Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stephen Paea can thank No. 1 ‘fam’ for dream come true with Bears

BY ADAM L. JAHNS November 3, 2012 12:04AM

Stephen Paea might have been a grocer in Tonga. Instead, his family’s sacrifices and support have allowed him to become the Bears’ starting nose tackle. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

Stephen Paea’s mother, Ana, joyfully recalls one of her favorite memories of her son, the Bears’ starting nose tackle.

‘‘When they were 9 to 10 months old, I would give them bottles of milk,’’ Ana said. ‘‘His [twin] brother would only drink 3 or 4 ounces and start dozing off. Stephen would chug his eight ounces, sit up and throw it like a ball.
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‘‘Then he would look at William sleeping with his bottle and would just pull the bottle from William, lay down and start drinking. William would either fall asleep or get up and cry. Stephen would go on eating and never give it back.

‘‘He was such a big baby.’’

It’s a fond memory before what would become a roller-coaster ride for her family, Ana said.

Paea’s rise to being a key cog in the NFL’s best defense is a unique immigrant success story. He has gone from the island nation of Tonga to a high school in Kansas to Snow College in Utah to Oregon State and finally to the Bears.

Through it all, there has been his unrelenting desire to succeed for his family, who sacrificed and supported him immensely along his own self-described roller-coaster ride to the NFL.

‘‘[My success] wasn’t so much for myself, but for my family,’’ Paea said. ‘‘I’m grateful for everything.’’

The family man

Ana said her family lived comfortably in Tonga, and Stephen could have been a grocer like others, but she wanted a better life for her children. So they went after the American Dream when Paea was a teenager.

‘‘I tell my sons to never forget that we come from a very poor family and that compared to people in America, we are very poor,’’ she said. ‘‘We thank God every day for the blessings that we have.’’

Their path included a four-day bus ride to Kansas from California through the snow. Ana took out loans and worked as a caregiver in California while her sons went to high school in Kansas and Utah and Paea’s father, Ben, handled an importing business in Samoa.

The very close family was literally far apart.

‘‘They had to learn a lot in hard ways,’’ Ana said.

Football, though, brought them together. Where Paea went, his family followed him or financed him. Earnings are always shared among family members.

After failing to attract serious interest from Division I schools, Paea went to Snow College. Despite limited playing time, he caught Oregon State’s interest; it became the only school to offer him a scholarship. He earned an associate’s degree in just one year at Snow, fulfilling a family promise, and moved on to Oregon State, where he became a two-time conference defensive lineman of the year and a legitimate NFL prospect.

Injuries, including tearing his lateral meniscus in his knee at the 2011 Senior Bowl, never slowed him.

Now it’s Paea, whom the Bears took with the 53rd pick in 2011, who’s supporting his family.

‘‘It’s the same thing as football, where I’m part of 11 guys on the defense,’’ said Paea, who has a daughter, Leimana, with his wife and college sweetheart, Susannah. ‘‘I’ve got to do my job. Everybody’s got to do their job. For me to be a part of the family, I do my job, which is supplying for my family, and they do the job of supporting me. It plays both ways. I have nothing to complain about. I love my family to death.”

The rising player

Paea’s goal is to have his entire family present for the Bears’ ‘‘Monday Night Football’’ matchup in San Francisco on Nov. 19.

‘‘My dad hasn’t watched any of my NFL games, and neither has my sister [Ramona],’’ Paea said.

His mother and his three brothers live in California, while his father and sister still work in Samoa. Paea and his mother are working to secure a green card for his father and a working visa for Ramona with Paea’s sponsorship.

When they get here, what they’ll see is a player who fills a critical role for the Bears. Paea has started the last six games and has 10 tackles, two tackles-for-loss and a sack.

‘‘I look at [nose tackle] as a pretty glorious position,’’ Bears defensive line coach Mike Phair said. ‘‘He’s doing a good job with it. He’s a key guy in our front doing the dirty work.’’

Phair said Paea’s quickness stands out. Defensive end Corey Wootton praised his strength and his ability to stay low, which the Bears say isn’t best exemplified by the 49 reps of 225 pounds he benched at the NFL Combine.

‘‘A lot of people don’t play as strong as they are,’’ Wootton said. ‘‘He plays as strong as he is.’’

“The biggest thing,’’ added defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, ‘‘is his humility. He would never boast about himself.’’

To be humble is a family lesson and trait, Paea said.

Of course it is.

‘‘I can’t explain it,’’ Ana said. ‘‘Would you believe it if you came here not even 10 years ago and you see your son playing in the NFL? It’s still a very emotional subject.’’

But a good one.

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