Former NFL defensive tackle Stephen Paea leads an exercise inside the Dimond Park Field House. The former pro has been helping local athletes refine their skills while in town. (Courtesy Photo)

Former NFL defensive tackle Stephen Paea leads an exercise inside the Dimond Park Field House. The former pro has been helping local athletes refine their skills while in town. (Courtesy Photo)

Top of the line: Former NFL DT helps youths work on their game

He’s conducting a camp for middle and elementary school students from Monday to Thursday.

For local high school football standout Sam Sika, recognizing great progress after a few days with an NFL mentor takes two-tenths of a second.

Sika, 265-pound defensive lineman entering his senior year at Thunder Mountain High School, improved his 40-yard dash time to 4.78 seconds this week after running a 4.98 two weeks ago at a football camp in Idaho, said Stephen Paea, a former NFL defensive tackle who conducted a four-day camp for local high school students that ended Wednesday.

“He has really good potential to get into a Division I school,” Paea said of Sika, adding the youth can potentially trim another two-tenths of a second off to get under 4.6 seconds (a speed combination that’s eye-catching for pro scouts — and matched by plenty of far lighter wide receivers and running backs on pro rosters).

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File 
Sam Sika celebrates after scoring a touchdown during a season that saw the Juneau Huskies finish as runners-up for a state title. Sika has been among the local athletes working with former NFL defensive tackle Stephen Paea. “The sky’s the limit for him,” Paea said. “I can teach him everything I know, but it’s up to him to execute and use that to his advantage.”

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File Sam Sika celebrates after scoring a touchdown during a season that saw the Juneau Huskies finish as runners-up for a state title. Sika has been among the local athletes working with former NFL defensive tackle Stephen Paea. “The sky’s the limit for him,” Paea said. “I can teach him everything I know, but it’s up to him to execute and use that to his advantage.”

Paea, 34, is conducting a second camp for local middle and elementary school students from Monday to Thursday of next week. He is also helping host a pickleball tournament this weekend and plans to offer further assistance for Juneau’s football team at TMHS until his scheduled departure Aug. 1.

“For me coming out here and doing this is exciting for me,” Paea said. “My wife grew up here so we come here often so that was a no-brainer for me.”

The football camps at Dimond Park Field House are hosted by the Douglas Indian Association and open to all Juneau School District students. The upcoming camp Monday through Thursday is three hours long per day and food is provided.

Paea, who was born and raised in New Zealand and played for four NFL teams during a six-year career, said he offered private coaching after retiring before starting football camps recently. He said he’s done a few so far, most recently in Utah with other pro players. While those he’s offering in Juneau are similar in content to previous ones, the town’s remoteness means working with players who have access to fewer high-level training resources.

“Juneau needs more attention and more help from guys like me to come and help with their community,” he said.

Such assistance can prove valuable, even for a few days, said Rich Sjoroos, Juneau’s high school football coach. He said he wasn’t at or involved in last week’s football camp, but Paea is offering Sjoroos assistance when practice begins July 28 until he leaves town a few days later.

“He’s got a good message for kids,” Sjoroos said. “I think his biggest knowledge is he can probably spot a weakness in a kid and get to an end result in terms of technical stuff,” he said.

The most recent professional player Sjoroos said he remembers coming to Juneau was quarterback Jake Plummer in 2013, who worked with Juneau Youth Football League players.

In this December 2020 photo at Eagle Beach Stephen Paea holds his second oldest, Peniamina Paea, 2. Stephen II, 3, stands in front of Stephen Paea and Vika Paea who’s pregnant with Lesieli Paea, now 1. (Courtesy Photo)

In this December 2020 photo at Eagle Beach Stephen Paea holds his second oldest, Peniamina Paea, 2. Stephen II, 3, stands in front of Stephen Paea and Vika Paea who’s pregnant with Lesieli Paea, now 1. (Courtesy Photo)

“There’s nothing like Carlos Boozer coming here for years doing camps,” Sjoroos said, referring to one of Juneau’s all-time basketball greats who went on to become a two-time NBA all-star.

