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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Matangi Tonga named San Mateo Daily Journal Male Athlete of the Year

BYU football recruit Matangi Tonga has been named Daily Journal male athlete of the year. Tonga will join older brother Manase Tonga in Provo this fall.

Printed from THE DAILY JOURNAL, dtd. 07/14/2006

Tonga dominated the opposition regardless of sport
By Emanuel Lee, Daily Journal Staff

Every great athlete has a pregame routine.

Some of them crack jokes and laugh endlessly. Others get emotional by yelling and gyrating to their favorite song. So what does recent Aragon High graduate Matangi Tonga, the 2005-06 Daily Journal’s male athlete of the year, do before football games?

He ... sleeps.

There’s actually a lot more to his routine, but the incoming Brigham Young University Tonga says he’s perfected the art of the 15-minute pregame nap.

“The locker room is noisy, but I find a way to get to sleep,” he said. “It freshens me up, takes my mind off the game and allows me to relax. I actually started doing that my sophomore year, where I would sleep on the ground and use my shoulder pads as a pillow. Everyone thought I was crazy at first, telling me that I had to get pumped up. But there’s plenty of time to do that on the field. The next thing you know, you had other guys copying me.”

Talk about killing the competition in your sleep. Tonga dreamed of smacking the opposition, then he actually went out and did it. One of the finest athletes to come out of San Mateo County in recent memory, the burly 6-foot-2, 260-pound Tonga was a three-sport star. While Tonga was lauded for his exploits on the gridiron — and deservedly so — he was a dominant force on the hardwood and in track and field. He averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds per game to make first team all-Peninsula Athletic League, and followed that up by winning his first shot put title with a mark of 47 feet, 11 inches in May at the PAL Track and Field championships.

As a defensive end and fullback on Aragon’s football team, Tonga rushed for 837 yards and scored 20 touchdowns to go along with his usually stellar play on defense — 11 sacks and 19 tackles for losses despite constant double-teams. Tonga’s dominating play on both sides of the ball earned him a football scholarship to BYU. Though he ended up being one of the most sought-after recruits in the Bay Area, Tonga, 18, entered Aragon with no hints that he would become such a force on the gridiron. After a breakout freshman campaign on the frosh-soph team — “I dominated because I was simply bigger than everyone else,” he said — one of Tonga’s coaches pulled him aside and told him, “You’re going to be something special.” Still, Tonga didn’t believe him.

“You never know the truth until you actually play varsity and see where you really stand,” he said. “Coming into high school I thought basketball would be my main sport. I was MVP all three years at Bayside (Middle School’s hoops team), and started playing basketball in grade school. I didn’t start playing organized football until my freshman year because I was always too big to play Pop Warner.”

However, that didn’t prevent Tonga from playing the sport at the neighborhood park or down the street. Tonga developed his no-holds barred attitude by playing against his older brother, Manase, and his older friends. Sometimes he would take a pounding, but like clockwork, he would always get back up. He was taught by his parents, mom Seneti and dad Latiume, to never show fear, to contain his emotions, get good grades and work hard. Those life lessons carried him to heights few prep athletes on the Peninsula have ever reached.

“As an athlete and human being, I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Aragon football coach Steve Sell said. “I’ve been asked many times to talk about the plays of his that stand out, and each time, I end up going for 10-minutes. There were so many times when he just did something freakish. He loved every part of the game. He’s smart, curious and keeps practices loose and lively. On top of all that, he’s the type of person that carries the Jerry Rice factor, when the best player on the team is your hardest worker. That makes a coach’s job a lot easier. We’re not going to see the likes of him again.”

No one put the fear in the heart of the opposition the way Tonga did. How many times did you see Tonga burst

through the line of scrimmage before lowering his head and carrying a hapless defender — or three — for the ride of their lives? To the opposition, Tonga must have resembled a Mack Truck, an immovable object approaching with such force and fury that it would be better just to get out of the damn way. On the hardwood, Tonga showed nimble feet and great agility given his size and weight.

At times, he was a dominant low post threat, a power forward and center who often took on taller players yet routinely held his own. In track and field, Tonga was a raw but powerful talent in the shot put and discus. While track and field wasn’t his favorite sport, Tonga improved each season by practicing with a focus and determination that belies his soft-spoken ways. Tonga always got a good laugh upon seeing fellow shot put competitors yell after each throw.

“I keep all the yelling inside of me,” he said. “I never understood what the point of that was. It looks so funny. I guess all that shouting is cool if you can throw it 50-feet, but when you throw 40, you look stupid. I kept it in and I usually threw it far.”

While Tonga achieved his dream of earning a football scholarship, he was particularly proud of the fact that he was able to play three sports for four years, earning him an Aragon blanket.

“I did track and field so I could get that blanket, just like my brother did,” he said. “It’s a special honor, because it’s hard to do well in three varsity sports. I wanted to be an all-around athlete that could adapt to different type of situations. If you’re able to excel in three sports all four years, I think you’re a special athlete.”

Tonga said his grandpa, also named Manase, played on Tonga’s rugby national team. Tonga’s dad, Latiume, played on competitive rugby teams, too. Tonga is already in Provo, Utah, training with the BYU football team. He expects to receive playing time at defensive end, but first he’ll have to get adjusted to the star-studded Division I level.

“I’m one of the smallest defensive line guys on the team,” he said. “I know I’ll have to bulk up and get bigger and stronger. Eddie (Williams, Tonga’s former teammate at Aragon who is now playing at Idaho) told me to get ready to work. I’m prepared for the challenge.”

Tonga is a deeply religious person, crediting his Mormon faith for helping him mature and develop a strong and positive attitude. He graduated with four years of seminary at the Church of Latter Day Saints in San Mateo, achieving a 90-plus percent attendance rate while going to church six times a week. Cordial and friendly off the field, Tonga turns into a beast on it. On gameday, Tonga drinks a gallon of water and eats six bananas to avoid cramps. At lunch, he would hang out with his girlfriend, Karyn Stiles, then get a goodluck kiss. Then he goes into game mode.

“My dad always told me to talk with my pads, not my mouth,” Tonga said. “I’ll have some running backs come up to me and talk trash, then I’ll shut them up during the game. It’s the best feeling in the world. I always carried an attitude that no one could stop me.”

More times than not, no one did.

Emanuel Lee can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 109. What do you think of this story? Send a letter to the editor:

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