac-12's top defensive lineman. This year experts are anticipating more of the same. Meanwhile, he is filling up on vegetables, rather than vegetating. The only red meat in his diet is opposing linemen.
"I always go green," he said. "We have green-light foods, yellow-light and red-light. Green light is mostly greens; red is just a bunch of junk. I've cut out a lot of reds and try to stay away from junk food."
Lotulelei's "decision" story has been duly reported. He passed up the chance to be drafted in the first round, last spring, choosing instead to remain near family and get his degree. The choice elated and gratified Utah's coaching staff. To retain a player of such strength and agility is more than the Utes could have hoped. Several months after announcing his return, he was on the field for the first week of fall camp, saying he doesn't regret the move.
Speaking of moves, there was a time when Lotulelei seemed headed to a career in heavy lifting – and it didn't involve football. The Bingham High graduate was lightly recruited and at first had trouble motivating himself to play.
He had a job, but not much of a long term plan. Though he did enroll at Snow College, he played just one year, sitting out his sophomore season.
"I probably wasn't thinking too clearly at the time," he said this week. "I probably should have listened to my parents, who told me to go finish school and play football."
Named after his father Sitaliti (Tongan for starlight), Lotulelei used "Star" from an early age. Yet neither Starlite nor Star garnered much teasing. Who teases the toughest guy in class?
"Everybody thought it was a cool name," he said. "I didn't get too much hassle for it."
Whether it was starlight, moonlight or fairy dust, something changed his mind after that first year out of high school. It certainly pleased his parent. His father is an LDS seminary teacher with a Ph.D from BYU.
Lotulelei attended Snow College for his freshman season. All went well. He redshirted his second year and worked on academics. But that's also when he saw his biggest weight gains. Upon being signed by the Utes, he was told to thin down, which meant abandoning his favorites: plates full of homemade chocolate chip cookies and lunches that included five junior bacon cheeseburgers.
Now the man's a veritable whole foods clearinghouse. So much so that coaches want him to add another 30 pounds, to 340. But this time it will be weight-lifting pounds, not cookie pounds.
All of which should add luster to his intergalactic name.
Meanwhile, Lotulelei is doing a nice job of maintaining his modest demeanor.
"He's so humble," said Sitake, "You cheer for guys like him."
Everyone loves a humble star.
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