Grateful Latu aims to reward Colts' faith

May 10—INDIANAPOLIS — One of the highest compliments Jim Irsay can pay a member of the Indianapolis Colts is to declare him a "Horseshoe Guy."

It's a catch-all description used by the team owner to describe a player who embodies the ideals of the organization on and off the field.

This year's first-round pick, defensive end Laiatu Latu, has taken the term literally.

The former UCLA star, selected with the 15th overall pick in last month's draft, had a horseshoe tattooed on his upper body in appreciation of Indianapolis placing its faith in him.

"This place has changed my life," Latu said Friday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center as the Colts began a two-day rookie mini-camp. "I come in this building and today I want to give it my all to Coach (Shane) Steichen to (general manager) Chris Ballard to Jim Irsay and to the rest of the team. I really want to lay it out for everybody involved in this program."

It's best not to bet against the 23-year-old.

One of the qualities Ballard most consistently seeks in new additions is the ability to overcome adversity. He reasons every player — no matter how talented — will eventually run into obstacles in the crucible of the NFL, and he likes to have some documented history of how that player will deal with unforeseen challenges.

Perhaps no player in Ballard's seven years running the franchise has checked that box more emphatically than Latu.

The story is well known by now. After suffering a neck injury and undergoing cervical neck fusion, the University of Washington forced the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder into medical retirement.

Latu never accepted the decision and fought for two years to get clearance to return to the field. He went so far as to procure a key to the Huskies' weight room and "break in" after hours for private workouts.

In 2022, renowned neck surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins gave Latu the greenlight to return to the field. He transferred to UCLA and racked up 23.5 sacks over two healthy seasons, helping to convince Indianapolis he was the best defensive player in this year's draft class.

On Thursday, he walked into an NFL locker room for the first time and saw his No. 97 jersey hanging in a stall with his name above it. A day later, he was on the field practicing as a professional for the first time.

"I was ecstatic," Latu said. "I couldn't believe that I was looking at my own locker, my own number on it in the Colts' facility. It's just a surreal moment. As I was looking at the locker, I just remembered everything I went through as a kid and playing football starting at 6 years old. I think this is the best setting to practice and play football in. I love it."

The feeling is mutual.

Steichen raved about the rookie's explosion off the line of scrimmage in his first practice, and assistant GM Ed Dodds highlighted Latu's balance.

That, Dodds said, is the key to the edge rusher's arsenal of pass-rush moves. Because he's always in balance, Latu can fire off counter moves without breaking stride.

At times, it's as though he doesn't even acknowledge the offensive tackle attempting to impede him.

"The guy in front of him is an obstacle on the way to the target," Dodds said. "You can literally see that when he's playing. His focus is on the quarterback. He's looking through you, the offensive tackle, to the quarterback instead of focusing on you. 'I'm going to beat you up and then get to the quarterback.' That's just an innate instinct that I think he has."

As the draft capital spent to procure him suggests, the Colts have high hopes for Latu.

He welcomes great expectations.

Indianapolis gave him the choice of two numbers when he arrived Thursday — 57 or 97. It took Latu no time to choose the number in the 90s.

He's a student of franchise history and wanted to honor Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney (No. 93) and team sacks leader Robert Mathis (No. 98) as well as current defensive line leader DeForest Buckner (No. 99).

It's a statement of intent to one day join those ranks.

"I want to give my all to this program, and I want to able to go out there and be that guy on third downs, and any other passing down, where I'm affecting the quarterback in any other way," Latu said. "And for them to rely on me in those situations where they know I'm gonna win if they put me out there for that role, especially on all downs. But especially with those 90s numbers and them being pass rushers, it definitely means a lot to me."