TAMPA — Everybody loves the big-man touchdown.
And everybody loves defensive tackle Vita Vea, who at 347 pounds became the heaviest NFL player to catch a touchdown pass since 1950 with a 1-yard grab from Jameis Winston during the Bucs’ 35-22 win in Atlanta last week.
Vea’s touchdown set off a hysterical reaction on the Bucs’ sideline.
“It was the happiest touchdown I’ve had this year,” said Byron Leftwich, the Bucs first-year offensive coordinator. “That’s crazy, right? But just because I know the guy works so hard. When he comes over to our side of the ball, he takes it seriously. It’s not a joke to him.
“So to see him really detail it up and get that opportunity for our team, it gave our team energy, and as you can see, the team loves Vita, man.’’
Leftwich was only 5 years old, but he remembers what it was like watching defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry turn poundage into profit for the Super Bowl champion Bears.
Perry was a first-round draft pick out of Clemson in 1985 who reported to training camp weighing 330 pounds. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan called him a “wasted draft choice.’’
But the “Fridge” phenomenon was born more out of spite than might.
Bears coach Mike Ditka first used Perry to block for Walter Payton and then carry the ball himself against the 49ers in Week 6. Ditka remembered how San Francisco coach Bill Walsh had used 275-pound guard Guy McIntyre in short-yardage situations in the 49ers’ 23-0 win over Chicago in the 1984 NFC Championship Game, and Ditka wanted revenge.
But by the time he scored his first NFL touchdown, the Fridge was empty. He had worked out at nights with teammate and fellow defensive lineman Tyrone Keys, who says Perry probably weighed closer to 305 pounds when he first appeared on offense.
“Mike Ditka saw his skills set and knew he was a phenomenal athlete once he lost the weight,’’ said Keys, who played six NFL seasons with the Bears, Bucs and Chargers.
Perry’s popularity exploded when he ran for a touchdown on Monday Night Football against the Packers.
“He was on Good Morning America the next day,’’ Keys said. “It was crazy.’’
Overnight, the Fridge was commanding $10,000 per appearance and $20,000 if it was outside Chicago. Soon, he was endorsing everything from Coke to McDonald’s and getting million-dollar deals.
On the field, Perry was becoming more of a force and started the Bears’ final nine games of the regular season, finishing with five sacks, two fumble recoveries and 31 tackles. The Bears made the Super Bowl.
“He couldn’t go anywhere,’’ Keys said. “Super Bowl week in New Orleans, we tried to go out one night on Bourbon Street. Everyone recognized him, and it got too hectic. And when we got to the game, I knew nobody was going to stop him from scoring.’’
Perry scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter, and the Bears beat the Patriots 46-10.
Back then, weighing 305 pounds was a big deal. That’s why Keys was so impressed when he watched Vea catch a touchdown pass against the Falcons.
“He’s very athletic and reminds me a lot of Fridge,’’ Keys said. “He gets a big push up the middle on defense and creates a lot of opportunity for the guys coming around the edge. (Vea and Perry) have the same type of athletic ability, and (the Bucs) can do a number of things with (Vea).’’
Vea’s first appearance on offense came Nov. 10 in a 30-27 win over the Cardinals. Inserted as a tight end, he helped clear the way for Peyton Barber’s winning touchdown run. First, Vea shoved Terrell Suggs to the ground before chipping linebacker Joe Walker to his left and propelling safety Budda Baker into the air over his right shoulder.
It took an injury to tight end Antony Auclair for Vea to be invited into the offensive huddle.
“That’s when the wheels started turning,” Leftwich said.
Need, curiosity and a desire to reward Vea for his work on Barber’s touchdown was running through Leftwich’s mind, as were high school highlights of Vea playing running back at Milpitas High, just north of San Jose, Calif.
“They put me in at wildcat running back my freshman year, and I did good,’’ Vea recalled. “That’s how it started. Then I started playing scout-team running back. They saw how I was running and put me in the game. It turned out pretty cool.’’
Vea rushed for 578 yards in his senior season, averaging 12.3 yards a carry and scoring 11 touchdowns. That included a 244-yard, five-touchdown rushing performance in a 61-27 win over Homestead High. Vea played about two quarters.
Warren Sapp, who was an all-state tight end at Apopka High and recruited to play that position at Miami, caught two touchdown passes for the Bucs in 2003. Left tackle Donald Penn caught two touchdown passes for the Bucs and two for the Raiders.
On Sunday, the Bucs led the Falcons 13-10 with 44 seconds before halftime when Vea lined up at fullback on second and goal. His biggest coaching point from Leftwich has been to make sure he is set before the snap so as not to be flagged for illegal motion.
“I thought I was going to be blocking,” Vea said. “I heard the play call and that’s when I knew.’’
Winston never doubted what he was going to do with the ball.
“(Vea) was getting the ball regardless,’’ Winston said.
After the game, Vea struggled to describe his emotions.
“I thought it was a dream, to be honest,’’ Vea said. “I got to commend Jameis. He threw me a dime. It was spot on. I didn’t have to jump, reach out. Nothing. It came straight to me. All I had to do was just catch it.”
Defensively, Vea is becoming dominant. He had his first full sack of the season against the Falcons to go with a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles credits defensive line coaches Kacy Rodgers and Lori Locust for developing Vea, as well as linemen Beau Allen and Ndamukong Suh. “Physically, he’s a beast,’’ Bowles said. “Mentally, they’re advancing him to a whole new level.’’
The Fridge was outgoing and embraced his celebrity. Vea tries to hide from the spotlight and is awash in humility.
He’s never going to become el Vita loco. But if the Bucs become winners, there’s marketing magic in the big smile and warmth of Tuipulotu Mosese Vaʻhae Fehoko Faletau “Vita” Vea, whose parents immigrated from Tonga.
“There comes a point where the guys that get paid to play that position resent it,’’ said Tyrone Keys, that local link from the days of the Fridge to Vea. “It would be no different if they brought a defensive back into rush the passer.’’
But for now, guard Ali Marpet said, “It’s awesome. We were all trying to celebrate. Everybody loves a big-man touchdown.’’
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud.