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BOURBONNAIS – The Paea household had emptied. Gone were the grandmas, aunts and other family members who flew in to help Stephen and Susannah after one child became four after the arrivals of their triplets in July 2013.
Stephen Paea, the Bears’ starting nose tackle, had work to do. Dreams of a breakout season in 2013 turned into another year marred by a nagging injury – this time a lingering turf toe. It was the winter. He was in the middle of months of rigorous training for the 2014 season.
Susannah, Paea’s college sweetheart, had work to do, too. During the Bears’ 2013 season and for the first six months of their triplets, her house was a bustling one full of helping hands. Triplets meant triple the diapers, bottles and 1 a.m. feedings – just everything. And now all those duties fell on her thoroughly exhausted shoulders.
“I can’t say it’s been easy,” Susannah said.
But her football-playing husband tried to make it that way. Stephen started getting up at 5:30 a.m. and “took a sleeping baby from my arms,” Susannah said. And then he took the other babies, fed them, changed them and played with them all before putting them down for their morning naps. Susannah slept, getting an extra four hours of much-needed rest. It continued that way for the next month or so. She called it “the best gift I have ever gotten.”
“He put off the gym and training to make sure his wife could get some rest,” she said.
Plenty of players talk about the drive of being able to play for one’s family. It’s almost become a clichéd experience. But Paea, a fraternal twin himself, seems different. He doesn’t have to be asked about it. A conversation about X’s and O’s and his new responsibilities in defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s defense quickly turns to thoughts of his wife and four children. They aren’t in the back of his mind; they are forever in the forefront.
“My wife is doing a great job,” Paea said. “My kids are blessings. They are motivations to me. It makes me work that much harder.”
A contract year
It was the type of game that could have set the stage for the type of season that Paea always envisioned himself having in the NFL. It was Week 1 against the Bengals – a tight 24-21 victory for the Bears – and Paea was virtually unstoppable.
With the Bengals devoting double teams to Henry Melton, Paea was sprung and was angry about it. He was supposed to be the block-swallowing brute up front. He ended up spending the day in the Bengals’ backfield, making two tackles for a loss and getting two quarterback pressures and half a sack. Tucker later said that Paea graded out as one of the Bears’ best performers.
“Every year I always have something, some nagging injury,” Paea said. “The only thing that scares me is injuries.”
The turf toe injury in his left foot appeared a few weeks later in an ugly 40-32 loss against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. At first, it was considered a minor ailment, nothing that would set him back.
But it just never went away. He missed practices. He missed starts. He missed three games.
A potential impact season – one that could have helped secure him a new contract – turned into another one derailed by injury. He had arthroscopic knee surgery in 2011 and was slowed down by plantar fasciitis in 2012. Paea was a solid starter, but one who couldn’t stay on the field for a full season. A hobbled Paea only added to the countless woes that led to last season’s historically bad defense.
“Last year was the worst because it held me back all year, but I kept playing,” said Paea, who has started 24 games over the past two seasons. “I wasn’t 100 percent to play. That would have been my solid year to show the team what I can do, so I don’t have to put all the pressure on me in the fourth year. Now, the pressure is on me.”
And that pressure is very real.
Paea is in the final year of his rookie contract. He has new position coaches in Paul Pasqualoni and Clint Hurtt to win over and the Bears just drafted two defensive tackles in Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton.
“It’s hit or miss for me,” Paea said. “It’s either going to be a really, really great year for me or not. I just have to go out there and play the game that I know.”
The family man
Practice is over and it’s steamy on the fields of Olivet Nazarene University. Stephen Jr., a little hulk like his father who weighs 33 pounds as a one-year-old, needs a nap. So Paea walks him around in a stroller. His eldest, 3-year-old Leimana, trails him, asking her father questions about anything and everything. Paea still is wearing his pads from practice.
“They’ve all taken after who they’re named after,” a smiling Susannah said. “[Stephen Jr. is] so chubby and is a little bully to all of his siblings.”
The bullied would be Daniel, who is named after Susannah’s father, and Aulola, who is named after Paea’s grandmother. “They fight back, though,” Paea said.
The Paea triplets were born a week and a half before training camp opened last year. The season, with its daily grind, would drag him away soon enough.
His family time dwindled, as it does for all players, when all the matters that go into winning football games took over his daily routine. Paea had to experience some of children’s milestones through texts and video.
“He missed our daughter walking,” Susannah said.
Paea thanks his wife for nearly everything, praising in detail all she does for him and their children with a compassionate smile. “She knows what I go through,” he said.
But Paea still pitches in. Susannah said he still will get up before 6 a.m., preparing bottles and lining them up on the counter before leaving for his workouts or practices.
“He’s been a real trooper, trying to fit in daddy duty when he can,” Susannah said. “But every single morning he’ll make sure to kiss all four of our kids goodbye.”
