Big V pulled the silver chain out of the drawer in his locker and held the dangling cross between two huge fingers. Slowly, he brought it to his lips and kissed it.
He kisses the cross every time he puts in on or takes it off. Every morning and every night; before and after every practice and game.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai kissed it on Sunday before the Eagles demolished the Broncos, who entered with the league’s best defense. He kissed it after the deed was done, and explained why.
“I feel it brings me luck,” he said. “It makes me feel good.”
It was given to him by Caitlin Diaz, whom he met on his first day at Texas Christian University and who now is his wife. It was his Christmas present his senior year. In the football culture, where neck jewelry can be gaudy and prolific, Vaitai’s is understated: a wire-thin chain and a plain, 2-inch cross, the first necklace he ever owned.
“Everybody’s got a superstition, right? A ritual? It reminds me of why I’m doing this,” Vaitai said. “I’m religious. I’m playing through him. There’s a Bible verse my mom recites: Philippians 4:13, ‘I can do all this through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me.’ ”
Vaitai has played with alarming strength. In fact, he has played strong enough the last 2 1/2 games to earn the chance to be the Eagles’ left tackle not only of the present but also the future. This is a revelation.
When Jason Peters’ knee collapsed under the weight of a teammate in the third quarter against Washington and Vaitai entered to replace him, Eagles Nation held its collective breath.
Peters isn’t just a great Eagle, he’s one of the greatest, perhaps the best offensive lineman in team history if not the best offensive player, who had been to nine Pro Bowls. Vaitai? He’s a second-year, fifth-round pick. His hallmark, to that point, was an epically bad debut at right tackle in Washington last season.
Fans aren’t holding their breath anymore.
Vaitai made it through the Washington game without major incident and persuaded the Eagles to keep star right tackle Lane Johnson on the right side. It turned out that no move was the right move, twice over.
Vaitai was so good in the next game, against the 49ers, it not only affirmed the idea of keeping Johnson on the right side for the rest of the season but it also persuaded the Eagles to not trade for a tackle at the deadline last Tuesday. Vaitai rewarded their faith Sunday, when the Eagles dropped 51 points on Denver.
Maybe Johnson should never leave the right side.
The Eagles used the fourth pick in the 2013 draft on Johnson and assumed he eventually would switch to the left side when Peters moved on, which seemed likely sooner than later. Four years on, Peters was still playing well. However, Peters’ knee injury might spell the end of the 35-year-old’s career. And the beginning of Vaitai’s. At left tackle.
This is his chance to earn that spot. He’s taking it seriously.
While some of his teammates made plans for Miami or Caifornia or the Carribean, Vaitai made plans for his backyard. Beginning midweek, he would fill a backpack with clothes and rags, hand it to someone, maybe even Caitlin, and practice. In his backyard.
“You don’t need to go to the facility. I’ve got a yard. I’ve got grass. All I need is somebody to hold a bag for me,” Vaitai said.
And do what?
“I’ll focus on getting off the ball, staying square, and I’ll practice a lot of run blocks. I feel I’m rushing to hit the guy. I’ve got to stay low, stay square,” he said, turning his massive shoulders and shifting his giant feet to demonstrate. “I tend to turn my body a little bit.”
“Really? He’s going to do that?” center Jason Kelce asked with a laugh.
Johnson already knew: “He was telling me that on the bench at the end of the game. That’s good. He’s a baby. He’s just scratching the surface.”
Kelce and Peters agree: Vaitai, at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, could be an outstanding NFL tackle regardless of pedigree. Peters, who went undrafted himself, has told Vaitai from day one to not let his draft slot define him. Peters helps Big V cultivate his talents, even during games. During the last two games Peters sent texts to the Eagles’ trainers with technique suggestions for Vaitai. Peters didn’t text much Sunday.
Vaitai stoned Shaquil Barrett on Wentz’s 32-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery that opened the Eagles’ scoring, then picked up a stunt on a 14-yard sideline pass to Jeffery early in the second quarter. Vaitai stopped Barrett on a TD pass to Trey Burton.
He handled his run assignments, too. In the third quarter, Jay Ajayi ran 2 yards for a first down behind Vaitai, then 14 more on the next play, and those were just appetizers. Vaitai demolished Shane Ray on the next play, which freed Ajayi to romp for a 46-yard touchdown, which left coach Doug Pederson beaming: “Big V did an outstanding job.”
The Eagles occasionally sent an extra blocker or rolled to the right side to help Vaitai on Sunday, but Vaitai didn’t really need the help. By the beginning of the second half, they were running the offense as if Peters was in the game.
Vaitai will never be Peters. No one will. But, with luck, Big V could be good enough to be the solution at left tackle.
“I want to prove everyone wrong. I want to prove I belong, that I can hang with these guys,” Vaitai said. “I don’t want to be that guy they say, ‘He was a wasted draft pick.’ ”
Wasted? Hardly. He seems like an invaluable investment.
Where would the Eagles be had Vaitai not played as well as he has?
“That’s a very good question,” Kelce said, no longer laughing. “I don’t know what the answer is.”