An Ex-Viking Quietly Wrecked the USFL

Hercules Mata'afa
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Almost four decades ago, the USFL was a true competition for the NFL, as they tried to poach some of the top players — and they succeeded. Infamous former Viking Herschel Walker was the league’s MVP in 1985, the league’s final year. Jim Kelly and Reggie White played in the league in the same year, just like some true Vikings legends.

An Ex-Viking Quietly Wrecked the USFL

Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Keith Millard began his professional career in the USFL. Anthony Carter and Gary Zimmerman were named to the All-Star team in 1985 before the league crumbled.

An Ex-Viking Quietly Wrecked the USFL
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Hercules Mata’afa (51) celebrates recovering a fumble by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) in the third quarter during their football game Sunday, September 15, 2019, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Nowadays, the league is no longer the glorious version of the 80s. It is a developmental league, and most of those fold after a season or two. Those developmental leagues are important for players to get a second chance. Athletes who are overlooked in the draft process or guys who are not good enough to make a team coming out of college can improve and showcase their skills to get another chance in the NFL. The league has to fight off competition from the XFL owned by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

The Vikings have already signed Lucky Jackson from the XFL and worked out the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, Jordan Ta’Amu. Someone who wants to get another shot in the big league is Hercules Mata’afa. The former Vikings’ undrafted free-agent addition was quietly fantastic in the 2023 season.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, the Birmingham Stallions won the league title. Mata’afa’s New Jersey Generals finished with a league-wost 3-7 record, but the defensive end balled out.

According to PFF, Mata’afa finished with the second-best pass-rush win rate among all edge rushers with 22.9%, only trailing Ronheen Bingham, a former standout from Arkansas State. Mata’afa also generated a 17.5% pressure rate – the highest in the USFL. But not only his pass rush metrics were fantastic, but he was also good against the run, recording top-10 marks in both the most positively graded run defensive snaps and most run stops. His six sacks were the third-most in the league, and he forced a league-most three fumbles.

The defender joined the Vikings during their feared defense under Mike Zimmer in 2018. He came out of Washington State as an undersized defensive tackle, weighing only 254 pounds but possessing excellent quickness. Trying to secure a roster spot, which is always a longshot for an undrafted player, Mata’afa suffered a torn ACL in June of 2018, which prematurely robbed him of his debut season.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Spending his rookie year on IR, the defensive tackle had another shot in 2019, and he made the 53-man roster. He played in 19 games for the Vikes and recorded 25 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 6 QB hits, 2.5 sacks, and 1 fumble recovery in 393 defensive snaps.

The defender moved between the practice squad and the active roster in 2020 before the Vikings cut him on cutdown day in 2021. Mata’afa bounced around on a couple of different practice squads but didn’t last very long. After two years in the USFL, it may be time for another chance in the NFL. An invitation to a team’s training camp is possible and probably even likely.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt