OREM — He's not coming from nowhere.
This time last year, Manase Tonga was out of shape, unsure if he'd play his senior year of college at BYU, and very confused as to whether he'd ever reach his dream of playing in the NFL.
But today, he's finished a giant leap to get back on track — and his dream lives on.
At 6-foot and 248 pounds, Tonga is a devastating blocker with powerful drive in his lower body. As a lead blocker in Robert Anae's offense, he was fearless in tracking down and putting a bead on linemen, linebackers, safeties and corners for Harvey Unga. His pass protection is something Anae and position coach Lance Reynolds use as an example, a how-to tape.
Tonga is currently working out daily in Orem with a private trainer, Dave Stroshine, in preparation for the NFL Combine at the end of the month. His draft stock is high, some projecting him as the first fullback taken, according to Stroshine, who also trains former Cougars Fahu Tahi (Minnesota Vikings) and Fui Vakapuna (Cincinnati Bengals).
Vakapuna had no NFL traction at all when he left BYU two years ago. The former East High star had to come from nowhere to get the NFL to notice him.
Stroshine says that isn't the case with Tonga.
"Last year, Fui had a shoulder injury. Nobody knew anything about him," said Stroshine. "But Manase is already on people's big board."
Tonga left BYU and football for 16 months while he battled academic issues.
Add to that a two-year mission to San Pedro, Honduras, before enrolling at BYU, and he's had some lengthy interruptions since high school football days. Tonga didn't find out he could play his senior year until mid-July before two-a-days began. That he made it and succeeded on an 11-win bowl team helped launch him to the spot he finds himself in today.
The day he walked into BYU's team meeting last August, Tonga's 16-month hiatus turned into gold.
"I felt it as soon as I walked in the room," he said. "I didn't know what my role would be, but I was a veteran. To see how everybody welcomed me, reacted, was something else. Everyone in our position meeting had a little lighter step and we started clicking on the field the first day."
Then came an upset win over Oklahoma, something Tonga will never forget.
"Oh, man, it was a great feeling. First, I wanted to finish what I started," he said.
"Second, I felt if I would have stayed away and not come back, there would have been a lot of regret and wondering 'What if? ' "
His college career ended in Las Vegas with a bowl win over Oregon State. He finished up with a class that has now posted more wins than any other in BYU history.
"It solidified our season and proved the win over Oklahoma wasn't a fluke," he said.
The thing with Tonga, unlike Tahi and Vakapuna — who made NFL rosters as halfbacks switched to fullbacks — he has always been a fullback and has trained to play that position.
"Nobody's told me I'm better than they are," Tonga said, "but from what I hear, I'm rating higher coming out because I've played that position all the time."
Stroshine's goal is to get Tonga to post his best numbers at the combine despite finishing the season with a sprained shoulder and knee. In early January, he rehabbed those issues. The target is for Tonga to run a sub-4.8 time in the 40-yard dash, do about 20 reps of the 225-pound bench press and post some numbers in the vertical jump and cone sprints.
"Dave is a miracle worker," said Tonga. "He's working miracles again. When I found out I could play my senior year, I came to him to get in shape, working out with Fui, Fahu and Harvey Unga. All I had was two weeks. After 16 months of doing nothing, he whipped me into some kind of shape."
A combination of work on weights, bands and Bungee cords, Tonga is making workouts his full-time job while his wife, Lolohea, is home with 18-month-old Semesi and 4-month-old Laila.32 comments on this story
"Now he's transforming my body. I feel stronger than I ever felt, even before my high school days. I'm feeling more mobile and faster. It's the training Dave's had, and to spend time individually every day, working on mechanics and techniques has helped. He knows how the body works. He has the weirdest workouts, but they are effective."
Tonga knows the combine will be a cattle-prod session, and his concentration will be tested.
But from where he was a year ago, just to be invited is a blessing he counts every day.