MINNEAPOLIS — Three brown, leather footballs with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s signature printed on the side went home with Matt Asiata on Sunday.
He planned to hand his daughter, Shawnee, one of them. Another would go to Ioana Faulole, his other daughter. Matt Asiata Jr., the Vikings running back’s son, was scheduled to receive the other.
The elder Asiata held on tight to the ball after each of his three trips to the end zone in a 48-30 win against Philadelphia.
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He has clung to his family even tighter the past 2 1/2 weeks.
Seventeen days after losing his father in a bus accident, Asiata filled in at halfback in place of injured reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson and clear-cut backup Toby Gerhart. Asiata made his first offensive start, carried 30 times for 51 yards and scored his first career touchdown.
And his second. And his third. All while his late father, Pita Asiata, looked down on the Metrodome, Matt Asiata said with a sad smile.
“There’s never a time that I don’t think about him,” said Asiata, for the first time surrounded by a throng of reporters following a regular-season game. “I miss him, and I wish he was here, but I felt him today. I knew he was here with me.”
Pita Asiata passed away Oct. 28 after the tour bus he was driving collided with a utility truck near the Utah-Nevada border. The Samoan immigrant, who used to call Asiata the Friday before every game, was 53.
Almost exclusively a special-teams fireball and scout team back before Sunday, Asiata wasn’t all that efficient, averaging 1.7 yards per carry.
But the heaviest workload he could recall undertaking since high school allowed Minnesota to sustain drives (the Vikings punted twice), dominate time of possession (36:26 to 23:34) and keep the Eagles’ big-play offense off the field.
And when Asiata so much as sniffed the end zone, he found it.
“He’s been through a lot with his family and the circumstances there,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “To see him rewarded like this and to get this opportunity, so grateful for him, grateful for his family. I’m sure it was a great day for them and something he’ll be able to cherish the rest of his life.”
First, a 1-yard, 180-degree, falling lunge through the arm tackle of Eagles nose tackle Bennie Logan late in the second quarter. Next, an untouched burst behind the lead block of Jerome Felton from a yard out that answered Philadelphia’s miniature third-quarter rally. Finally, a 5-yard scamper on virtually the same play that left no doubt with 3:17 to go.
Asiata’s inaugural score capped a 16-play, 75-yard, 7:49 drive 1 minute, 6 seconds before halftime and helped give Minnesota a 17-9 halftime advantage. The second re-extended the Vikings’ lead to 34-22 after NFC East Division leader Philadelphia scored 13 unanswered points to crawl within five of tying.
He wasn’t sure what to do after reaching paydirt for the first time. “I got up and was like ‘I just scored,'” he said.
Following his third-quarter score, Asiata pointed to the last name on the back of his jersey — the same one he, his kids and his dad all share. He simply embraced teammates Chase Ford and Joe Berger after his last touchdown.
All three were the fruits of a balanced offensive attack that ran and passed 35 times apiece.
“Matt Asiata did a tremendous job today,” said quarterback Matt Cassel, who completed 26 of 35 passes for 382 yards and a pair of scores. “He is a guy that works tremendously hard each and every day and when he gets out there, so I wasn’t worried about it one bit.”
That’s the rep the former Utah Ute — who worked in an industrial supply warehouse between his September 2011 release and January 2012 re-signing, both with the Vikings — has earned around Winter Park. It was a topic his comrades jumped to quickly after Peterson (foot sprain) and Gerhart (hamstring) were both ruled out for Sunday’s contest.
“We know how he can play,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “He does that in practice.”
Frazier anticipated Peterson’s return by next Sunday’s game at Cincinnati. Gerhart’s status remains unclear.
But what’s unquestionable, at least in Asiata’s mind, is that Sunday provided a monumental moment for him, his family and, most of all, his father.
“It’s a blessing you know?” Asiata said. “I just came in with the same mentality as if they were playing: just come out and just execute the plays and just go out there and play hard.”