Former Ducks Captain And New Bears Starter Weighs In
Pac-10 Professional Spotlight: Matt Toeaina
By Brian Anthony Price
If you want to bench press 450 pounds, you'll need a stack of 45-pound plates and a nice helping of courage. Or you could just ask Matt Toeaina for a little help.
Toeaina, former Oregon Duck and current Chicago Bears defensive lineman, cemented his name and reputation in the Oregon record books when he benched 455 pounds in college. That's nearly a quarter ton for those keeping score.
"I just took the weight off the rack and hoped I was ready," Toeaina recalled.
It's this kind of modesty, coupled with a tremendous work ethic that makes Toeaina's off-the-field persona most striking. It's also allowed him to rise up from late-round draft pick to starting defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears.
"How could I forget one of American Samoa's all-time greatest students?" said Toeaina's high school principal and defensive coordinator, Simon Mageo. "He was never late to anything. Never in trouble for anything and worked harder than anybody both on and off the field."
Toeaina was born in San Francisco, but relocated with his family to Pago Pago, American Samoa (an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the South Pacific Ocean), and attended Samoana High School. He thrived on the field — he was league MVP as a senior — and was also a member of the National Honor Society.
"Graduating with honors is no easy feat," Mageo said. "I told Matt that his football ability alone was enough to take him where he wanted to go, but being successful on and off the field was something he truly wanted and he achieved it."
Toeaina's unique combination of abilities caught Oregon's attention. In turn, Toeaina was enticed by Oregon's proven success.
"When I was getting recruited at the time, the Ducks were No. 2 in the country," Toeaina said. "It was the Joey Harrington and Fiesta Bowl year and I just wanted to be part of it."
Adjusting to college life can be hard enough, but for Toeaina it included a change in position from fullback to defensive lineman. It also meant adding 40 extra pounds to handle the wear and tear that comes from being in the trenches.
"I got great coaching," Toeaina said of his new position coach, Steve Greatwood. "Coach Greatwood taught me the questions I had to be asking myself during any defensive play: Is my hand placement correct? Are my steps correct? Is my helmet where it should be? Am I doing what I need to do to control the gaps? The trenches look like a massive collision but there's a lot going on and I learned it all involves strategy and skill."
Toeaina's skill set continued to expand and this included growing into a vocal leader, a new role for the American Samoan. When he became a senior captain at Oregon, he patterned his new role after his father, who was a pastor in Samoa.
"When I was a captain for the Ducks, I wanted to inspire my teammates with my voice the way my father inspired his congregation," Toeaina said. "I thought of him motivating and leading people when I realized I wanted to do the same for other players on the team."
As an All Pac-10 honorable mention his senior year, Toeaina left Oregon to enter the 2007 NFL draft. He was picked late in the 6th round (pick No. 187 overall) by the Cincinnati Bengals, but did not make the final roster that season and spent the first 14 games of his career on the practice squad. Toeaina stayed positive.
"I've always known I was capable of being in the NFL, but I just had to hang in there and continue to work," he said.
Opportunity knocked when the Bears, after losing several defensive linemen to season-ending injuries, signed Toeaina to a three-year deal on December 12, 2007. One of his new teammates, tight end Brandon Manumalena, was a familiar face, having played at the University of Arizona. Together on the Bears, the pair became close friends through their Pac-10 ties, faith in God, and of course, sharing Polynesian roots.
"We definitely have a special connection. It didn't take a big introduction for us to get to know each other," Toeaina said. "I love everybody on the team, but being able to hug another Samoan made me feel at home and comfortable right away."
Toeaina's first year in the Windy City was spent mainly on the bench, but as usual, his work ethic stood out.
"I didn't get to play too much last season, but that never slowed me down," he said. "It motivated me to work even harder, because when the opportunity arrived I wanted to be ready."
That opportunity has come. Toeaina made his second consecutive start against the Giants on October 3 and continues to receive high praise from the Bears coaching staff.
"Now I'm in a position where I'm on the field and playing an important role for our defense." he said. "I want to keep it that way."
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