Several players across the NFL decided to opt out last season due to COVID-19. Two Bills players, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and cornerback E.J. Gaines, were part of that group.
Lotulelei said he made the tough decision for his family.
"Pretty much with all the uncertainty that was going around at that time, not knowing exactly what was going to happen and what protocols were going to be, I felt like the best decision for myself, my wife and my kids was what I decided to do," Lotulelei explained.
After spending a year away from One Bills Drive, the defensive tackle reported to mandatory minicamp this week to get ready for the 2021 season.
"I'm trying to get acclimated and get back into the swing of being in football meetings every day, getting back to football being life," Lotulelei said after his first practice back with the team. "Having to kind of put my family kind of on the back burner. That's just the sacrifice we make in this league, but I'm ready to be back."
Bills head coach Sean McDermott said Lotulelei brings size, leadership and a point of attack up front.
"It is good to have him here and participate," McDermott shared. "I'm sure his teammates feel the same way. He can help us, we all know that. He's going to have to continue to put the work in to get himself back, acclimated, comfortable."
Lotulelei said he took around three weeks off after the 2019 season and spent the rest of the time preparing for 2021 by doing lots of lifting and running. He also stayed in touch with his teammates by texting and encouraging them throughout the season. Other than that, he took advantage of the time at home with his family.
"It was a whole lot of being a dad," Lotulelei explained. "I have four kids. Being a father and a husband, I really enjoyed it. Having that time away helped physically and mentally, even though it was unfortunate that I couldn't be here for the guys.
"I don't regret my decision. I made it based on what I felt was the right decision for myself, my wife and my kids."
He admitted he didn't watch every game because, at times, it was difficult to watch his team have the success they did from afar.
"It was tough, especially because of the kind of camaraderie and how close we are as a group, as players, as a team," Lotulelei said. "It was tough to see the guys out there and me not being able to have any impact on the game and help my guys out."
One of the players who missed Lotulelei's space-eating ability was defensive tackle Ed Oliver. The third-year player took over some of Lotulelei's responsibilities in 2020 and was ecstatic to hear he would be back on the team for 2021.
"Ed was one of the guys that ran up to me and gave me a big hug," Lotulelei said. "I love Ed. He's a little feisty dude but I love the way he plays. He's been great since he's been here. I'm getting to meet some of the rookies and some of the guys we picked up in free agency."
A newer coach on the Bills, but not for Lotulelei, is defensive line coach Eric Washington. Washington coached Lotulelei in Carolina for five seasons. The defensive tackle explained he's excited to be around someone who has helped him so much throughout his career.
"There's lot of comfort knowing him, him knowing me, knowing I can trust him," Lotulelei shared. "I don't think there's a more perfect guy that I could have to get me re-acclimated back into the system, back into the football schedule and things like that."
Lotulelei recorded 11.5 sacks during his time with Washington in Carolina.
After taking a year off from football, during what was supposed to be his eighth year in the NFL, Lotulelei joked that his wife was ready to see him back on the field.
"She was getting sick of me," Lotulelei said with a laugh. "That's when I found out that maybe my wife isn't ready for me to call it yet."
He's back for his eighth year in the league and third with the Bills. The defensive tackle will have the opportunity to be an anchor for the interior defensive line this season as the group is ready to take a step forward in their play.
After his first practice back with his team that he spent a year away from, the defensive tackle was radiating with happiness as he spoke with the media over Zoom.
"It's just good to be back," Lotulelei said with a grin. "It was good to be out there running around with the guys. I'm just happy to be back."