EAGAN, Minn. – Hercules Mata’afa muscled his way against Will Clapp, bull-dozed the Saints center backward and, while maintaining control over Clapp, managed to pull Teddy Bridgewater down with his left hand.
The former Vikings QB went to the turf, and Mata’afa nonchalantly walked away from his first NFL sack.
“He just goes about his business,” Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr said of Mata’afa.
After missing the entirety of his rookie campaign with a torn ACL and this year being moved from linebacker to defensive tackle, Mata’afa has gained strength and garnered attention throughout the Vikings spring programming and training camp.
Despite being smaller-statured for a defensive tackle, he uses his leverage and athleticism to beat his opponents with quick-twitch explosiveness.
And, oh yeah – he doesn’t wear gloves.
Rather, Mata’afa hits the field bare-handed for practices and games alike.
That’s pretty rare, right?
“Absolutely,” Stephen Weatherly responds with a laugh.
“It’s very unusual,” adds Danielle Hunter.
Veteran nose tackle Linval Joseph shakes his head incredulously, pointing out the way he tapes fingers together over black gloves and adds extra protection to his thumbs to prevent them from catching on shoulder pads or getting bent back.
Weatherly, entering his fourth season at defensive end for the Vikings, said the idea of leaving his hands unprotected makes him “paranoid.”
“I’ve ripped gloves, and it’s like, if I wasn’t wearing gloves, that would definitely be my hands ripped open in the palm and stuff,” Weatherly said. “Any defensive lineman who plays without gloves, or finger tape or wrist tape – nope. That’s a different breed right there.”
Several of his defensive teammates attributed that toughness to Mata’afa’s Samoan heritage, speaking admirably of the grit with which he plays.
“Most defensive linemen, they play with gloves because they’ve got to protect their fingers. But he’s Samoan, so I guess that shows how tough he is,” Hunter said. “He’s a tough kid. That doesn’t faze him, in my opinion.”
Barr, who also spends time during practice with the defensive line group, weighed in.
“Honestly, every time I play with a [Polynesian], they don’t wear gloves. That’s just how they do it. They’re just built differently,” Barr said. “I have to have [gloves] on. He’s naturally, I guess, just strong. He doesn’t need that extra protection. He’s built protected, you know? He was just born that way.
“It’s just his model, and I kind of like it. You don’t see it very often,” Barr added.
When Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson saw Mata’afa’s exposed hands start to get dinged up, he decided to “ask him point-blank” about the apparel decision.
Turns out, Patterson said, it’s more of a personal preference than anything. And Mata’afa confirmed.
“When it’s hot, I don’t really like my hands getting all sweaty. It’s kind of one of my pet peeves, so I just take them off so I can feel things better,” Mata’afa explained. “When it starts getting colder, I have to wear them because when it’s cold and you hit your fingers, it’s not a good feeling.
“I just feel things better, can feel the people on me,” he added. “It just works for me, I guess.”
There’s no denying the scrappy quality about Mata’afa, however, that enables him to opt for a uniform look that most wouldn’t risk.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Mata’afa played multiple positions on the island of Maui. He said in June that “it’s all backyard football out there” and referenced playing pick-up games in the park for hours at a time.
“I see him as a guy that just goes out there, and he doesn’t care what it is,” Hunter said. “It could be raining, it could be cold, whatever it is, he’ll go out there, and he’ll try to do whatever he can to play football.”
Linebacker Eric Kendricks defined Mata’afa as “real strong” and said the young defender is “out there to prove something” and make an impression.
“That’s where his motor comes from. He enjoys the physicality of the game and the combativeness of the game,” Patterson said. “[His mentality is that it] doesn’t matter how big or how small you are. You’re going to go compete.”
View images from the Vikings training camp practice on August 13 at TCO Performance Center.
Adds Joseph: “He’s an old-school football player. He loves to be physical.”
Explosive. Relentless motor. High energy, high effort. Unassuming. Focused.
The above are all additional words used to describe Mata’afa by his teammates.
Hunter has been impressed by not only his on-field talents but also Mata’afa’s commitment to the classroom and the way he welcomes coaching and critiques. And it’s making a difference.
“Coach [Patterson] has been telling him, ‘Stay downhill,’ and he tries to implement that into his rush. He did that during the game, and he ended up getting a sack,” Hunter said. “He’s focusing on just keeping his rush angle tight and using his hands and his eyes. That stuff comes over time, and you can see that he’s implementing that stuff into his game. He’s growing. He’s come a long way.”
As Mata’afa looks to add more plays to his resume throughout the preseason, he can rest assured that his approach to the game has already earned the respect of his teammates.
“Just going out there and playing full speed with a reckless abandonment,” Weatherly said, “no matter who’s in front of you or what the coach called, just knowing that you’ve got to put your hand down in the ground and try to beat the guy in front of you on that particular snap.
“It all builds into the mindset,” Weatherly added, “The way he plays … and how he doesn’t wear gloves.”