The mere mention of babysitting Paea’s kids brings out smiles from his teammates. There’s definitely a sense of disbelief there, too. They have no idea how Paea does it all.
“He’s a big family man now,” defensive tackle Nate Collins said. “It’s cool just seeing him hanging out with them and seeing him doing well.”
Coach Marc Trestman’s family-oriented approach seems to fit Paea. His abilities to balance home and work haven’t gone unnoticed. Everyone knows that he has plenty of diapers awaiting him at home.
“He’s a very high character guy,” Pasqualoni said. “He’s a very, very hard-working guy. He’s got his priorities in the right order. He’s got a beautiful young family. He’s got a great wife. He’s the same guy, every single day. He doesn’t change. He comes to work every day. He’s great in our meetings. He’s great in our weight room. And he’s a heck of a great guy out here (on the field).”
Ready to roll
Video of Paea breaking the NFL Scouting Combine bench-press record in 2011 can still be found online. His impressive performance – an astonishing 49 repetitions of 225 pounds – helped sell the Bears and former general manager Jerry Angelo on his talents.
Paea had an interesting back story – a self-described roller-coaster ride full of family sacrifices that saw him go from the island nation of Tonga to a high school in Kansas to Snow College in Utah to a standout at Oregon State.
The Bears traded up nine spots and grabbed Paea with the No. 53 selection in 2011. It was a move deemed a “no brainer” by the Bears at the time. His character was never questioned.
It didn’t take Paea long to convince former Bears coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator/line coach Rod Marinelli that he should be playing more. By his second season, he was a main cog up front in their starting 11.
“Steve is one of the guys when I first got here who was always giving me little tidbits, just telling me what Marinelli liked or what Lovie liked in practice and how we should do certain things,” Collins said. “He also told me how to beat [center Roberto] Garza a couple of times when I first got here. He would tell me that he doesn’t like this and he doesn’t like it when guys do this. He’s a great guy.”
Angelo, Smith and Marinelli and others are gone now. But Paea is OK with that. The system being installed by Tucker might just be a better fit for him. It allows him to use that mind-blowing strength he displayed years ago at the combine more often, and he’s all for it.
“We still have our gaps and responsibilities,” Paea said. “But we help the other guys with the other gaps. Everybody has their own gap, but the way we design our defense now, if the running back doesn’t challenge your gap and goes to the other gap, you go to the other one.”
The goal is to make the linebackers Pro Bowl players by providing them with the freedom to move.
“I put my hands on the center, and with the guard trying to block me, the linebacker is going to make the play versus last year where we would just go [penetrate] and the center would have a clean shot at the linebackers,” Paea said.
In order to handle his new responsibilities, Paea had to become “a bit heavier,” he said. The bigger he got, the bigger problem he became for interior offensive linemen. So he added 12 to 13 pounds this offseason and said that he now weighs around 304 pounds. He also puts in extra sparring work with skills development coach Joe Kim.
“Right after the season, I knew what to work on,” Paea said. “I just invested all my attention to it.”
Paea considers the arrival of Pasqualoni and his decades of experience a blessing. He calls him the “father of the defensive linemen.”
“You just listen and gravitate to what he’s asking,” Paea said. “This guy loves football. He energizes me all the time, in meetings, in practice, whenever.”
The early results have impressed Pasqualoni, Tucker and the rest Bears’ defensive staff. Paea has remained with the No. 1 defense throughout the offseason training and training camp. He’s become a real nuisance for Garza and the Bears’ guards, and a capable partner next to Jeremiah Ratliff. As hoped and planned, the Bears linebackers are able to fly about freely behind them.
Pasqualoni sees untapped potential in Paea.
“I still consider Stephen to be somewhat young,” Pasqualoni said. “His strength is very, very good. He’s very focused. He’s very concerned to get things right. If something is not right, he’s going to get it fixed and get it right quick.”
Knock on wood
The plan was to give Paea the surprise of a lifetime when he came home. Susannah had been alone at the doctor when her ultrasound showed three little babies. To catch his reaction, her sister hid around a corner in their home with a camera.
The jokes the Paeas shared about having twins -- they run in both sides of the family -- were about to become a reality for him, but plus one.
“He just dropped his ACE bandage and was like, ‘What? No?',” Susannah said. “But it was exciting for us because we knew that we’d be able to take care of them financially. If he was in another profession, we would have been way more stressed out.”
In that regard, injuries remain a concern for Paea. They are the great unknown that stresses him out. He can’t secure his family’s future if he’s not on the field.
“You never know when injuries come,” he said. “It happens to everyone. But, unfortunately, it happened to me last year. All fingers crossed, knock on wood.”
But should Paea be sidelined again, he has four little faces at home that will forever brighten his days.
Football is his job and they are his life and dreams.
“That’s pretty much who I work for,” he said. “Those four little faces.”