Mata’afa gave up wrestling before his senior year of high school to focus on his first love — football. And despite coming off the bench in every WSU game this year, the redshirt freshman was an All-Pac-12 honorable-mention selection
As one of seven kids, Washington State defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa grew up wrestling with his sisters.
Mata’afa comes from an athletic family, with four sisters and two brothers. His eldest sister, Lia, is a former Hawaii high-school state wrestling champion who has since become a mixed-martial-arts fighter. Another sister, Gina-Bella, is a water polo player at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
WSU vs. Miami, Sun Bowl,
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Lalelei, Mata’afa’s younger sister, is a senior in high school who is a national NFL Punt, Pass and Kick champion. She has her sights set on becoming a four-time state champion in wrestling in the 220-pound weight class, and when she wrestles Hercules, she usually gives him a run for his money, said Sophie Mata’afa, their mother.
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“They would go at it, and Herc would ultimately win, but she gives him a rough time,” Sophie said. “They were constantly at it when they were young, too.”
The roughhousing among her brood is so common that Sophie says she has made it a point to keep the living room bare because her kids like to wrestle for fun when they’re home in Lahaina, Hawaii.
“In our living room, there’s a futon on the floor and no table and chairs any more because they rumble,” Sophie said.
For Hercules, that wrestling background has translated well onto the football field.
“I think wrestling is a good sport for football because it (trains) a lot of leverage and hip work,” said Mata’afa, who was the runner-up for the state championship two years in a row in the 215-pound weight class.
Despite his natural ability on the wrestling mat, Mata’afa gave up the sport before his senior year of high school to focus on his first love — football.
So far, that sacrifice appears to have paid off.
After redshirting the 2014 season to adjust to life in Pullman and putting on some weight — he has gained 37 pounds since arriving at WSU — Mata’afa drew praise from the coaches in fall camp this year and began the season as a role player on the defense’s third-down packages.
That role quickly expanded. Against Cal on Oct. 3, Mata’afa had a breakthrough game, sacking quarterback Jared Goff twice and finishing with 3.5 tackles for a loss, and that sort of productivity was difficult to ignore. By the end of the year, Mata’afa had worked himself into the Cougars’ defensive-line rotation, and he’ll be a big part of the game plan as WSU readies to play Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Saturday.
“He presents that explosiveness you need on the field, and little by little, I sprinkled him into our base packages and he’s been able to respond,” WSU defensive-line coach Joe Salave’a said.
Mata’afa played behind Destiny Vaeao at defensive tackle through the second half of the season, but he is being groomed to replace Darryl Paulo at defensive end. Mata’afa finished the regular season tied with Paulo for the team lead with six sacks and is tied with Kache Palacio for second on the team with 10 tackles for a loss.
Despite coming off the bench in every game this year, Mata’afa was an All-Pac-12 honorable-mention selection, and he recently was named a USA Today Freshman All-American. Last week, SI.com’s Andy Staples listed Mata’afa as a possible dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate for 2016.
What does Mata’afa make of all these accolades?
“It gives me confidence, and it’s something for my family to (hold) on,” the soft-spoken Mata’afa said. “It’s great to know that my name is being put out there.”
Mata’afa might have earned some national recognition in his debut season of college ball, but Salave’a said the talented pass rusher still is a work in progress. He arrived at WSU a little raw and is learning to study film with a critical eye and make corrections off what he does in practice.
“Hercules’ ceiling is a glass ceiling, it’s a high ceiling for what he can become,” Salave’a said. “Regardless of what he’s done, he can do better.”