The 2018 NFL Draft is set for Thursday, April 26th through Saturday, April 28th. As the stars of the college game get ready to find out where they will begin their NFL journey, CBS Local Sports’ “My Life As” series will give them an opportunity to talk about how they got to this point and what they expect from the future in their own words.
Today, we check in with Washington State defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa. Originally from the island of Maui, Hercules wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, but he dominated in his three years for the Cougars racking up 121 tackles, 45.5 for loss, and 21 sacks. He spent time in every position along the Wazzu defensive line and that versatility has NFL teams looking at him as the draft draws nearer.
So, let’s get to your first question right off the top. How did I get the name Hercules? My mom’s version of the story is that she was stuck between two names for me: Anthony or Hercules. I was born the heaviest baby out of the seven kids in our family and supposedly, I was able to support my head on my own as an infant, which is not usually the case for a baby. At that point, my mom said ‘okay, his name has to be Hercules’, and away we went.
Now, onto athletics. My first loves as an athlete were soccer and wrestling believe it or not. I started soccer when I was young and played up through the fourth grade before my older brother started playing football at the high school level.
I started wrestling at a very young age, around the time I was four years old, and I was pretty good. I would always beat the kids that were my age, so my mom had to find a way to sneak me into the older age groups so I could go up against better guys.
I always wanted that higher level of competition. Wrestling really helped my transition to football as a defensive lineman because I was already used to the hand-fighting, leverage, and angles needed to move bigger guys out of my way.
Once my parents saw my older brother playing football, they thought it would be a good idea to see what I could do so they signed me up for Pop Warner. I didn’t really want to get into it at first because I loved soccer and the seasons obviously overlap. I hated the first couple of practices when I started, but once I got into my first game, I really fell in love with the sport.
There was just something about playing in front of a lot of people (football is probably the biggest sport in Maui right now) and making plays that felt really amazing. Like all eyes were on me. Once I got a taste of that feeling, I really started to love playing football and wanted to keep playing.
Coming out of high school I felt like I was a little overlooked because I played my high school football in Maui as opposed to one of the bigger islands like Oahu. So, I didn’t really have a ton of options coming out. San Diego State, Oregon State and Washington State were really the only schools that recruited me. The reason I chose WSU of the three is because I had a really good connection with former defensive line coach Joe Salave’a when he came to visit me. Then, Coach Leach came down and we sat down and talked about what I’d be doing at Washington State. That’s when I decided to commit because I wanted to play in the Pac-12 and go up against the best competition that I could.
I had such a good time in Pullman because it was so much different than anything that I was used to growing up on the islands. Constantly surrounded by college students, playing games in front of 20-thousand or 30-thousand people, there’s nothing like that on the islands.
The greatest experience was just running out into that stadium filled with screaming fans and playing on national television where all eyes are on you.
After I decided to declare for the draft, I got invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. My training regimen in preparation for the combine and the NFL has been intense. When we were just training for the combine, I was basically doing four-a-day workouts, running in the morning, then lifting weights and then doing it all over again in the afternoon. The only off day was Sunday. The rest of the time, we were working out, getting ready for the combine.
Since then, I came back to Maui just to be in better weather than I would be in Washington, which would allow me to train better. I’ve been doing a lot of boxing in order to get my shoulders right and my hands right in order to be able to explode off of blocks. Whenever I have the chance, I’ll get outside and condition, but I’ve mostly been focusing on my technique as I prepare for the NFL.
The reason I’m focused more on my technique right now is because I think I already have the power and speed to be ready for the NFL. It’s the technique that everybody can be working on, because it’s never perfect. If I can get close to perfecting my technique, or at the very least, continually improve upon where I’m at now, I can be a real force in the NFL despite my size.
I’ve heard the knocks on me. I’m too small to play inside in the NFL. Haven’t played in coverage enough to prove I’m a linebacker. It’s fine. They didn’t really look at me coming out of high school. They’re not really looking at me now.
I’ve been doubted my whole life. I don’t care. I’m going to go out there and show them that I can play. I don’t care where I get drafted, I’m just going in there to prove I can make the team and show what I can bring to that team.
What do I bring to a team? I bring versatility in the pass rush. You can plug me in anywhere and I’m going to get after the quarterback no problem. That’s the aspect of my game that I don’t think anyone else in this draft can match: that experience of rushing the passer from every angle and every technique. I hope people see that in me and give me that chance to prove what I can do, because that’s all I need: one chance.