Destiny is a funny thing, and some might say it's an amusing first name for an NFL defensive tackle as well. I would not be one of those to say that, however, at least not to Destiny Vaeao, the Eagles 6-foot-4, 299-pound rookie.
Back home in the U.S. territory of American Samoa, in his hometown of Pago Pago, some of his schoolmates liked to tease him about the name. They forgot his middle name, Lalotoa, means "warrior." This is a bad thing to forget.
In deference to Vaeao, we'll use the word "fate" to describe his path to the Eagles, and to Soldier Field on Monday night where he subbed into the defensive line for just seven snaps but used one of them to sack Jay Cutler and force a fumble that was recovered by Jordan Hicks, one of three Chicago turnovers.
Players like to say it's more important to make your plays count than to count your plays. Usually this is said by backups, but nevertheless, Vaeao made it come true against the Bears.
"You've got to make it count. That's all you need," he said. "When you get an opportunity, make the most out of it. That's what I wanted to do."
Getting an opportunity to get an opportunity in the NFL is the hard part. Vaeao was a star tight end through high school. His school, Tafuna High, won the island championship when he was a junior and made it to the championship game when he was a senior. (I know what you're thinking. The answer is six. That's how many high schools play football in American Samoa.)
Regardless, Vaeao was recruited by several Division I schools as a tight end, and by Washington State as a potential defensive lineman. The Washington State defensive line coach is Joe Salave'a, who is also from American Samoa. That helped Vaeao's decision. His sister was also attending Washington State at the time, and that didn't hurt, either. So, Vaeao became a defensive tackle.
He played four years for the Cougars, including his first as a true freshman, and was named to the all-Pac 12 second team by the time he was a senior, with 41 tackles and 41/2 sacks in 13 starts. When the NFL draft came around, Vaeao was considered a possible late-round pick or a priority undrafted free agent. It turned out to be the latter, with a lot of teams interested in bringing him into camp for a look.
As fate - that word again - would have it, the Eagles had added Phillip Daniels as their assistant defensive line coach in the offseason, and Daniels played three seasons with Joe Salave'a when both were with the Washington Redskins. Their connection had lasted over the years and when Salave'a gave Vaeao a strong recommendation, Daniels was comfortable adding his own to the Eagles' personnel department. The deal was signed, and Vaeao had his chance.
It wasn't much of a chance, really, because the Eagles had also signed former Tennessee Titans tackle Mike Martin to provide depth behind Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Beau Allen. But when Martin injured his knee during training camp and was released, well, you pick the word, whatever it was, Vaeao was getting his chance.
"From the jump, he had aggression and the physical ability," Logan said. "He struggled at first like all of us, then he settled in and with his ability to get off the ball and use his hands, he usually has some effect on the play."
On his big play against the Bears, Vaeao was initially double-teamed by guard Kyle Long and tackle Bobby Massie, but he kept churning when Massie dropped off to help tight end Logan Paulsen deal with Vinny Curry on the edge. Vaeao got off the ground, went past Long and chased down Cutler as he tried to find a place in the pocket. He wrapped his arms around the quarterback's waist, jarring the ball from Cutler's hand in the process.
"Part of that was the preparation I put in. When I watched the film, Jay Cutler always steps up when he gets pressured. I was at the right place at the right time," Vaeao said.
In the Chicago game, Cox took 42 of the 52 defensive snaps, Logan took 31, Allen took 11 and Vaeao had just the seven. It isn't a lot, but for an undrafted rookie defensive tackle who might have easily been a tight end in college, it's still a surprise.
"Two snaps, three snaps. It doesn't matter. I just have to go do my job," Vaeao said.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is conscious of keeping his players fresh. The Eagles spelled middle linebacker Jordan Hicks with Stephen Tulloch for 12 snaps on Monday and used Steven Means for seven snaps in the defensive end rotation. Working in Vaeao is part of that philosophy and the sack/forced fumble was a side benefit.
"He made a hell of a play on that," Allen said. "It's hard to make those open field tackles. People don't appreciate how hard that is. When you start the season and can make a big play like that, you get confidence that's hard to come by as a backup in the NFL."
Going from Pago Pago to Pullman to Philadelphia isn't a straight line. There has to be some luck along the way, some coincidences and simple twists of fate. Not everything is destined, not even for Destiny Vaeao. Or is it?
We'll find out," Vaeao said, with a smile.