EAGAN, Minn. — Growing up in Hawaii, if Hercules Mata’afa wanted to watch the NFL, he had to wake up early. On the islands, the first slate of games kick off at 7 a.m. local time. Unfortunately for Mata’afa, not even an alarm clock could help his family catch his NFL debut last weekend.
Most of his home state is still obsessed with Marcus Mariota, whose Titans games are televised for everyone to see. None of the local channels picked up the Vikings-Falcons game.
That meant when Mata’afa took the field for the Vikings, his family was forced to follow along as best they could.
“They just looked at all the highlights they could find,” Mata’afa said. “Just my family. Just the close ones. They were happy for me.”
It’s been a long road to this point for Mata’afa, who missed last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and wasn’t sure he’d ever suit up for an actual NFL game.
He played 28 snaps in Sunday’s 28-12 win, a somewhat surprising number considering that some expected fellow defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes to be active instead.
Was he surprised with the workload?
“A little bit,” Mata’afa said. “I just wanted to go out there and perform when my name was called and do what I was asked to do.”
As indicated by coach Mike Zimmer during the preseason, Mata’afa was used almost exclusively in pass-rush situations, and while his name didn’t show up in the box score, he made quarterback Matt Ryan uncomfortable on a few occasions.
“He had a few really good rushes,” Zimmer said. “Now, the thing he’s got to work on is finishing and getting the sacks. He did some good things. He’s continued to work.”
Arguably the most impressive thing about Mata’afa so far has been his work ethic. He turned some heads way back in the spring during OTAs, and in training camp defensive coordinator George Edwards sang his praises any chance he got.
“He’s done a heckuva job,” Edwards said. “We want to see him continue to progress as a pass rusher inside. He’s got great quickness. He’s going to be fast on the guards. We just want him to keep improving.”
There are some things Mata’afa has to clean up. He had a couple of penalties, a neutral zone infraction that led to a Falcons first down and an illegal hands to the face call late in the game.
“I thought the hands to the face was kind of an iffy call because I had him stuck on the shoulders and I slid off and he pushed my arm up,” Mata’afa said. “Nothing I could do about it once it was called. I just need to be better with my hand placement.”
As for this weekend, there’s a chance the Vikings-Packers game could be America’s Game of the Week, meaning everyone back in Hawaii would get to see Mata’afa live in action.
“I just have to keep working from here on out,” he said. “I had some pressures. I need to be able to finish my rushes and turn those into sacks.”