Pelissero: Matt Asiata playing for more than roster spot with Vikings
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Matt Asiata spent most of last fall back home in Utah, working in a warehouse for an industrial supply company.
Deliveries, pickups, stocking shelves -- about the furthest thing from the semi-glamorous life as an NFL running back Asiata still hoped to pursue after the Minnesota Vikings released him twice in a week last September.
"At first, I just talked to myself," Asiata recalled this week. "'What's going on? I don't think I'm good for this NFL league. I don't know.' But I just kept pushing.
"My wife harped on it: just stay focused and just think about the kids."
Asiata's family is the reason he's here, competing again for a spot on the Vikings roster that feels more attainable than ever entering Thursday's exhibition finale at Houston.
There's Tangi, the wife he met soon after moving to the Salt Lake City area in junior high school. Ioana, 7, the daughter who arrived while he was still at Hunter High. Ephraim, 6, the son named after the city where Asiata played a year of junior college ball. Shawnee, 3, another daughter named after Asiata's youngest brother.
"That's why I'm still playing," Asiata said. "I've got kids to feed and my wife to take care of. I'm trying to push this for them."
They couldn't get by for long on the $1,000 signing bonus Asiata received from the Vikings in July 2011, three months after he wasn't selected in the NFL Draft, nor the $5,700 he received for his one week on the practice squad.
So, Asiata went to work in the factory, spending as much time as he could with Tangi and the kids while also squeezing in workouts and rehab for the hip that slowed him in camp.
He had tryouts with Atlanta and Tampa Bay but didn't get an offer. He wore down mentally as he waited for the phone to ring again, as it often doesn't for undrafted 24-year-old running backs who have had trouble staying healthy.
"It's not fair, but you've got to do what you've got to do," Asiata said. "You've just got to play and dig deep inside and just want it."
Asiata broke his right leg in his first game at the University of Utah in 2007. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the same leg as a senior in 2010 but received a medical redshirt that gave him one more chance to show NFL scouts what he could do.
He finished his Utah career third in school history with 24 rushing touchdowns. He got an invite to the NFL scouting combine, where he was billed as a potential goal-line back because of his stocky build (5-11, 229 pounds) and ability to run with power.
The Vikings list Asiata as a fullback, but he increasingly has gotten chances to carry the ball -- including nine carries for 48 yards in last week's exhibition loss to San Diego that provided the most encouraging signs yet of his potential as a one-cut inside zone runner.
"He's done some things that make you pay attention to him," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's had some nice runs, he has good vision when he's running with the football, he can play a little bit of fullback and he's shown some versatility catching the ball out of the backfield."
Now 25, Asiata says it's "surreal" to be learning from the likes of Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart. But he's in a very real competition for the No. 3 job that figured to be a two-way battle between Lex Hilliard and Jordan Todman.
Todman, 22, suffered a sprained ankle on Aug. 2 that cost him two preseason games and reps he sorely needed in his second NFL camp. Hilliard, 28, appeared in every game with Miami the past three seasons but is averaging only 2.2 yards on nine preseason carries.
Hilliard's fumble against the Chargers helped get Asiata into the game. Asiata fumbled, too -- at the San Diego 3-yard line, no less -- but got another chance and caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Sage Rosenfels on the Vikings' final drive.
He has one more chance on Thursday night to show the Vikings and other 31 teams he belongs, knowing well a poor performance or another big mistake could have him back in the warehouse after Friday's 8 p.m. cutdown deadline.
One week's pay on the 53-man roster would be worth $22,941.
"Sixty more minutes -- it's like a Super Bowl to me," Asiata said. "I've just got to go out there and just play hard and have fun and do it with a smile and just come out with the win."
The Asiata family will be watching.