RENTON – Tony Moeaki has always had good hops.
A vertical jump once measured at 36½ inches led to him earning the nickname “The Leaping Tongan’’ from fans during his days at the University of Iowa. It was a name that referenced both his uncommon athleticism and heritage: Both of his parents were born and raised in Tonga.
Reminded of that recently, Moeaki laughed and said he has had enough nicknames through the years he has had trouble keeping track.
Unfortunately, he can also say the same about injuries, which have too often provided sudden and unexpected hurdles in his football career.
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He had elbow, hand, leg and concussion issues at Iowa, a history that contributed to falling to the third round of the 2010 draft, where he was taken by Kansas City.
After a breakout rookie year in which he caught 47 passes for 556 yards, the injury bug again hit. A torn ACL cost him the 2011 season, a shoulder injury held him out of all but two games in 2013, and a torn hamstring in the exhibition season this year led to his release by the Buffalo Bills as training camp ended.
“Injuries are tough, moreso mentally than physically sometimes,’’ he said. “And you just have to keep yourself busy with working out and keep a positive mindset, because no one knows how long they are going to play this game.’’
That’s why he reflects on what he’s gone through in his career, and his first month with the Seahawks, and says, “I definitely appreciate it more.’’
After the hamstring injury, Moeaki returned to his home in Chicago and waited to get healthy and for the phone to ring.
A couple other teams showed interest, he said, but he, well, leapt at a chance to try out for the Seahawks when injuries hit their tight ends at the beginning of November (regular starter Zach Miller was placed on season-ending injured reserve shortly after Moeaki signed).
Convinced Moeaki was healthy, Seattle acted equally quickly to sign him. Moeaki marvels now at how he seemingly went overnight from having no idea about his future in football to being a member of the defending Super Bowl champions.
“I basically got cleared, and a week later I was (with) Seattle playing in a game,’’ he said. “That’s how fast it works in this league.’’
It didn’t take Moeaki, 6 feet 3, 252 pounds, much longer to begin making an impact with the Seahawks.
He was inactive for his first game, but then became an integral part of the offense the past three weeks. He caught a touchdown pass at Kansas City against his former team, holding the ball proudly in the locker room afterward. And he set up a field goal with a 63-yard catch and run Thursday against the 49ers, the Seahawks’ longest play of the season. He was on the field for 41 of 65 snaps in Seattle’s 19-3 win.
He has six catches for 98 yards and also has shown improved pass-blocking, according to Seattle coach Pete Carroll.
Carroll says the Seahawks “had a pretty good thought that he could be a help,’’ but added, “I guess we could say we are really pleasantly surprised’’ by how much and how quickly Moeaki has contributed.
Carroll, though, notes “we had seen him play before.’’
In fact, their connection goes back almost 10 years. Moeaki, who graduated from Warrenville South High in Wheaton, Ill., took a recruiting visit to USC as a senior. He did so in part because one of his cousins, Stanley Havili, was on the USC roster (Havili was recently signed to Seattle’s practice squad).
Moeaki also considered BYU, where two older brothers played football and where his younger sister played basketball (he is second-youngest of five children).
Moeaki, though, opted for Iowa, in large part so his parents could easily see him play. He said Iowa City is about a three-hour drive from his home, where his father, Sione, a former rugby player, was a longtime high-school tennis coach.
Moeaki said Carroll cracked a few jokes about USC’s failed attempt to get him out of high school when Moeaki worked out for the Seahawks.
“It’s funny how small the world is sometimes,’’ Moeaki says of finally playing for Carroll a decade later.
Also a little smaller, Moeaki says, is his vertical leap.
“I don’t think anyone’s jumping as high as they did at their Pro Day,’’ he said.
That he’s even again jumping on a football field, though, is all that matters.
“Just a couple bumps in the road,’’ he said of his past ailments. “Just keep moving forward. That’s how life is.”