Persistence pays off for Fanaika Paul Fanaika's journey from walk-on to starting offensive guard for Arizona State was hardly a common one. The 2004 graduate of Mills High wasn't recruited after he was tabbed Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division Lineman of the Year as a senior. Yet here he is, making his fourth straight collegiate start for the Sun Devils vs. Stanford on Saturday.
This is a story made for Hollywood - not unlike the recent film "Invincible", a story about a blue-collar worker from Philadelphia who went to a mass tryout and made the Philadelphia Eagles roster, working against all odds.
"Not a day goes by where I'm not thankful for the opportunity," said Fanaika, who starts at right guard. "I try to stay hungry and try to get better every day. It's a daily grind."
"We have an open walk-on date here," Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter said. "Paul wasn't a recruited walk-on. We didn't know who he was. We needed some offensive linemen to fill out our scout team. Paul was a big, old guy, not in very good shape with not very good footwork. So we took him strictly because we needed a couple of scout O-linemen."
Fanaika played in 11 games last season, a season that concluded with a 45-40 victory over Rutgers in the Insight Bowl. After the bowl game, the Sun Devils had a team dinner at a coach's house. Koetter announced in front of the team that Fanaika had earned a scholarship. Not just any scholarship, but the Levi Jones Scholarship, given in honor of the Cincinnati Bengals' talented offensive tackle who starred at Arizona State earlier this decade.
"The improvement that Paul has made and how he has developed his body, it became apparent very quickly that he had a passion for football," Koetter said. "In the middle of last year, we needed him to play because we had a couple of injuries. He played better than we thought he would. He continued to work hard and develop. He's 360 pounds, he moves pretty darn good and he's very powerful."
Sunia Fanaika, Paul's father, can recall all the phone calls from Paul since his arrival at ASU.
"It has been an evolution," Sunia said. "He called me when he first tried out. Then he called me when he made the scout team. Then he called me when he played in a game. When he called me after he got a scholarship, he was so excited, he could hardly talk. I'm usually not that emotional, but I cried a little."
The Sun Devils (3-3, 0-3 Pac-10) have played the three best teams in the Pac-10 the past three weeks. In order, it has been Cal, Oregon and USC, a team they nearly upset. What a way for Fanaika to be baptized as a starter.
"My most memorable game was against Cal," Fanaika said. "It was my return to the Bay Area, my first collegiate start and the best game I played."
Fanaika, who was awarded the team's Hard Hat Award for diligence with offseason conditioning, said the Sun Devils won't take winless Stanford lightly.
"We're preparing for Stanford like we are preparing for USC or any other team," Fanaika said. "It's all about Saturday. We're focusing on Stanford and nobody else."
Fanaika rates himself a more natural run blocker than a pass blocker.
"If I had my way, I wish we would run it every down," he said. "We try to run to set up the pass."
One day, Fanaika, who has two more years of eligibility, would like to play in the NFL.
"That's every football player's dream, to play in the NFL," the 6-foot-6, 360-pound Fanaika said. "I'm taking it day by day and not thinking about it."
"It's too early to see if he has a future in the NFL," Koetter said. "I wouldn't rule it out, as much improvement as he has made over the last two years. I wouldn't rule anything out."
Playing in the NFL, to say nothing of playing at a Division I college, was a pipe dream for Fanaika at Mills. However, it wasn't for lack of trying from Vikings head coach Barrett Krieger.
"I called around to several colleges to try to get them to look at this kid," Krieger said. "I sent out a lot of tapes. He was big, strong, mobile, an effective blocker. He could even punt the football. I told UCLA that if they don't take him, 'He's going to be playing against you someday.'"
As a sophomore, Fanaika faced Menlo-Atherton and its quarterback, T.C. Ostrander. Ostrander is starting at quarterback for Stanford Saturday.
"Ostrander had a great game against us," Fanaika said. "They beat us pretty good. He's a great quarterback."
Krieger recalled how Fanaika truly cared about the football program at Mills, which won the Ocean title when Fanaika was a senior.
"It was early in the season and I saw him leaning against the wall one day after practice," Krieger said. "He was crying and I asked him what was wrong. He said he didn't like the way the team was playing. He said it wasn't playing to its capability. He was a competitor, a real leader."
All in the family
Fanaika's sister, Lavinia, is on the ASU women's basketball roster. Lavinia's twin, Andrew, is redshirting on Scottsdale Community College's football team, not far from Tempe.
"It's great having family close by," Paul said. "I have made a lot of friends, but there is nothing like family."
"I want Paul to appreciate the whole experience at Arizona State," Sunia said. "It's not just the classroom. It's being able to play football, too. It's being on a scholarship, just like all the players in the locker room who were highly recruited."
A Levi Jones Scholarship, no less.