CHARLOTTE – In high school, Star Lotulelei's wife once visited North Carolina to compete in a basketball tournament.
Now she's preparing for a return trip that won't require a roundtrip ticket.
"It's really exciting and overwhelming at the same time," Fuiva Lotulelei said. "But we're ready. We're ready to move out and make this our new home."
Star Lotulelei is excited about beginning his new life, but he probably isn't looking forward to physically moving his wife and two daughters from Utah. The hulking defensive tackle has been there and done that, moving from Tonga in the South Pacific at age 9 and then moving more than his share of furniture during a pivotal year in his path to becoming the Panthers' first-round draft pick.
"It was real emotional because it's been a long road," Lotulelei said Friday at his introductory press conference at Bank of America Stadium. "I sat out a year after high school and went the junior college route, and I had my first kid when I was 19 years old. It's been a rough road, a hard road to this point. This means a lot to me and my family."
Lotulelei didn't have the look of a future football star growing up. Though Tonga has produced its share of NFL players, including fellow Panthers defensive tackle Sione Fua, Lotulelei didn't play the game growing up. That was still the case even after his father moved the family to the United States in search of a better future.
"Growing up, I didn't play too much little league as a little kid. I played maybe half a year of little league, and then we moved to a different area of Utah that didn't have little league," Lotulelei said. "I only started playing football, really, my freshman year of high school and I really wasn't that good. I just didn't understand the game, but my junior and senior year I really started to understand the game."
With his massive stature and hard-to-find athleticism for a man his size, Lotulelei developed into a college prospect. He dreamed of playing at Brigham Young University and appeared poised to realize that dream when he accepted a scholarship offer from the school, but he didn't qualify academically.
He decided to step away from school for a year to find himself and he soon found himself holding down a job.
"I worked for a furniture company, moving furniture and delivering furniture. I didn't like it too much," Lotulelei said. "I learned from that experience that I can't do the nine-to-five thing. I learned that football was what I was made for, that football was what I needed to be doing."
Lotulelei got a second chance on the junior college level at Snow College and made the most of it. Following an impressive first season that got him back on the radar of major college programs, he sat out again for another year to get his body and mind further in order. He also got married that year.
"Getting married and having my first child is something that helped me get grounded and focused. It helped me figure out what I wanted to do in life," Lotulelei said.
He next landed at the University of Utah, the same school that produced longtime Panthers standouts Steve Smith and Jordan Gross. Following a promising first season, he was named a team captain, a title he carried as he developed into a dominant force over his final two college years.
"I was a team captain my junior and senior year, but I wasn't the rah-rah captain yelling at everybody," Lotulelei said. "I tried to lead by example. I'm a real quiet person."
His game, however, speaks volumes. His wife, a former college athlete in her own right, can vouch for that.
"He's not really a big talker," Fuiva said. "He lets his play do the talking for him. That's something a lot of fans will like about him."