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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Losing weight has helped defensive lineman 'feel unstoppable'

CORVALLIS — Elu Aydon is a big man from a small island who is finally making his presence felt on Oregon State's defensive front.

It's about time. The man-mountain tackle from American Samoa was almost an afterthought the previous two seasons, but has become an important piece on the defense for the Beavers, who visit the Rose Bowl to face UCLA at 6 p.m. Saturday.

"Elu is playing his best ball since I've been here," second-year defensive line coach Legi Suianunoa said. "He has made some plays, but more than that, he has given his teammates a great chance to make some plays. He took things seriously."

As in, getting his body in football shape.

AYDONThe 6-3 Aydon, who played at nearly 380 pounds a year ago, weighed in this week at 359. That may not seem like a precipitous drop, but it has made a difference in his mobility and his stamina.

"After last season, Elu made a conscious effort to fix that," Suianunoa said. "He made a decision that he wanted to leave a legacy here, and it's working that way.

"He is showing up to work at practice. He is challenging himself every day. With the lighter body, he is running better."

Ayden came to Oregon State out of high school at about 320 pounds and gained steadily through the next four years. He had a strong redshirt freshman season in 2016, starting four games, but played a lesser role as a sophomore and junior, in part because he wasn't in shape.

"I honestly think they could have been better years for me," Ayden said. "This year, I'm trying to have a bigger impact on the team by doing my job to the best of my ability."

The heaviest player in OSU football history trimmed down mostly by being more careful with his diet.

"I've continued to eat right, stayed away from a lot of carbs, drank a lot of water, tried to balance my meals," he said. "It's worked out well for me. I can see the difference on the field. You watch the (video) from last year and compare it to our first four games this year, you can see a big difference."

The last two years, Ayden had little endurance and was often removed on second or third down, especially in passing situations.

"This year, the only time I come out is with package switches," he said. "I feel great. I thank God for continuing to bless me with the strength to play this game that I love. To be honest, I feel unstoppable. When I'm in the middle of the defense, nobody's trying to run the ball up the middle. I've been able to stay in longer and finish games.

"I take pride in that, knowing I'm giving everything I can for this defensive line. I know the amount of criticism we got last year. I'm so glad that has changed. The way we performed against Stanford, the ceiling is high for us. We just have to keep going."

A year ago, Oregon State gave up an average of 281.0 rushing yards per game, next-to-last among 129 FBS teams. In the first four games this year, the Beavers have yielded an average of 213.0 yards per game, but only 123.3 yards in the last three contests. They had their best effort in a 31-28 loss to Stanford last Saturday, giving up only 100 yards on the ground.

There are several reasons for the improvement, and one is the emergence of Aydon.

"When he made that decision that he wanted to be one of the best players in our conference, his work ethic showed it," Suianunoa said. "His decisions off the field showed it in terms of working hard to maintain his weight. And our strength and conditioning staff did a phenomenal job getting him ready for the season."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Elu Aydon makes a tackle for Oregon State against Stanford.American Samoa is an island in the South Pacific, a U.S. territory inhabited by only 55,000 people. Aydon was born in Honolulu, lived for a few years in Tacoma, Washington, then spent most of his formative years in American Samoa. Most citizens there are bilingual, speaking English and Samoan.

A devout Christian, Aydon — whose given name, Emmanuel, means "God is with us" — learned character traits that have served him well.

"Be content with what you have, work with what your family has," he said. "Wake up every day being thankful. It's translated to my life in college now. Never take anything for granted, work hard and be humble."

Aydon's parents have moved back to Tacoma. James is employed with Amazon; Faau works at Fred Meyer Jewelers. They, along with Elu's younger sister Mary, are part of the reason he aspires to play in the NFL after college.

"Ever since I started playing this game, my goal was to make it to the NFL," he said. "I'm doing my job, turning out the work every day and hoping it pays off, that maybe I'll get a shot at the league and give my family a life they didn't have before.

