Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai never really dreamed of playing in the NFL, let alone the Super Bowl.
But when an injury on the offensive line forced him into the lineup as a freshman, Vaitai never relinquished his starting job and never looked back.
“It’s a crazy journey I have been on,” Vaitai said. “I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to TCU. I didn’t think I would make it to the NFL. I went because TCU has a great education. I tried to take advantage of that. I got my opportunity and they said you can do this. And now I’m here.”
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Here is Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis where he will face the New England Patriots on Sunday.
The path he took was unlike his journey in college as Vaitai has gone from injury replacement to the all-important blindside protector of quarterback Nick Foles.
After never believing he would be good enough play left tackle in the NFL, Vaitai has improved and progressed so well that there is talk about him keeping the job next season.
He is not as good as injured perennial All-Pro Jason Peters, who rivals Tyron Smith of the Dallas Cowboys as one of the best left tackles in the game.
But Vaitai is younger, cheaper, and potentially just as reliable.
“That’s their decision,” Vaitai said. “My job is to do what I do, protect the quarterback.
“That will take care of itself.”
The Eagles are 10-2 with Vaitai in the starting lineup and he is coming off his best game of the season, holding Minnesota Vikings standout defensive end Everson Griffin to no sacks and just two pressures in the blowout victory in what was supposed to be a positional mismatch for the Vikings.
“I was just locked in that night,” he said. “I didn’t have any worries. And I try not to have any worries prior to the game. But in my opinion, yeah, I thought I played pretty good.
“I’m just getting more and more comfortable. I just need more repetition and more experience. I guess that’s how you get better.”
Vaitai joined the Eagles as a fifth-round pick in 2016. He was forced into the lineup as a rookie at right tackle last season when Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games for using a banned supplement. That only prepared him for what was to come in 2017 when Peters went down in Week 7 with a season-ending injury.
“I think he’s been one of the unsung heroes on the team this year,” center Jason Kelce said. “The work he’s done to raise his level has been great.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson also praised Vaitai’s play.
“A really solid player for us … he has been a big bright spot for us on the offensive line,” Pederson said.
Vaitai credits Peters for staying involved, helping him get adjusted and for constantly giving him advice.
“The more experience I got each of week, the game slowed down for me,” Vaitai said. “It’s just understanding the game plan and understanding the process of the league. And as Peters tells me ‘you just have to calm down and don’t make it bigger than what it is.’ ”
And while it wasn’t a dream he envisioned, it has been a situation he’s faced before.
“It’s just one of those deals like when I was a freshman in college,” Vaitai said. “Somebody went down and they said, ‘V are you ready.’ I said, ‘Yeah I am ready.’ ”
Ready for Super Bowl LII.