Once fearing his NFL dream was over, Laiatu Latu soaks in a 'surreal as hell' UCLA pro day

LOS ANGELES, CA - March 15, 2024: UCLA defensive lineman Laiatu Latu leaps for a pass.

Laiatu Latu knelt down on the turf at the starting line of the 40-yard dash in a position he had seen so many NFL stars take before him. He felt the eyes of general managers and coaches at the NFL combine in Indianapolis lock onto him. His heart was pounding.

He was not supposed to be here.

After medically retiring because of a neck injury suffered at Washington, Latu improbable comeback could soon make him UCLA’s first first-round draft pick since 2018. The rise from being told he would never play football again to getting texts of encouragement from NFL idols such as Maxx Crosby all feels "surreal as hell," Latu said Friday after UCLA's pro day on campus.

“I’m living everyday like it’s my last,” Latu said. “Showing dudes that I love this game maybe more than they might have thought. And really [to] just inspire the world with what I went through. … If you got the love and dedication for something, you’re going to make it happen.”

Read more: Thriving on the edge of destruction, UCLA's Laiatu Latu is an unstoppable force

After performing well at the combine, including a 4.64-second 40-yard dash, Latu still participated in several general drills and position exercises Friday to show his versatility. The proven pass rusher with 23.5 sacks in the last two seasons wanted to display his ability to drop into coverage as several teams have reached out about possibly using him in multiple positions.

Teams have asked about the neck injury that nearly ended his career, but haven’t been deterred, Latu said. Scouts have been more inspired by his return.

“[He’s] somebody whose 'why' is bigger than just money,” UCLA head coach DeShaun Foster said. “For him to come back from the type of injury that he’s had, that lets you know the type of dedication he has to ball.”

UCLA defensive lineman Laiatu Latu runs a drill at UCLA's pro day on Friday.
UCLA defensive lineman Laiatu Latu runs a drill at UCLA's pro day on Friday. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

The 6-foot-5, 259-pound defensive end was the star attraction of UCLA’s pro day, but several of his teammates may have also helped their chances in front of representatives from 31 NFL teams. Former walk-on defensive back Alex Johnson ran a 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range, Foster reported, along with a 4.5-second sprint from outside linebacker Carl Jones Jr. Outside linebacker Grayson Murphy had a 37-inch vertical jump, as did running back Carson Steele.

Taking in the scene for the first time as a head coach made Foster reflect on his own path that went through this same campus. When he starred at UCLA and was picked in the second round by the Carolina Panthers, he thought his life’s purpose was to be a player. Now more than a decade into his coaching career, the recently promoted running backs coach smiled realizing his mission is much more than just scoring touchdowns himself.

“I'm starting to see my calling is to actually help these players get to the NFL,” Foster said. “[To] get to their goals, get to their dreams. It’s more of an ultimate feeling than when I made it myself.”

Laiatu Latu speaks with reporters after running drills at UCLA pro day on Friday.
Laiatu Latu speaks with reporters after running drills at UCLA pro day on Friday. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

The 44-year-old rookie head coach hopes the Bruins will continue to churn out pro prospects with a coaching staff long on NFL experience. Foster expects offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who won two Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs, will install a West Coast offense that will prepare players for the next level. Of course, the former running back turned head coach wants to run the ball.

The Bruins opened spring practice with meetings and installation this week after finalizing the coaching staff with three of the final four new hires coming directly from the NFL. The new staff has already seen a boost of energy around the program on the recruiting trail.

“You’re getting the whole gamut of how to be a pro,” Foster said, “and if that’s your dream, then this should be your dream school.”

Read more: Doctors couldn't stop UCLA's Laiatu Latu, and now offensive linemen might not either

With about a month left from making the step to the NFL, Latu said he never truly dreamed of this moment growing up. He simply wanted to get a scholarship to college. Only when his career started blossoming at UCLA did he start thinking he could hear his name called on draft day.

Latu still doesn’t have firm plans for the event, which begins April 25. He knows he wants to spend it with family and would love to be in attendance in Detroit if he scores the invite. He is having a suit made just in case.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.