SEATTLE – Hercules Mata’afa’s team bio still doesn’t reflect the biggest change the defensive tackle has made since clamping down a place on Minnesota’s 53-man roster in late August.
It’s hard enough for Mata’afa to convince people he actually weighs 275 pounds, so it certainly doesn’t help when the Vikings’ official website lists him at 254, shorting him 21 pounds.
“A lot of people, when they look at me, they don’t think I’m 275,” the second-year NFL player and former Washington State standout said last Monday at CenturyLink Field after Minnesota’s 37-30 loss to Seattle. “They look at me and they’re like, ‘You look like you’re 230.’ I’m like, ‘No I’m 275.’ So I pack on weight different from a lot of guys, so it’s always going to look like I’m undersized, I feel like.”
Fewer than two full seasons into his professional career, Mata’afa is still fighting a stereotype that some thought would preclude him from playing in the NFL at all. The former All-Pac-12 defensive tackle outplayed his lack of size throughout his career with the Cougars. While Minnesota and 31 other NFL teams weren’t sold on Mata’afa as a draft pick, the Vikings pounced once the free-agent market opened, then kept him in the Twin Cities even after spending his rookie season on the injured reserve, healing a torn ACL.
“I think it took a lot for the team to bring me back and keep me on IR, for me to be able to show my skill set for this year,” Mata’afa said. “I just keep on continuing to grind and continue to get better and trying to be out there to help this team in every single day.”
Mata’afa’s NFL career is still a work in progress. The ex-Cougar is still at war with the weight scale – up 35 pounds from where he finished at Washington State, but still not where Minnesota coaches and trainers want him to be.
“It’s always been hard for me to gain weight, so I put on a pretty good, decent amount of weight for myself, that I never knew I would be able to get at,” Mata’afa said. “But just continue to learn about nutrition and what to put in my body. That’s what I’ve been doing, is just studying everything about how to be a better player.”
Between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, Mata’afa tries to increase his caloric intake by cramming in as many snacks as he can. It’s not easy to maintain dietary patterns throughout the regular season.
“It’s been working for me,” Mata’afa said, “I’ve been maintaining the weight, especially during the season, which is pretty hard.”
The Vikings have kept Mata’afa on the inactive list seven times this season (of 11 total games). It’s unclear when he’ll be called upon next to help a team that holds the fifth-best record in the NFC at 9-4 and sits one game below Green Bay in the North Division. He’s on scout team duty, ensuring Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs and Minnesota’s other offensive stars get a proper look during game-week practices.
“That’s what they’re asking me right now,” Mata’afa said, “so I’m just doing the job at hand.”
Mata’afa, if he does have his name called this season or next, will presumably be used in passing situations, but the defensive tackle said he still needs to continue to work on his run defense.
“I think it’s gotten way better from when I first got here,” he said.
Mata’afa, who said “everything around my world revolves around football now,” is able to spend much more time in the film room these days. His sheer knowledge of the game has grown exponentially since he left college two years ago.
The Lahaina, Hawaii, native rejoiced with family members when the Vikings informed him they’d be retaining him despite the season-ending ACL injury last season.
“First person I called was my mom and dad,” he said. “Let them know I made the roster, made the team. It was kind of a euphoria moment for me and my family. They know how hard I’ve worked the last two years to be able to be on this team. This is probably one of the hardest teams to get onto, considering our defense and the dudes on this defense.”
Mata’afa got a small sample of the NFL in the preseason when he recorded his first sack in a Minnesota uniform, driving New Orleans Saints center Will Clapp back about 5 yards before wrestling quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the turf. Mata’afa made his first and only NFL tackle in a Week 2 loss to the Packers.
He was inactive in his first return to the Evergreen State as a pro, but Mata’afa still made the most of the trip, meeting up with former WSU equipment manager Trevor Neal and dining with ex-WSU teammate Ivan McLennon at the Metropolitan Grill in Seattle the night before the game.
Mata’afa said he’s followed the Cougars this season, mostly through live scoring applications because he doesn’t have a cable package in Minnesota and Pac-12 games often start after 8 or 9 p.m. in the Central time zone. Mata’afa was following WSU’s game against UCLA, but he fell asleep when the Cougars took a three-touchdown lead and woke up the next morning to find out about the Bruins’ historic comeback.
“It was a tough year for us, but we’re bowl eligible again. We just keep continuing to expand our winning culture, I guess,” Mata’afa said.
The former Associated Press Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year has kept in touch with WSU linebacker Jahad Woods – “I could see him playing at this level someday, too,” Mata’afa said – and had a message for his ex-teammates as they prepare to play Air Force in the Cheez-It Bowl.
“Just take every bowl game as best as you can and enjoy the teammates you have around you, because you’re not going to have that unity as much as you had in college as you have in the NFL,” Mata’afa said. “Just don’t take any moment for granted. Just go out there and win the day.”
Not too different than what Mata’afa’s striving to do in the NFL.
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