He wasn’t really expecting it, but it brought a smile to his face. As Manase Tonga walked out of the locker room and onto the practice field, his Cougar teammates clapped, cheered and welcomed him back with open arms.
“I started laughing inside and had a big smile on my face,” said Tonga as he reflected upon Friday’s events. “It just goes to show you how much they wanted me back and how much they missed me. Also, it just really made me appreciate even more all the hard work I put in to get back here to BYU. To have been received like that, I can’t really explain it.”
Tonga paused a bit as he reflected on how his teammates made him feel. He seemed humbled and there was a clear sense of gratitude in his voice. He may not have been able to really explain how his heart felt that day, but he tried his best to do so despite many pauses.
“You know, I was just so grateful for the way everyone welcomed me back,” Tonga said. “It was…well, it just made me feel really good. It’s really hard to explain. I just look back and think of how hard it was for me and how hard I really worked to get back to here, and when I came out onto the field yesterday, it just made everything worth it. I can’t really explain how that made me feel.”
His first day back in a Cougar uniform meant going right to work. The Cougar coaches threw Tonga right into the fire. There was no gradual warm-up or easing back into the role of playing in the offensive backfield. Instead, Tonga saw himself receiving a lot of the reps in an effort to gauge his playing condition.
“I was a little surprised,” Tonga said. “I was kind of expecting to just ease in. But towards the end of practice yesterday, I asked the coaches if I could stay in because I felt really good and was really excited and the adrenaline was kicking in.”
He may have been thrown right into the mix his first day back, but that didn’t seem to affect Tonga in the least bit. He knows the offense and how he fits within it. It was like old times.
“It was like riding a bike,” said Tonga with a smile. “I feel very comfortable with the offense, and so right now it’s just day by day and getting my legs back and getting a feel for game speed. I think I’ll be alright.”
One would think that getting physically ready as a fullback would be the biggest hurdle after a year off, but for Tonga that’s not the case. Rather, getting his endurance up in order to go full speed for a longer period of time has become his biggest hurdle so far.
“Right now, just building up my wind,” he said. “I feel pretty good right now and just need to stay healthy. I just need to keep learning the offense because there are a few new wrinkles in the offense now, but it won’t take me long to get on top of that. There were a couple of plays earlier in practice that I wasn’t really sure on. I did the wrong thing but was able to correct it. That’s kind of how I learn. I make all my mistakes during practice, learn from it and then go out and execute on game day.”
Tonga looks physically ready, as if a hiatus from the sport of football never occurred. His secret for staying in good physical shape while working on his Cougar comeback was simple. He joined up with one of the top rugby teams in the state of Utah, a team that a month ago won a statewide rugby tournament held during the Tonga Flag Day.
“I was running around a little bit during the time I was trying to get back,” said Tonga with a laugh. “I was running with the Provo Steelers rugby team. I was with them for a little bit and was able to run with them. They have a really good team and they were nice enough to let me come run with them and keep in shape. The guys in the Provo Steelers are a good group.”
Although Tonga has been away from the BYU offense for a year now, nothing has changed much from the time he was lead-blocking for Harvey Unga, catching passes, and running the football behind Sete Aulai, Travis Bright, Dallas Reynolds, David Oswald and Ray Feinga.
“As far as scheme-wise, it’s still the same philosophy,” Tonga said. “There are new plays within the scheme though, and we’re still a big, physical team up front. Even though we have a few guys banged up we still got guys coming up that will be good and they’re learning every day. I think even those guys will be good over time.”
Saturday as LaVell Edwards Stadium, Tonga was able to see Max Hall lead the offense efficiently and effectively.
“I was really surprised by today’s performance,” Tonga said. “We have a lot of new guys up front and they did a great job. This really was my first time seeing them and they looked good. I thought the receivers looked good and Max was able to get the ball out quickly and on time. I thought overall it was a good day.”
Now back, Tonga feels there is a good chance he could see the field this year. Well, at least he hopes he will. He wants to prove to the Cougar coaches in a short period of time that he capable of the task at hand, and that they can trust him even early in the schedule.
“I hope so, I hope so,” Tonga said. “I think I’ll play this year and think I’ll be ready. Oklahoma is coming up and we could play them tomorrow and I would be ready. I’m just excited to be back.”