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Friday, August 27, 2010

Oregon State's Stephen Paea: could anybody write a better script? A few years ago, he couldn't speak English

You had to be there, standing alongside me while I did my first interview with defensive tackle Stephen Paea after he arrived on campus, to appreciate the scene this morning in the Valley Center when Paea - sitting in a chair barefoot - talked for more than 30 minutes with .. .totally comfortable, the entire time.

Paea, quite simply, is one of the most amazing stories in college football when you consider that the rugby player from Tonga didn't start playing the game until his senior year of high school in Utah. ... and he didn't start learning English (he spoke Tongan) until his senior year.

 OSU coach Mike Riley just shakes his head at the distance Paea has traveled, in a literal sense because Corvallis, OR is thousands of miles from Vav'u in the Tongan Islands and in the sense the 6-foot-1, 311-pound Paea is light years removed from the kid at Timpview HS who had to be talked into trying this strange game of American football.

 You can't script this stuff any better.

  Three years after his arrival at Oregon State, where he found a comfort zone with the team's large Polynesian contingent, Paea has developed into one of the nation's top defensive linemen, he is a potential top 10 NFL draft pick, and he's on every pre-season watch list, including the Lombardi Award that goes to the nation's top down lineman on either side of the ball.

  I grabbed Paea after his long phone interview and asked him if he ever thinks about his lightning-quick football development. "Yeah, yeah, it is amazing,'' he conceded. "But I always say I've been blessed that way.''

  Might all of this pre-season love and the fact people are telling him he's going to be a rich man after signing his NFL contract (Patriots and Giants' scouts have been noticeable at OSU practices) go to his head?

  "Not really,'' said Paea. "I don't think it's going to make a difference. I've just got to stay hungry.''

  I told him he's turning into one of the best quotes on the team, in direct contrast to the huge, shy athlete I encountered during his first spring at OSU. An athlete who strained to understand questions and wasn't quite sure of his answers coming out right.

  Riley said that during the 50-yard-line dinner for boosters at Reser a few days ago, Paea got up to speak as one of the team captains, "and did fantastic.''

  Again, what a transformation from his senior year of high school when he only spoke Tongan and only started picking up bits and pieces of English because his HS teammates would constantly talk to him.

  "I remember when I first got here I didn't know what airport I was supposed to be at and I was trying to ask the security guard for a quarter so I could call my mom,'' he said. "I rememer all I had to do was give him the number and say, 'call.' ... I didn't know any other words. I had heard the word 'call' in movies and stuff.''

  Now you can call him perhaps the best down lineman in all of college football.

  Show me a better script.

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