- Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears beat reporter
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Paea, in town to shoot an episode of "Everything to Prove", a series created by Gatorade and NFL Films that follows 14 rookies on the road to the NFL, became an Internet sensation after breaking the NFL Combine bench press record with 49 reps of 225 pounds back in February.
But Wednesday's workout at Lifetime Fitness in Vernon Hills, Ill., turned out to be more than just a run of the mill training session for the newest Bears' defensive lineman.
Present at the one-hour strength and agility workout was veteran Bears defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, who like Paea, is of Polynesian descent. Toeaina, born in San Francisco but raised in American Samoa, and Paea, who hails from the Tongan Islands, immediately struck up a friendship when the rookie was selected by the Bears in the NFL draft last month. But this marked the first time they met face to face.
"It was a typical Polynesian thing, I predicted how he was going to be and as I thought, he turned out to be a really cool, down to earth person," Paea told ESPNChicago.com. "When a Poly meets another Poly, we're all on the same level. Polynesians tend to attract to each other. It's just a Poly thing."
After the Bears traded up and took Paea at No. 53 overall on the second night of the draft, Toeaina called a member of the organization's operational staff to track down Paea's cell phone number.
"I reached out to him to congratulate him on the accomplishment of getting drafted in the NFL," Toeaina said. "I'm definitely excited to team up with him. In our Polynesian culture, it doesn't take much to get introduced, especially out here in the Midwest because there aren't too many of us. To see another Polynesian is like seeing family. You immediately gravitate to another Polynesian."
"It meant a lot getting that call," Paea added. "It showed he couldn't wait for me to get here because he's going to be my buddy now. We play the same position, we play for the same team, and we're both Polynesian. Getting his call, I really appreciated that, and it's going to create a great friendship."
The connection between Paea and Toeaina doesn't end with their heritage. Ironically, they played for bitter rivals in college, with Paea starring at Oregon State and Toeaina suiting up four years (2002-06) at Oregon.
"Every time I watched the Civil War game between Oregon and Oregon State, I'm always asking myself who in the heck is this No. 54 guy (Paea's jersey number in college) giving my Ducks a hard time," Toeaina said. "It's kind of crazy he's my teammate now."
Because of the on-going NFL lockout, Paea returned home Wednesday night but hopes to permanently settle in Chicago "around July." Until then, he plans to resume training and rehabbing on the Oregon State campus. The defensive lineman suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee during the Senior Bowl, which required surgery and forced Paea to bypass all the drills except the bench press at the combine.
Despite Paea being slowed somewhat by the recent surgery, Toeaina gave the young defensive tackle high marks in the ability category. Although the Bears said on draft day Paea could play both defensive tackle spots, most feel the rookie's landing spot will be at the under tackle or three-technique position.
The 2010 consensus All-American selection recorded six sacks, four forced fumbles and eleven tackles for a loss during his final season with the Beavers.
"I could see the explosion already, even after that knee procedure he had," Toeaina said. "The knee looked like it was pretty much good to go. I'm sure it'll be sore here and there, that's just natural for it to be like that, but all the physical attributes they listed about him pre-combine, I see it.
It's all true what they say about him."
Rookie DT Stephen Paea quickly found a new buddy in Matt Toeaina.