Facing almost a year of rehab for his surgically repaired knee, Hercules Mata’afa questioned whether a professional football career was still a possibility.
He was in Minnesota, far from his college home in Pullman and even farther from his family home in Lahaina, Hawaii. Without the assurance of being a draft pick – to the degree to which anything in the NFL is assured – he thought about giving it up.
“Coming out here undrafted and kind of not knowing what to expect, and then injuring my knee, it really blew a lot out of me football-wise,” Mata’afa said in early June after a day of Organized Team Activities. “I went through a time thinking about whether this was really worth it.
“I found out that it was.”
By many reports, Mata’afa had quite a spring for the Minnesota Vikings. Now up to 275 pounds – 20 to 25 pounds heavier than he was on June 6, 2018, when he tore his ACL during OTAs – the 2017 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is back at defensive tackle, the position he excelled at while with the Cougars.
When he got hurt, the Vikings were using Mata’afa at defensive end and moving him inside on passing downs. He was devastated when coaches first told him they were putting him on Injured Reserve.
But then it hit him: The Vikings wanted to keep him around. So, while his former Washington State teammates continued to climb the rankings and rack up victories halfway across the country, Mata’afa stayed in Minnesota the rest of 2018, rehabilitating his knee.
That allowed him to work with the Vikings trainers as he recovered, a process Mata’afa said was remarkably fast.
“About two or three weeks after surgery, I was able to bend my knee fully, so it’s kind of crazy the way it healed up pretty fast,” he said. “I was able to do things much faster than you’re usually able to do, and these guys out here, the training staff, really got me right.”
Mata’afa said that Andre Patterson, the Vikings defensive line coach, liked what he was doing on the defensive line and wanted to give him another chance to play defensive tackle.
“(Patterson) thinks I can do special things at this position,” Mata’afa said.
As a defensive tackle at Washington State, Mata’afa did just that. In three seasons in Pullman, before leaving a year early to enter the NFL Draft, Mata’afa recorded 22.5 sacks and 47 tackles-for-loss, the second-most in WSU history.
This spring, defensive tackle is where Mata’afa has played, rather than at linebacker or defensive end where a player of his build – 6-foot-2, 254 pounds out of college – often end up in the NFL.
His performance at OTAs drew the attention of many in Vikings camp, including head coach Mike Zimmer, who called him “the surprise of camp” in an interview with a local radio station.
It appears, too, that there is opportunity on the depth chart for Mata’afa to make the team, considering the team’s lack of proven depth. Behind presumed starting tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen, no other defensive tackles on the roster have started a game in the NFL.
And, it’s possible the Vikings would bring in Mata’afa in pass-rushing situations to do what he did so well at Washington State: generate pressure inside to crunch pockets, and then use his speed to chase down quarterbacks.
But Mata’afa pointed out that a performance at OTAs is less important than what he proves he can do later this summer, when the team opens camp in July.
“I haven’t made the 53-man roster yet and I haven’t contributed to this team yet,” he said. “I’ll just keep going out there, doing my job the best I can and hopefully I’ll be able to live up to those high comments. But the time hasn’t come yet.”