The upcoming camp by Paea will accept local students as young as 7 years old, but for parents concerned about young kids getting injuries he emphasized there is no tackling involved.

“The football camp I’m doing is not necessarily pads and teaching positions,” he said. “The drills I do for my football camp are for every position.”

At the recent camp in Utah, for example, Paea said one of the standouts was a defensive lineman who was only 8 years old.

“He picked up all the combination moves,” he said. “There are like 10 moves it takes a grown man a week to learn. He picked it up in four days.”

Much of the other training is similar to what college prospects go through preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine, including learning to run faster, increase flexibility and build muscle. The latter in particular is Paea’s claimed area of expertise since he holds the official combine record for the 225-pound bench press at 49 (although purists will argue an undrafted short-term player named Justin Ernest holds the “real” record of 51 set in 1999, even if it’s not the officially listed one).

These days at his camps, Paea says he hears from people seeking to surpass his achievement rather than debating if somebody else already has.

“It’s their goal to break my record,” he said.

Getting that buff was a big effort for Paea, who played only one year of high school football and weighed 230 pounds during his senior year. On a coach’s advice he needed to be closer to 280 pounds to get the attention of college scouts “I did nothing but train and eat,” he said. (His NFL draft scouting report in 2011 listed him at 303 pounds.)

Such advice is useful during football camps, Paea said, but he also emphasizes brainpower in addition to brawn. He tells youths the reality that chances of becoming a professional player are minuscule (0.00075% percent, according to leagueside.com), but being among the roughly 7% of high school players that go on to play in college is a worthwhile goal for those willing to make the effort.

“Their education can be paid off is what I’m teaching,” he said.

Paea ended up at a tiny college before transferring to a big one and putting himself on the NFL radar. Even then, scouting reports varied, with some labeling him perhaps a third-round prospect while nfl.com graded him as a “perennial all-pro” who “will likely not last past the middle of the first round.”

The Chicago Bears made Paea the 21st pick in the second round, and he would go on to play for the then-Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys. He doesn’t have any Pro Bowl or other similar awards to his credit, but in 2012 he shared the Bears’ Brian Piccolo award that goes to “one rookie and one veteran per season who best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor” of the late running back who died of cancer.

Ultimately Paea’s career was cut short due to knee injuries which, while far from the CTE and other trauma some former NFL players suffer, continues to affect him.

“I would say my 40-yard dash would be 5.5,” he said. “I have not run full speed in over two or three years due to knee injuries.”

But Sjoroos said it’s parts of Paea beyond his legs that make him an asset when it comes to working with youths.

“We‘ve got a couple of standout defensive linemen that could use a different set of eyes on them,” Sjoroos said.

One of those, of course, is Sika, who Sjoroos and others accompanied to a football camp in Oregon last year as well as the one in Idaho a couple of weeks ago.

“He was just a dominant force on the line as far as scrimmage settings or the one-on-ones,” Sjoroos said. “There really wasn’t anybody that could handle him. I think his takeaway is he’s got to keep that motor going all the time.”

The camps and assistance from pros like Paea also are highly valuable for coaches, Sjoroos said.

“The beginning of the season is kind of a puzzle,” he said. “Once the season starts there’s not a lot of time to start over. At these camp settings you see different styles every day, different types of football. It can show what you’re weak at and what you’re strong at.”

Paea said he and Sika “have the same kind of story” in their upbringings, although the youth has the advantage of more high school experience. All he needs now is “motivation, direction and training the right way — and also to stay healthy.”

“He has to want it and he does,” Paea said, adding that during the camp “I made him do extra reps because I know his potential.”

“The sky’s the limit for him,” he said. “I can teach him everything I know, but it’s up to him to execute and use that to his advantage.”

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.