Provo » When running back Manase Tonga walked onto BYU's practice field for the first time in more than 18 months in mid-August, coach Bronco Mendenhall said a jolt of energy, enthusiasm and confidence was injected into the team.
After several players applauded Tonga's entrance, the coach called it one of the more remarkable things he had seen during a practice in all his years of coaching.
Five games into the season, BYU's comeback kid is still inspiring his teammates, and making a big contribution to the Cougars' offense. Although he is mostly used as a blocker for Harvey Unga, Tonga has also caught nine passes for 74 yards and a touchdown and rushed 18 times for 54 yards and a score in five games.
"We are a totally different football team with No. 11 on the field," said quarterback Max Hall. "I don't think there is any question about that. Manase brings an energy, an excitement and a physical [presence] to our offense....I talked to him [Tuesday] morning. I said, 'Manase, man, I can't tell you how happy I am that you did what you did to get back on this football team because we are a better football team with you on it.' "
Having been dismissed from BYU in May of 2008, Tonga became a father a month later, as he and his wife, Lolohea, welcomed a son, Semisi, into their family. Working full time and trying to raise a family, Tonga began the long road back to re-admission by enrolling at nearby Utah Valley University.
After a series of delays and setbacks, he completed his UVU coursework and was re-admitted into BYU midway through fall camp. Three weeks ago, Lolohea gave birth to a daugher, Leila.
"It was a long, hard road back," said Tonga. "There was a lot of adversity. A lot of things happened to get in the way. Obviously, with the birth of my son that kind of pushed me even harder and put things in perspective.
"Raising a family, going to school, having to work and a million other things that were on my plate were almost overwhelming. I just chipped away at them, one bite at a time. I couldn't have done it without the support of my family, and the coaches."
Tonga said there were several times when he thought about bagging the idea of returning for his senior season, but each time his support system helped him get through the rough stretches.
"I never said, 'I can't do it,'" he said. "But there were a few times where I was getting to that point, where it was just overwhelming. It was at those times where my wife would give me a little pep talk, or a kick in the butt.
"Or, I would talk to the coaches, and they would sit me down and make sure I was relaxed, and just [remind me] about the opportunties that would come if I would stick with it.
"Because of that, I am where I am at today."
Which is to say, a leader and huge contributor on the No. 18-ranked team in the country.
And running backs coach Lance Reynolds says this season might not be the end of Tonga's football career.
"I don't think there's any question [that Tonga will get at least an invite to an NFL training camp," Reynolds said. "Great hands, great instincts, nice feel, good feet. ... He adds another dimension when he is on the field. Everybody around him just plays better, when he is out there."
Tonga said Monday that it has all been worth it, and even fatherhood has been a little better the second time around.
"When I had my first child, it was more of a wakeup call for me," he said. "I had to get my priorities straight, I had a family to feed. The second [child], it was a lot more fun, because I kind of know what to expect with this one.
"Now that I am back at BYU, getting my education, playing football, that is ample motivation for me to take care of business and do what I need to do."
As for the NFL, Tonga said it is something he dreamed about growing up, but has put out of his mind the last few years while battling to get back to college football eligibility.
"I figure I worked hard enough to get back, I might as well enjoy it," he said. "So I really haven't had a chance to even consider what the [pro] coaches say, or what the prospects are, or what the mock drafts are saying. I am just having fun doing this right now."
» Senior running back has 18 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown in five games
» Has caught nine passes for 74 yards and one TD
» Missed 2008 season due to academic difficulties
» Had 88 carries for 305 yards and eight TDs in 2007
» Had 44 carries for 197 yards and four TDs in 2006
» Averaged 4.7 yards per carry in 2005