Two words are tattooed in script on Chiefs defensive end Ropati Pitoitua’s chest, right below his collarbone.
A tattoo of the flag of American Samoa adorns his left shoulder.
“Lila Lane is the street back home where I grew up,” Pitoitua said of Lakewood, Wash., a suburb of Tacoma. “It has a lot of significance. This is where I started football. I feel it was like the second chapter in my life.”
The first chapter of Pitoitua’s life is represented by the American Samoa flag. He was born in Samoa and lived there until his family moved to Washington when he was 10 years old.
And now Pitoitua — his names are pronounced ROE-pot-ee, Puh-TOE-uh-two-ah — has gone from Lila Lane to One Arrowhead Drive, where he is establishing himself as one of the Chiefs’ most dependable defensive linemen.
Though he missed two days of practice this week because of a hyperextended elbow, Pitoitua has been outfitted with a protective brace and is expected to make his second straight start at right end on Sunday against Baltimore. He’s taking the place of Glenn Dorsey, who has not practiced this week because of a calf injury.
In last week’s loss to San Diego, Pitoitua made the first start of his four-year career and came up with two sacks. That matched the number of sacks left end Tyson Jackson has had in four seasons and is half as many as Dorsey’s four sacks in five years.
“I felt pretty good, but as a team, we didn’t come up with a win, so that (cancels) it out,” said Pitoitua, who joined the Chiefs this season after three years as a backup with the New York Jets.
Pitoitua, a towering 6 feet 8 and 315 pounds, fills two roles with the Chiefs. Not only has he been Dorsey’s backup at right end in the base defense, he’s a down lineman in the nickel defense. So if he were unable to play, coach Romeo Crennel would have to find two players to replace Pitoitua.
“He’s got himself to a point where he can do several things,” Crennel said. “We always tell them the more you can do, the more we ask you to do. He is somewhat valuable, so it will be good if he can do something for this game.”
Football wasn’t always Pitoitua’s first love. His boyhood heroes were the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, and he didn’t begin playing football until his junior year in high school.
“My high school coach, Jim Goode, was a new coach at the time, and saw me in the hallway,” Pitoitua said, “and he told me I should come out for football. He bugged me the whole time and never left me alone.”
Pitoitua played well enough in high school to earn a scholarship to Washington State, but injuries derailed his first three years. As a freshman, a sprained ankle cost him three games; as a sophomore, a broken leg in fall camp caused him to miss the first five games; and as a junior, he missed three games because of a knee sprain.
Even though Pitoitua stayed healthy as a senior, he went undrafted but was signed as a rookie free agent by the Jets and appeared in 22 games during 2008-11. But he couldn’t escape injuries there either, and his season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury during 2010 training camp made for a tear-jerking storyline on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series.
Jets teammate Kris Jenkins lifted Pitoitua off the bench, put him over his shoulder and carried him to the cart that was waiting to take him inside the locker room to be examined.
“It was crazy with all the cameras all over the place,” Pitoitua said. “I was just myself.”
Pitoitua recovered and played in 14 games last year for the Jets, establishing career-highs with 19 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack, but was released last May 2 after New York took Quinton Coples with their first-round draft pick.
The Chiefs, who have struggled to find impact players on the defensive front, remembered Pitoitua from playing the Jets last season and signed him six days after he was cut.
“He’s like a tree,” Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah said. “And he’s strong. He’s like hitting a wall. He’s got so much strength, he’ll get after you if you’re not on your game.”
It would seem in a game where low man wins the battle on the line of scrimmage, Pitoitua’s height would work against him. Only four other players in the NFL are taller — San Diego’s Jared Gaither, Philadelphia’s King Dunlap, Tampa Bay’s Demar Dotson and Cincinnati’s Dennis Roland are all listed at 6-9 — and all four play offensive tackle.
“He has to bend his knees,” Crennel said. “If you bend your knees and your hips, you can get the leverage that you need.”
Pitoitua, who gets his height from his father, said he never considered playing anything but defensive line.
“It’s more fun,” he said.