Friendships run a little deeper in the trenches, Paul Ena will tell you.
So do reputations for toughness, one that Ena has built during four seasons on the defensive line at Eastern Washington.
It was forged on the field, where Ena never redshirted and started 24 games the last three seasons, and in the offseason, when he won the Iron Eagle award for excellence in the weight room and the classroom.
So it was no surprise two months ago that Ena was voted a senior captain, even less of one when he shrugged off a painful elbow injury, donned a full-arm cast and put the hurt on the Idaho offense.
“At first we didn’t think he was going to play, but he loves playing so much,” defensive coordinator John Graham said.
“I’ve always played through pain – it’s made me tougher,” said Ena, whose father, Tali, also played through pain as running back at Washington State and for the Seattle Seahawks.
Alas, a week later in Pullman with his parents in the stands, Ena suffered a wrist injury that kept him out of the Big Sky Conference opener at Weber State.
Two weeks later, he was back in the trenches against Montana State, part of a defensive line that may be the best in the conference.
“We’re all pretty close, and we’re playing for each other,” said Ena, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end from Kenmore, Wash. “We’ve played a lot of ball, so it’s expected for us to be the leaders.”
A family tradition
Ena got into the game early.
“Mom was always there to make good meals and take care of me, and Dad was always there to coach me,” he said.
Ena also played running back, “lowering my shoulder and getting some glory, but defense was my niche,” he said.
That attitude was nurtured by his high school linebackers coach, former Idaho star Sam Merriman.
“He’s the one I looked up to,” said Ena, who also was a star on the track team while holding down a 3.8 grade-point average.
Recruited as a linebacker by Eastern, Weber State, Montana and Montana State, he was attracted to the Eagles by a familiar theme.
“I really liked the coaches,” Ena said. “People talk about the family atmosphere, but it’s true, and there’s a total buy-in that the players have with the coaches.”
The 2009 season had barely begun when injuries forced the Eagles to burn Ena’s redshirt – not that he minded.
“I wanted to play right away, and I wanted to see what the coaches thought, and how they evaluated me,” Ena said.
Ena played all 12 games as a true freshman, first as a backup defensive end and then as a starter at middle linebacker in the final two games.
The next season, he moved to defensive end – his true calling, as it turned out. He made his first career start against Weber State, making six tackles. Two months later, he made two fumble recoveries in the FCS semifinals against Villanova.
On one of the recoveries, Ena said, “I was in the backfield and I saw the exchange between the quarterback and the running back, the ball dropped and I just scooped it up.”
Last year, he was one of five players to start every game in Eastern’s injury-riddled season, earning honorable mention All-Big Sky honors in the process. But a 6-5 season was “fuel for the fire for this season, learning from our mistakes,” he said.
Ena said he was humbled when his teammates named him a captain.
“So many other guys show up every day and work hard,” he said. “It’s a privilege and an honor.”
That was no surprise to the coaches.
“He has that toughness, never taking a play off,” defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer said. “He’s been that guy the whole time. Whatever you ask him to do, the team comes first.”
It doesn’t hurt that Ena has found a natural fit as a run-stopping defensive end, as opposed to the complexities of linebacker. Ena is plenty smart – he’s a two-time Big Sky All-Academic honoree – but he prefers the physical nature of the line instead of worrying about dropping back into coverage.
“For the most part, you put your hand in the dirt and get after it,” he said.
And when the getting is done, the 21-year-old Ena said he’ll graduate this winter with a degree in criminal justice, move back to the West Side and look for a job.
No regrets, especially the friendships forged in the trenches, from the seniors of 2009 to his current teammates and coaches.
“We always stick together,” Ena said.
“His work ethic, the classroom, everything, it’s 24/7,” said Graham, a father of two sons. “He’s one of those kids – if your boys grow up to be like Paul Ena, I’d be very proud.”