"Everybody's got to play rugby," he said. "Either that, or you cook for the rugby team."
More comfortable on the pitch than in a kitchen, Paea took up the sport. He hoped it would make him famous in the rugby-crazy country.
His mother was traveling in New Zealand when he was born, but Paea (pronounced PIE-yuh) was raised on Vava'u, a chain of 41 islands in the 169-island Tongan archipelago.
That's a long way from Corvallis, Ore., where Oregon State's senior defensive tackle is competing for All-America honors after deciding not to leave early for the NFL draft.
The Beavers play at Arizona Stadium on Saturday.
As a boy, Paea knew of American football only from the "Madden" video games - and even then, he joked, the graphics were fuzzy.
He moved to Los Altos, Calif., with his family at 16. He learned English, and didn't play a down of football until his senior year of high school.
He lined up at offensive guard and defensive tackle, but didn't know what he was doing.
"My job was easy," he said. "To protect the quarterback, and to get after the quarterback."
He was promising enough to play at powerful Snow College, redshirting in 2006 and playing for an 11-1 team in 2007.
When he set foot at Oregon State, lured by other Polynesian players, Paea had played three years of football - and only two years' worth of game experience.
Even now, he is in the midst of his fifth-ever season of games.
"That's why he's so intriguing as a player," OSU coach Mike Riley said. "To see his physical talent and watch him grow as a player has been a lot of fun."
The 6-foot-1-inch, 311-pounder became a YouTube sensation when video showed him bench-pressing 225 pounds 44 times - and that was when he was tired after a workout.
The NFL combine record is 45 (since 2000).
Paea might be the strongest player, at any position, in the sport. He can squat 600 pounds, bench-press 500 and run a 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds.
"His strength and quickness are outstanding," Riley said. "He is learning, I think, probably every time he plays."
Paea, who still plays rugby for fun in the off-season, had 11 tackles-for-loss and five sacks as a sophomore in 2008, and 8.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks last season. He received the Morris Trophy, a Pac-10 defensive award voted on by offensive linemen.
His NFL draft flirtation yielded assurances of a late second- or early third-round selection, but he decided to return for his senior season.
The sociology major can become the first person in his family - he has four siblings, including a twin brother, Will, who played junior college football - to graduate from a four-year college.
"I feel comfortable here," he said, "and had that gut feeling that I'm not ready."
He's become the Pac-10's problem.
UA co-offensive coordinator Bill Bedenbaugh said few opponents dare block Paea with only one player. Paea had his best game Saturday against Arizona State, Bedenbaugh said, when the Beavers sacked Steven Threet six times.
"Even when he wasn't sacking the quarterback, most of those sacks came with him disrupting the pocket," Bedenbaugh said.
Paea can only wonder how good he'd be if football, not rugby, was the sport he had played as a child.
"Oh man," he said. "It would be a different story."
Certainly no different than the story he dreamt as a boy. The goal is still the same, even if the sport is different.
"I had a dream - I thought rugby was going to get me to that," he said. "It's the same thing with football now. It all of a sudden changed. I've been blessed."