"My parents have been everything to me. To see them work hard every day so that my little sister and I are good, it's inspirational and motivating for me. I want to take football to the next level and be able to provide for them and let them kick back for once and just enjoy life."

Like many Polynesians, Aydon began with another sport.

"As a kid, I picked up rugby with the boys in the village," he said. "Then it was football games on the side, rough-and-tumble, everybody playing in the streets. I first played organized football in sixth grade."

Polynesians are often big and strong and aggressive. Statistics show that a male Samoan is 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than an American non-Samoan. Among the greats have been Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu, the latter who played his high school ball at Douglas High in Winston.

"We're physical people," Aydon said. "We love to be physical. Sometimes kids don't get the chance to play football, so they fight. There are a lot of fights going on back home. Football gives kids a chance to stay out of that, to keep you in a controlled environment."

Aydon was good enough — and big enough — in high school to get recruited by many colleges. Oregon State, in its final year under coach Mike Riley, expressed interest but didn't offer a scholarship. Aydon considered Hawaii and Oklahoma State before deciding on Wisconsin. Weeks after he committed, coach Gary Andersen left for Oregon State.

"After Coach Andersen got here, he asked if I wanted to take a visit to Oregon State," Ayden said. He came to Corvallis for a weekend and committed the next day.

Oregon State has had some great Polynesian players through the years, among them Joe Francis, Rockne Freitas, Skip Diaz, Isaac Seumalo, Manase Hungalu and Stephen Paea. There are currently 15 players on the football team of Polynesian descent, including three from American Samoa — Aydon, D-lineman Sebastian Briski and tight end Ralph Taufa'asau. And there is one coach — Suianunoa.

"Oregon State has a good tradition of having Polynesian players," Suianunoa said. "They've always had a presence on this campus, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

"All the Poly boys on the team, we have a close bond," Aydon said. "I treat them like my brothers. I tell them every day that I love them. They mean a lot to me. They're some of my closest friends."

Aydon has a special talent for music. He plays the ukelele and guitar and can lay out a solid version of "Amazing Grace."

"I grew up singing in church," he said. "My mom loves to sing. I have an ear for music. A lot of Polys do. Singing is a big thing in the Samoan culture."

Aydon and some of his teammates something get together to sing a cappella in a group called "the Poly Notes."

"Every now and then, the boys get together and jam," he said.

Aydon doesn't hang around just with Polynesian teammates. One of his favorites is Champ Flemings.

"What a great kid," Aydon said. "Champ has a good heart. He's one of the most competitive people I know. Day in and day out, he puts his head down and comes to work. It's paid off for him. The wide receiver position is in good hands for as long as he's here."

It takes almost three Flemings — Champ is 5-5 and 140 — to make one Aydon.

Quipped Aydon: "I told him, 'If you need to take some of my weight, feel free.'"

Aydon's experience in Corvallis has been a positive one.

"I wouldn't change it for anything," he said. "I love this community. I love this school. I've had my ups and downs here, but at the end of the day, I'm the biggest Beaver believer there is. I'll bleed orange and black until the day I die.

"It's crazy how time flies when you're having fun. I have nine more games left in my career here. I'm hoping to make the most of it. I'm working with my boys until the wheels fall off."

Nine games left would mean the Beavers will qualify for a bowl game.

"I say that," he said, "because I'm hopeful about what this team can do."

Though the Beavers go into the UCLA game 8-32 during his time at OSU, Aydon said he feels "great" about where the program is headed.

"Coach (Jonathan) Smith is doing a good job," Aydon said. "He knows what he's doing. It's a matter of the boys continuing to work, to get better every day, to push ourselves beyond the limits. Hopefully the senior class can leave the program better than how we found it."

Besides the NFL, Aydon has another big goal in life. He'd like to become governor of American Samoa.

"Hopefully, one day I can get to that level," he said. "The first thing I'd do is fight to make people born in American Samoa U.S. citizens instead of 'nationals.' We can't vote for president, which is very weird. One day, I'll become the governor of Samoa and change that."

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