TAMPA — Vita Vea loves to tell the story about the trip he took to French Polynesia with some University of Washington students and the group coming upon some enormous rocks.
"So over there, their strongman competition is they have a tradition where they lift rocks,'' Vea said. "There's a lot more to it than just lifting heavy rocks and working out. They say that in French Polynesia, Tahiti, the island I was at, the rock has a spirit that only allows you to pick them up.
"There was only one guy in the island that ever picked it up. I was the second one. I came in and I didn't want to start any problems. I didn't know if that was going to be offensive me picking it up. I tried apologizing to him, and he ended up being a great guide to me for the rest of the trip. He really liked me after that.''
There is much to like about Vea, the Bucs' newest strongman, who could be as immovable in the middle of their defensive line as that island rock.
The given name of the 6-foot-4, 347-pound defensive tackle is Tevita Tuliakiono Tuipuloto Mosese Va'hae Faletau Vea. He goes by Vita. You can call him the Bucs' first-round draft pick.
"He's Excalibur of sorts,'' said Bucs general manager Jason Licht.
For the first time in five years, Licht used Tampa Bay's first-round choice on a defensive lineman, selecting the Washington defensive tackle.
It took some wheeling and dealing.
The Bucs swapped their No. 7 overall pick with the Bills for two second-rounders tonight (Nos. 53 and 56) and moved down five spots to take Vea at No. 12 in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday.
Vea's rare combination of size and quick feet will provide the Bucs with an enormous nose tackle who can provide push up the middle and take some heat off defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
After watching the Bucs finish last in the league in total defense last season, allowing 378.1 yards per game, Licht had seen enough. Tampa Bay's defense was also last in third-down percentage at 48 percent, and opposing quarterbacks had a 94.6 passer efficiency rating against it.
So Licht and the Bucs have now completely rebuilt their defensive front. It started in free agency with the signing of defensive tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein. Then they jumped on Vinny Curry, who was released by the Eagles and signed a three-year, $23 million contract. Finally, they traded their third-round pick to the Giants for two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
"We overhauled the defensive line room quite a bit,'' Licht said. "(Coach) Dirk (Koetter) and I thought that was a necessity coming off of last year. Like I said before, it starts up front, and you can never go wrong having some (butt) kickers up there.
"When we brought him in, I asked him, 'What's the most important thing a defensive lineman can do?' And I believe he said, 'Kick the crap out of the guy in front of me.' I liked that about him.''
Growing up in Milpitas, Calif., just east of San Jose, Vea played running back and defensive line in high school. In three seasons at Washington, he compiled 99 tackles and 9½ sacks, earning the Pac-12's defensive player of the year award in 2017.
Vea's parents are from Tonga. Money was always tight, and nine years ago they lost their home and were forced to live in a hotel and rented housing.
"This moment is really exciting, being that I'm in a situation now to never have to go through that anymore,'' said Vea, who plans to buy his parents a house. "You know, when that did happen, I told myself I was going to make it one day, and here I am.''
Comparisons are tough, but Vea's power and athleticism reminds NFL scouts of Eagles Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Although known as a run stopper, Vea has played all the defensive line positions, including as a standup rush end.
"At Washington, I wasn't a first- and second-down player,'' Vea said. "I stayed on the field all three downs. You put on the tape against Penn State, even though we lost, I didn't get subbed out for the whole second half.''
Huskies coach Chris Peterson worked on the staff at Oregon with Koetter and gave Vea a big endorsement before the draft.
"Coach 'Pete' told me besides the fact he's a fantastic football player, he's the type of guy if you have a daughter, you want this guy to marry your daughter,'' Koetter said.
The Bucs had bigger needs, especially at cornerback and safety. Florida State's Derwin James was rated just below Vea on the Bucs' board.
"I know there's plenty of folks (who thought) we were going to go with the DB with this pick, but we have to get better on defense either way,'' Koetter said. "Whether you're putting pressure on the quarterback or stopping the run, or whether you're covering receivers, they're both positives.''
The pick Vea was solid. As a rock.