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Provo • After more than two years of marriage, Vea Manumaleuna still can't believe that the player wearing No. 55 for BYU's defense is the same man she greets every night when he comes home after a long day of school and practice.
He's the nose tackle and defensive end who terrorizes opposing quarterbacks and ball-carriers and joyously raises his arms in triumph after a big play.
At home, church or family gatherings, senior Eathyn Manumaleuna is just the opposite of the Outland Trophy candidate who has made 31 tackles and joined with All-America linebacker Kyle Van Noy to form the heart and soul of BYU's nationally ranked defense.
"It is hard for me to believe I am married to him when I watch him on the field, hitting people and playing rough, because he is definitely not that kind of person off the field," Vea said. "He is very, very soft. He is very soft-spoken, very gentle, and he absolutely loves kids. A lot of people that know him in our ward [church congregation] tell him he's a beast, an animal, on the field, but a lamb off the field."
That's especially true when Manumaleuna gets home and sees his son, Benson, who celebrates his first birthday Oct. 25 when the Cougars play host to Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium. That is significant because Manumaleuna had a season-ending knee injury against the Broncos last year, and feared in the days after that game that his college career was over.
"They have a different bond," Vea said about father and son. "Every time Eathyn comes home, I can tell he's tired. He's ready to be done with the day. But when my son sees him, my son is ready to play. He thinks it is playing time. So Eathyn will lay down, and Benson will climb all over him and they will play until Benson falls asleep. Eathyn is very, very good with him."
If it seems as if the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Manumaleuna has been playing for BYU forever, it is because he almost has. The gentle giant who was born in California, raised in Alaska and spent his senior year of high school starring for nearby Timpview is jokingly referred to as the biblical figure who never would die, Methuselah, by his teammates because of his seemingly never-ending career.
It started in 2007, when Manumaleuna started every game at nose tackle as a true freshman. He ended the season by blocking UCLA kicker Kai Forbath's 28-yard field goal as time expired in the Las Vegas Bowl to preserve the Cougars' 17-16 win. He then left on a two-year church mission to Oklahoma City. He started in eight games as a sophomore in 2010 and all 13 games in 2011.
Only coach Bronco Mendenhall, assistants Steve Kaufusi and Paul Tidwell and oft-injured defensive back Mike Hague, whose first year wearing BYU blue was 2006, have been in the program longer than Manumaleuna.
Mendenhall said the defense wouldn't be thriving like it is this season without Manumaleuna.
"He's really, really good. And he's really mature. He's a great leader. He is part of another good defense," said Mendenhall, who reminded reporters during fall camp that Manumaleuna was so good before the injury in 2012 that he started in front of Ziggy Ansah, the fifth pick in April's NFL Draft, by the Detroit Lions.
The NCAA granted Manumaleuna a medical redshirt year so he could return in 2013 because he played in fewer than one-third of BYU's games last year.
"I am very grateful to have another year back," he said, crediting BYU compliance coordinator Adam Sanft's work with the NCAA in getting the year restored. "It was a long process for them to come back with an answer. There was a small percentage of a chance that I wouldn't be allowed back, so I am thankful it worked out."
Vea Manumaleuna said the injury Eathyn suffered a torn patella tendon in his left knee on Boise's blue turf Sept. 20 turned out to be a "blessing in disguise" because her husband was able to help with Benson's birth and first year more than if he had been playing.
It also gave Eathyn time to reflect on what football meant to him.
"He was getting used to the football life, and when that was taken away form him, he realized what a blessing it was, what a special gift that God had given him, and that he couldn't take it for granted," Vea said. Manumaleuna rehabbed throughout the spring and summer despite not knowing if the NCAA would grant him the medical hardship year. He returned home to Alaska, where his father, Leroy, works as a high school counselor. He spent six weeks training there to get the knee back to where it was before the injury.
And he also got in a little fishing, which Vea said is the big guy's "mental therapy."
Being a great father also does a lot for his disposition, Vea said.
Manumaleuna wakes up every morning at 5:30, even on days when he doesn't have school, workouts, practices, or games, and he cleans up around the house. Then he prepares the bottles, formula and other food Benson will need for the day while his wife and son still are sleeping.
A closer look
Eathyn Manumaleuna's lengthy college football career at BYU:
2007 • Started every game at nose tackle as a true freshman, blocked UCLA's 28-yard field goal attempt in Las Vegas Bowl to preserve 17-16 win
2008-2009 • Served church mission in Oklahoma City
2010 • Started in eight games, had an interception against New Mexico
2011 • Started all 13 games at defensive end
2012 • Started first four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Boise State
2013 • Has emerged as a defensive leader for 4-2 Cougars, playing nose tackle and some defensive end
BYU at Houston
O Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • ESPNews