Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea made headlines with his NFL combine record 49 reps on the bench press last month. A low to the ground, run stuffing defensive tackle, Paea’s effectiveness as an interior player are rooted in a land on the other side of the world.
Born in New Zealand and raised on the island of Tonga, Paea was quickly exposed to a game that’s just as popular in that part of the world as football is in the United States. Rugby is omnipresent in the island countries in and around New Zealand, and Paea, like most young island natives, longed to be a professional rugby player.
“In Tonga, rugby is the number one sport,” Paea said. “Growing up watching the rugby stars in New Zealand, Australia, they're all Tongan. So I wanted to be a rugby star. But once I went to the United State, I wanted to change that and have the same mindset toward football.”
Paea’s mother moved to the United States two years prior to the rest of the family’s arrival. When Paea and his siblings arrived he was 16-years old.
“It was a big decision for me and my brothers,” he said. “My older brother was already here. I felt like coming here - to the Land of Opportunity - I felt like it was a blessing of a choice for us. We just made the decision to come here to America.”
Immediately Paea discovered that rugby wasn’t really an option and football was the closest thing to it. He enrolled as a senior that fall in high school and played football for the first time.
“It was cool to have the pads, look buff in them,” he said. “Get the helmets on, hit each other. I felt like the first time I put on the helmet, the helmet kind of minimized my vision to be able to play. I kind of got used to it as the years go on. I think I'm pretty good at it.”
Learning English as a second language, Paea had to enroll in a year of junior college before he arrived on campus at Oregon State.
“It was a challenge for me to speak English when I first got here,” he said. “When I was in Tonga there is only one language and that’s Tongan. So it was tough.”
What did not prove difficult at all was his transition to football. The leverage and power demanded in rugby served Paea exceptionally well as an interior defensive lineman.
“I think rugby helped a lot,” he said. “I'm able to stay low, and you need a lot of energy for rugby. You're running at a specific way and a specific time. You could also say the same in football. So I feel like that has helped me transition easier to football.”
Paea’s stamina for players his size was virtually unmatched on the field. Again his rugby roots, where plays last a lot longer than the typical eight-second play in football, and players instantly transition from offense to defense, had him more than prepared for the rigors of college football. The defensive tackle likened rugby to basketball on grass.
Despite only playing four years of organized football, as a junior Paea was the co-recipient of the Morris Trophy awarded to the best defensive lineman in the Pac-10 conference as voted by the conference’s offensive linemen. He won the award outright as a senior this past season as well as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award named after the late Pat Tillman.
Paea was an immovable object. At 6’1” 303 pounds, Paea not only held his ground, but also made plays. Ten of his 45 tackles as a senior went for loss and he also contributed six sacks to the Beavers’ defensive effort in 2010. In his career he also forced a school record nine fumbles.
Most of those fumbles came against opposing quarterbacks, and Paea attributes his proficiency in that area to his anticipation skills.
“Just being able to know where the ball is with the quarterback, and be able to know if he's stepping back, the ball is going to be behind him, ready to throw,” he said. “If he's stepping up, he's going to be carrying it forward just to be safe. Knowing all that and having an awareness of where the ball is, I think any D-linemen can do it.”
Paea’s success in the trenches obviously starts with his unusually strong lower body as his maximum squat in the weight room is 600 pounds. With a bench press of 500 to match, it’s little wonder he cranked out 49 reps at the combine at 225.
What separates Paea from other workout wonders is his ability to transfer that weight room power into his game, with some NFL scouts believing he’s strong enough to handle a two-gap nose tackle role despite being 30 to 40 pounds lighter than some of the league’s true defensive anchors.
“We’ve all heard of bull rush, sometimes it comes from your legs, but if you have a strong upper body you can shed blocks and use your hands,” he said. “When you use your hands your power comes from your chest. My type of game is all power and get off, so I feel like my strength helps best on the field that way. When you control the O-line you need power and that can come from bench and squats.”
As much attention as Paea’s record 49 reps got him, what most did not realize was that was the only part of the combine workout he performed after suffering a lateral meniscus tear in his knee on the first day of practice at the Senior Bowl. Renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed surgery on Jan. 27. With his pro day today (Thursday) Paea is eager to prove he’s more of an athlete than a weightlifter.
“When I came into the combine, I wanted to do all the drills,” he said. “But the only thing my body could do was bench and interview. So might as well give my best on the bench. I feel like I did okay.”
If his pro day workout is anything like his bench press performance NFL scouts will feel more than okay about his NFL future.