On Friday evening, West center Mana Nonu will face the greatest challenge of his season, as he'll attempt to block members of Timpview's dominant defensive line.
But with the challenges Nonu has dealt with off the field, it's doubtful that he'll be rattled by facing the Thunderbirds.
Nonu has overcome the deaths of both of his parents and a general lack of direction in his early high school years that have made his academic records a mess. Now a senior, Nonu has become an integral part of the Panthers' offense, and he has put in several hours to get on track to graduate in the spring.
Nonu began dealing with adversity when his mother, Eleni Kinikini, died of cancer eight days before his 8th birthday. Then when Nonu was in the ninth grade, his father, Tofi, died of a heart attack shortly after a pickup basketball game. Nonu was there inside the church gym that day and it took him a couple of years to put it in perspective.
"I guess it makes you grow up fast, and it also gives you a push to try to make something of yourself," Nonu said.
It took some time for Nonu, the sixth of Tofi's nine kids, to get on track following his father's death. Tofi was one of few role models for Nonu, who said that a couple of his older brothers were well-known gang members.
"I really didn't have a whole lot of role models, except for my pops," Nonu said.
One of the major things that was stressed by Tofi, who had a master's degree, was education. But Nonu struggled early in high school while he bounced around from school to school. He briefly moved to California before attending West for a quarter when he was a freshman.
Prior to Nonu's sophomore year, his stepmother, Fofoa, sent him to live with a relative in West Jordan because she wanted to keep him from going down the same road as some of his older brothers. That year, Nonu started out at Copper Hills before transferring to Riverton. He said he just didn't fit in at either school, partly because neither school had much of a Polynesian population.
Nonu's grades greatly suffered. He didn't spend much time in class and earned almost no credits that year.
Remembering how his dad believed in academics and a move back in with Fofoa near his friends in Rose Park got Nonu headed in the right direction.
Nonu played for the Panthers during their 1-9 season last year, and more importantly, began to make strides in cleaning up his transcript. He took several summer classes in order to play his senior season and make graduating on time a realistic possibility.
Nonu's ability to play football never was in question, and he has realized his potential this season. He started out the year as an offensive guard and a regular player on the team's defensive line. Since West moved him to center and began to limit his playing time on defense prior to its game against Cottonwood, the Panthers steadily have improved on offense.
"Since then, we've become so much more consistent on the O-line," said West coach Randy Schreiter. "I'm happy for him and I'm happy for our team."
Nonu, who helps Fofoa take care of his three younger sisters, still has some work to do to graduate in the spring. His transcript and size may keep him from playing Division I football right away, but he has set the goal of playing for a junior college next year.
"I want to try and finish out the season strong, and hopefully get picked up by somebody," Nonu said.