He routinely thwarts offensive gameplans and is downright belligerent toward opposing blockers, but when faced with a camcorder, it seems Stephen Paea gets a little gun-shy. Witness the YouTube video of Oregon State's defensive tackle bench-pressing 44 repetitions of 225 pounds, and watch as he quietly refuses a teammate's call for him to flex.
The clip shows Paea grinning, exhaling and shaking his head, barely acknowledging the display of near-inhuman strength. If delivered at the NFL combine, the 44 reps would have fallen one shy of the record.
Not bad for someone who was just messing around.
"What people don't realize when they see that clip," said Beavers defensive end Gabe Miller, "is that it was filmed right after a full chest workout. It's crazy. There's no weight that's too heavy for him. The trainers joke with him and say that he has to ease up; he's intimidating the younger guys."
Paea has also intimidated his fair share of offensive coordinators and quarterbacks, pushing, grinding and bull-rushing his way to 43 tackles (8.5 for loss), three sacks and four forced fumbles while facing regular double-teams in 2009. That consistent dominance earned Paea the Morris Trophy as the Pac-10's top defensive lineman.
He'll need to play like it on Saturday, when Oregon State takes on No. 3 Boise State on the Broncos' blue turf. The Beavers have struggled defensively this season, allowing 453 yards of total offense in each of their first two games, a loss to TCU and a win over Louisville. Boise's offense may provide the stiffest test yet -- but Paea will be a stiff test for Boise, too.
"If you're not drive-blocking him he'll knock you off your feet," said Beavers defensive coordinator Mark Banker. "His reaction and ability to get off the ball is incredible. He is absolutely the most explosive guy I've ever seen."
That explosiveness developed on the fields and beaches of Tonga, the South Pacific archipelago nation where Paea grew up as a rugby prodigy.
"You can't always get everything you want, but life is good there," Paea said of his home country. "Everyone works, whether it's fishing, or working at a plantation, or whatever. But no one really cares about money. It's just relaxed and peaceful."
Paea's parents had lived in America when they were young, and they dreamed of bringing their children to the States. So Paea moved to the U.S. at 16, and he played organized football for the first time as a senior at Timpview (Provo, Utah) High.
"It took me a long time to get used to the helmet," Paea said. "I didn't like having such a small hole to look through. That's what I missed about rugby -- not wearing a helmet."
Though it took Paea time to embrace the helmet and pads, he made other transitions more easily. He took six months to become fluent in English. He changed his tackling motion from the shoulder-led rugby form to the head-first motion taught by football coaches. His transformation into an American-style football player proved quick and complete, so much so that Paea began to forget the fundamentals of his childhood sport.
"After I had been playing football for a while, I played some rugby just for fun, and I forgot to lead with my shoulder," he said. "I went head-up into a guy and took him, put my head into his ear. He was bleeding all over the place, and they had to bring a stretcher. It was bad."
Not that football players were immune to Paea-inflicted pain.
He played well in his lone season of high school football, but didn't receive a single Division I scholarship offer -- not even from BYU, located two miles from Paea's school. As a 235-pound defensive tackle, he lacked the size to attract major recruiting attention.
He spent a year at Snow Junior College. There, he gained weight -- "But it was bad weight, fat," he said -- and though he played only six snaps per game, Paea showed enough potential to earn a scholarship offer from Oregon State.
"All you had to do was look at the tape," Banker said of the decision to offer Paea despite his limited playing time. "In X amount of reps you saw him getting off the ball and rejecting people backward, and you just said, 'Oh, wow,' every single time."
With access to the weightlifting facilities and nutritional guidance available at OSU, Paea transformed his body, adding quickness without losing strength, and he played well enough to earn Pac-10 honorable mention honors as a sophomore.
Paea may not earn as many headlines as star teammates Jacquizz and James Rodgers, but now at 6-foot-1 and 306 pounds, he draws plenty of attention from opposing coaches.
"He's a complete nightmare," said TCU co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente, whose team beat OSU 30-21 in the season opener. "He's in the backfield half the time. If he's not directly making the play, he's pushing the guard into the tailback or into the quarterback or finding some other way to completely mess everything up."
The Horned Frogs built their offensive game plan to minimize Paea's impact, running bubble screens and speed option runs in order to quickly get the ball outside the tackles and make Paea run sideline to sideline. He still managed to sack TCU quarterback Andy Dalton and proved disruptive against both the run and the pass.
"I don't know much about the NFL or how guys transition there," said Fuente. "But he's as good of a college defensive player as I've seen."
Pro scouts seem to think he'll transition just fine.
"He and (North Carolina's) Marvin Austin are considered the top two defensive tackle prospects among seniors," NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said. "He's stout at the point with surprisingly nimble feet. He would be considered as a potential top 15 pick, pending declarations from juniors."
Paea considered entering his name into last year's draft, but decided to return for his senior season.
"I wanted to get better, and I wanted to earn my degree, and I wanted to be a college player for another year," he said.
But when he does enter the NFL, he'll take time to enjoy another perk of his island roots.
"It's exciting, definitely, to get there when I'm ready for it," Paea said. "Because if I can get to the NFL, and get a six- or seven-figure contract, and then someday I get to take that money back to Tonga? Man, back home, I'll be a rich man."