Hercules Mata’afa‘s NFL experience has been anything but standard. Mata’afa, a defensive tackle, weighed in at 254 pounds at the NFL Combine, well shy of the 306-pound average for the position. He entered the draft as a projected mid-round pick, but fell out of the draft entirely due to these size concerns. The Minnesota Vikings took him in as a free agent, and tried to convert him to linebacker during OTAs. That didn’t pan out, but they liked what he offered as a quick-twitch, unorthodox nose tackle before he tore his ACL, ending his rookie season.
Mata’afa played for half of the 2019 season in that quick-twitch role, but the Vikings benched him after Week 7. Mata’afa continued to pack on weight and gear up for his third season. That leads us to the 2020 season, the wildest for Mata’afa by far.
On Oct. 13, 2020, Mata’afa got fired. In the NFL, that’s not as dramatic as in other professions. Players bounce on and off of rosters fairly frequently. But Mata’afa added some intrigue when he tweeted out a clown emoji in the wake of this news.
Mata’afa quickly deleted that tweet and the Vikings signed him to the practice squad on Oct. 15. On its own, an odd social media snafu that’s hardly a story worth telling. But people didn’t forget Mata’afa’s reaction to that news, and the clown emoji stuck. So, as any young PR advisor would recommend, Mata’afa leaned in.
Meanwhile, the Vikings were exploring their options for the upcoming trade deadline. They have so many edge rushers that they’ve been forced to move some inside over the years. Jalyn Holmes and Ifeadi Odenigbo, their current starters, both tried (unsuccessfully) to move to 3-technique defensive tackle in previous years. That was a better chance for them to make an impact, instead of going stale in the shadows of Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. But with Griffen touring the NFC and Hunter recovering from neck surgery, some jobs have opened up. The Ravens called the Vikings about Yannick Ngakoue and struck a deal.
Suddenly, the competition was wide open.
For the next three weeks, Mata’afa joined this party. He hadn’t played much edge rusher, staying mostly inside. He had tried linebacker for a few OTAs his rookie year but never as a hand-in-the-dirt edge rusher. The Vikings took a liking to this and activated him for their Week 8 game in Green Bay. He wasn’t fully promoted to the roster, but instead played as one of their COVID-19 exempt activations for the game. He played outside for 26 of his 32 snaps on defense. Those snaps went well, resulting in four pressures, including this heroic one:
The Vikings promoted Mata’afa to the proper active roster on Nov. 6, just 24 days after his initial release and the clown emoji debacle. After a position switch, a social media hurricane, a firing and a re-hiring, Mata’afa was on the Vikings once again. And this time, he was in direct competition for a starting role. On Sunday’s game against the Lions, Mata’afa rotated with Holmes and Odenigbo, taking 27 defensive snaps. On those, he logged three more pressures and a split sack with Shamar Stephen.
Social media mishaps are a lot more fun when the team is winning. What was once a contentious symbol of an expiring career has become a rallying cry.
Mata’afa is full of contradictions. A defensive tackle the size of a linebacker. The savior of a game he wasn’t even rostered for. And now, an insult to a team that released him is a unifying force. Whether Mata’afa ever ascends to a regular starting role or stays in the rotational edge ranks, his journey to get here is something to behold.